The singing voice

Maria Callas

"The greatest achievement in singing is to become a well-loved contralto..." - Peter Gammond, Bluffer's Guide to Music

Graeme Kay demystifies the ups and downs of the singing voice.

There are four main voice-types in singing: soprano, alto, tenor and bass, representing the upper and lower pitch extremes of the female and male vocal ranges. Choral music is invariably set out for combinations of the SATB voice spectrum.

However, in opera and song, these pitch categories are sub-divided into voice-types which reflect not just the singer's range, but also the dramatic requirements of his or her roles.

The German term Fach (literally, 'division') is often used as shorthand for voice-type specialisation. But beware: when you look into the history of singing, you find that the trend for singers to work almost exclusively within their own Fach is a modern one.

In former times, some singers - for instance Maria Callas - often sang roles across several voice-types. And operatic roles are often claimed by more than one type - Mozart's Don Giovanni, for example, is sung by baritones, bass-baritones and basses!

In his book Voices, Singers And Critics (Duckworth 1992), the eminent writer on singing, John Steane, set out a detailed plan of the various voice types - the lists given in here are based on John Steane's plan.

We've added examples of typical roles which illustrate these voice types, and included the names of some well-known singers to help identify them - though it has to be said that much of John Steane's discussion concerns singers whose work defies easy categorisation. Explore the voice types:

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