Vocal Classifications, Ranges, and Registers

There are seven basic vocal classifications used today. Due to musical concerns, chiefly the projection of notes, the usable range for opera singers and soloists differs from the usable range in a vocal choir. This is because certain notes (extreme low or high notes) may not be sung loud enough to carry over an orchestra when sung by a soloist. However, these same pitches, when sung by a group of singers, may project over the orchestra quite pleasingly. Despite this, operatic soloists usually have a larger compass because aria writing tends to push the limits of the voice.

Countertenors are also sometimes referred to as “male alto” voices. These vocalists use an artificial singing voice to sing parts originally written for castratos. To do this, the countertenor will sing in the falsetto register. These singers are not necessarily endowed with an extremely high natural voice. In contrast, most countertenors are actually baritone singers. Much of the music that countertenors perform comes from the early baroque period, a time when the practice of castration to preserve a high register male voice was common.

There are many sub-types of vocalists, and vocal range, timbre, and ability vary depending on each sub-type. For example, lyric tenors and spinto tenors have slightly different ranges and the tones of their voices are noticeably different. (The tone of the former is lighter while the latter is weightier.) Leggiero tenors or tenore di grazia are even more specialized. These singers have the ability to sing florid, coloratura lines and extend their range past their lyric and spinto counterparts. Female voices (especially the soprano) break down into a variety of sub-types too.

Additionally, some singers possess a slightly decreased or slightly extended range depending on natural ability and/or training. Because of this, a soprano who can sing above C#6 is called a sopranino and a bass singer who can singer lower than G1 is called a basso profundo or contrabass.

Vocal Classifications

The three basic types of female singers are: soprano, mezzo-soprano or alto, and contralto. The four basic types of male singers are: countertenor, tenor, baritone, and bass. Mezzo-soprano and altos are generally synonymous. The term alto is used in choral settings and the term mezzo-soprano is used in operatic settings where reference is being made to a soloist.

See Figures 13-1 through 13-6 for approximate vocal ranges for six of the seven types listed above. (The countertenor's range is the same as a mezzo-soprano or soprano depending on the singer.) In each case, the range is given for both a choral singer and an opera soloist.

FIGURE 13-1: Soprano range

FIGURE 13-2: Mezzo soprano and alto ranges

FIGURE 13-3: Contralto range

FIGURE13-4: Tenor range

FIGURE13-5: Baritone range

FIGURE13-6: Bass range

Vocal Registers

There are four vocal registers used by the human voice. From highest to lowest these are:

  • Whistle (flageolet)

  • Falsetto

  • Modal

  • Vocal fry

On the lowest end, the vocal fry is sometimes employed in deep bass parts written for gospel quartets. Occasionally, bass parts in choral repertoire may also dip into this register. The sound produced in this register is a “froggy” tone that may even pop or rattle if sustained.

The Modal register is the most comfortable, unforced, and useful register for most singers. Here, the voice is heard in its natural state. The falsetto register is used either by countertenors to simulate the voice of a castrato or by other singers to hit notes too high for the so-called “chest voice.” It is the chest region where vocal resonances in the modal register are often felt. Falsetto singing produces a very clear pitch but the tone is thinner. Lastly, the whistle register is so named because its high pitch resembles a shrill whistle. This register is mostly limited to coloratura sopranos.

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