Soprano to bass: Can you find your voice?

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1. The best part for you

Many of us sing every day of our lives without ever knowing just what kind of voice we have.

Singing along to the radio or to that persistent earworm in your head doesn’t require you to have that knowledge – although you may wish you could hit all the high notes – but you may want to take your singing further.

As a conductor of choirs, all my singers need to know where they fit in within the choir. Everyone has a range of notes within the natural confines of their voice – broadly, these are soprano and alto (for women, though some men can also sing alto) and tenor and bass (for men).

2. Watch: Highs and lows

Choral conductor Tim Rhys-Evans and BBC National Chorus of Wales singers demonstrate the four basic voice types: soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

3. Going deeper into the voice

Within the categories of the classic SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) there are many variations. Choral singers usually describe themselves as 1st or 2nd within their voice type, depending on which part of the range they prefer, and composers can write choral music for up to 10 parts.

Voices in history

There is a wider range of male voice types, including boy trebles, whose high voices prior to puberty enable them to sing soprano parts. The origins of this were in the church, where historically women were banned from choirs, and were also excluded from the stage in the Papal states during the early years of opera.

In the 17th century the high parts in opera were sung by men who had been castrated before puberty (castrati), retaining the high notes of their boyhood but backed by the power of adult lungs. They would be cast as male heroes as well as taking female roles. Women would get their own back as the vogue for castrati died away, with mezzos taking on their roles. In fact, most leading mezzo roles in opera are ‘breeches’ roles, such as Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Gluck’s Orfeo.

Countertenor or male alto

Over the last few decades, there has been a resurgence in the countertenor or male alto voice. These men having developed the strength and control of their falsetto range and can move smoothly between that and their normal (or ‘modal’) register. They are not tenors with high voices (in fact many are natural baritones) and their overall range is similar to that of a female alto.

The difference between the modal and falsetto registers equates to the difference between your normal speaking voice and the kind of higher voice you might use to express exasperation or surprise, and is generated by using only part of the vocal folds.

Boys aren’t the only ones whose voices change as time passes. Many singers have moved between voice types during their careers – mezzo Marilyn Horne started her career in soprano parts; soprano Dame Joan Sutherland vice versa. Plácido Domingo’s career started with baritone roles in zarzuela (Spanish operetta), before singing lyric tenor roles for many years. He later included heavier Wagnerian roles before taking on some baritone roles in his late 60s. Often, voices are lighter in texture in younger singers, strengthening and deepening in texture and power as they mature.

4. Famous voices

Here’s a wider range of vocal ranges. Click on the voice type to find out some celebrated examples, both from the classical and popular worlds of music.

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5. What's the Fach?

For soloists in the classical world, there are many more issues than simply the range of notes you can reach.

Questions of vocal colour, transition points between the different registers, texture and weight are all added to the mix to establish which category (referred to by the German word ‘Fach’) your voice falls into.

There are 25 of these and it’s important to know what your natural voice is so that you don’t risk damaging it by forcing it into the wrong repertoire.

Here are some examples of Fächer (the plural of Fach). A lyric soprano would be fine singing Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro but not the title role in Tosca, which is suited to a dramatic soprano. A Heldentenor (hero tenor) has a lot of power and stamina, and would sing a role like Tristan in Tristan und Isolde, whereas a spinto tenor (for example Don José in Carmen) might have the same range of notes but a more lyrical sound.

6. Scaling the heights

Now you understand the different vocal types, could you categorise these four singers into soprano, alto, tenor and bass?

John Lennon

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John Lennon

Most would agree that John Lennon was a natural tenor, with a wide, strong and versatile singing range.

Frank Sinatra

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Frank Sinatra

Sinatra’s mature voice was definitely baritone, though some of his earlier recordings had a feel of the tenor range.

Lady Gaga

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Lady Gaga

Pop singers can be hard to define, but most agree that Lady Gaga is a natural mezzo-soprano – though some feel that her natural voice has deepened to alto.

Nina Simone

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Nina Simone

E2 was her lowest note, in Ne Me Quitte Pas, well into the baritone range. She didn’t always sing that low; her normal range was more in tenor territory.