Singing 101: Vocal Type: Bass, Tenor, Alto, Soprano?

What Is My Range?

This is one of the first questions I always get from a new student, and I think it's a very important thing to determine. Determining one's vocal range can show us where our trouble spots are, and point us in the direction of which registers need further work and developing. It can also help us to understand why certain notes may be consistently difficult for us, and help give us a sense of which songs and keys may be best for our voices - after all, working within YOUR ideal range is only going to serve the song and performance the most, and that's what we're here to do. Yes, we should always be challenging ourselves and striving for growth - but knowing where your voice lies will help you to work more efficiently and productively (and, honestly, joyfully!) within your voice. I want to reiterate once again that this should by no means be seen as a limiting or static placement. As an Alto myself, there are certain notes and songs written for Sopranos that I will literally NEVER be able to sing (well) in the original key. I still challenge myself to work my voice out as low and as high as I (healthily) can. Vocal Classifications are a little more Classical than I usually subscribe to, as I think there can be a lot of misconception about Voice Typing, and it can lead to some rigid, archaic ideas about developing ONLY one register above all else. But I am deciding to include it in this 101 Series because I think it can actually be used practically, and can be a helpful guidepost along the way. If you read through my Vocal Registers post, you should know that all ranges are relative - meaning, a Soprano may be more comfortable singing in her Head Voice register, but she DOES have a Chest Voice register that is not only available to her, but needs to be worked-out and developed for a fully-developed voice**. Her Chest Voice register, however, will consist of relatively-higher pitches than, say, the pitches that make up the Chest Voice register for an Alto. If it helps you to visualize this, go look at a piano. A piano is a linear instrument, and you can see all the keys laid-out like a spectrum, which is why it's very helpful for many singers to visualize their range and registers on the keys of the piano. It will also be useful for the next section, coming up in 3...2....1....

Range Vs. Tessitura

Tessi-whaaa?! Tessitura, silly. Oh, right, it's 2017. No one uses these words anymore. So. There's an important distinction just to note between your Range, and where in your range your voice is gonna shiiiine like a star. Sing smooth like butter. Feel super-gratifying, fun, and easy to sing within. This is the sweet spot of your voice. 

Tessitura refers to a singer's most aesthetically-pleasing and comfortable vocal range (what I was just talkin' about!).

Your Range refers to ALL the notes you can sing (or "manage to eke out" - let's be real, here!). 

You have a whole range available to you, but where you FEEL the most comfortable, and the voice sounds its best, is how your Voice Classification is determined. This is actually a kind of cool concept, in that your range may cover some notes from different Voice Classifications! Nerdy excitement abounds. For instance: I'm an Alto, as I've (proudly - I just kind of love being an Alto!) mentioned previously. However, my full range contains some Tenor notes, Alto notes, Mezzo (Second) Soprano notes, and - wait for it - even some Soprano notes (there's where that "eke out" bit comes into play!). I can totally sing up in the Second Soprano range....but I looooove being in my full Alto, low, belty, full, sultry glory. It's just my jam. It's where I feel my girls (my vocal cords, duh) do their best work, and where I feel the most comfy when I sing - like I can really dig in. Therefore, I'm an Alto, baby.

All that being said, here are the Vocal Classifications, from lowest to highest:

Male Voices

Bass | Baritone | Tenor

Female Voices

Alto | Mezzo (Second Soprano) | Soprano

 

Voice Classifications: A Breakdown

A note on how ranges are listed: Middle C is commonly referred to as C4 (the 4th C note on a regular 88-kay piano, thus, C4). Anything below Middle C will be listed with a 3 (for example, the A below Middle C is called A3), and anything above it will be listed with a 4 (the A above Middle C is called A4). Once you get to C5, the notes are listed with....you got it: a 5. 

Bass

The Bass is considered the lowest male vocal type. Range is usually G2-E4, with most comfortable notes being generally between G2-A3.

Baritone

 The Baritone is higher than the Bass, and lower than the Tenor. Typical range is between F2-G4.

Tenor

The highest of the male voice types. Range is typically between C3-G4, although it should be noted (pun intended, ha) that their highest notes do tend to vary from singer to singer. Tenors may also possess notes from the Alto, or even Second Soprano ranges, that they can sing easily and clearly in Falsetto. 

Alto

The lowest of the women's voice types. Typical range for an Alto is between E3-E5.

Mezzo (Second Soprano)

The Mezzo or Second Soprano is higher than the Alto, and lower than the Soprano. Their range is usually between A3-F5.

Soprano

Sopranos are the highest female voice type. Their range is typically between C4-A5 (and, in Classical and Opera, typically even higher!) I know. The thought blows my mind.

Register Ranges.jpg

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Your Unique Voice

So, where do most people lie? The majority of people tend to fall in the middle: men are typically Baritones, whilst most women are typically Second Sopranos. Basses and Sopranos, for example, are actually more rare than one might think; though with popular music's focus on high notes/music written for Sopranos, one might think this is a prevalent vocal type. Not so.

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I have many thoughts on Voice Type, and embracing your voice. The voice is SUCH a personal thing - and part of the struggle to accept our voices, I think, is directly tied-in to our struggle to accept ourselves. Think about it. We spend an awful lot of time comparing ourselves to others, and having a general existential worry that we are somehow not "enough." That we should be taller, shorter, thinner, more muscular, prettier, tanner, paler, smooth-haired or wavy-haired, etc, etc. The list goes on and on. And I think that extends to our voices. I know it does. So. Something I really try to impress upon my students is this idea of what is YOUR voice? What are the colors/textures/tones/vibes that come out naturally in YOUR voice? What makes you really want to sing the hell out a particular song? And how can we best capture YOUR sound? Not someone else's - but YOURS? 

There is so much of a general competitive and mud-slinging nature to much of our mainstream discourse on singers, and singing in general. American Idol became a hit for the impressive singers, sure; but also because a lot of America liked to sit around snickering at the not-as-naturally-musical ones. So: everyone thinks they're an expert, though I guarantee you most people haven't really tried to sing in their whole lives. I think there's way too much of this obsession in our culture with "how high of a note can you hit?" - as if this is somehow a litmus test of real vocal prowess. Yes, high notes are impressive. Sure, we all want to be able to bust out a note most people can only dream of. But it isn't the end-all, be-all. Trust. There is SO MUCH dynamic available to you, whether you are a Soprano or not - how you develop the voice YOU possess is what counts. The voice is an extension of you, which really is the most personal instrument there is - to me, the true expression you can find within your voice, with all of its limitations AND its beauty - is where the magic really lies. Moral of the story: don't be so fixated on being one certain voice type, or sounding just like someone else that you neglect to really give the world YOUR voice. There's no other voice out there that is exactly just like yours. That may sound totally cliche (and I get it, it kind of is), but if you think about it, it is literally true: your voice is absolutely, 100% unique to YOU, because it has everything to do with how your body is built. That's pretty damn cool, I think. SO, let it out babycakes!

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(**Of course, I am speaking strictly from a Contemporary Vocal Technique point of view - if you are a strictly Classical or Opera singer, this may not be the proper advice. Unfortunately, if that is the case, this *may* not be the best blog for you - I don't want to contradict any of the more Classical technique approaches if that's what you are training for!)