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Understanding Different Voice Types

A simple breakdown for recognizing vocal categories

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Vocal Students Take Note!

High School Chorus

Be aware that voices don’t settle into their proper categories until well into adulthood. Do not use this guide as a way of defining your own voice. While one voice type may appeal to you more than the others, it is absolutely essential that you do not try to fit your voice into any specific category––this can be incredibly unhealthy. Allow your voice time to grow and develop. Enjoy the sound you have rather than pushing for the sound you’d like to have.

Taylor Swift versus Alicia Keys. Justin Bieber or Usher. What makes one voice sound different from another? If you’ve spent any time in a chorus class, you know that there are different vocal categories or types (soprano, tenor, bass, etc.)… but what makes up a category? Well, a soprano is a soprano because she can sing high and a bass is a bass because he sings low, right? Not really.

You might think that when it comes to voice types, everything depends on vocal range. Yet the actual notes a person can sing are only a small part of what determines their vocal category. A huge deciding factor is a concept known as timbre, or tonal quality. Timbre is entirely different from a musical note: A note (or pitch) refers to the place a single sound falls on a scale, while timbre is the phenomenon of the specific color or texture of a voice.

Right about now, you’re thinking, “Color? Texture? How can those ideas apply to sound? I can’t see a voice, and I certainly can’t touch one.” And you’re right–––you can’t. Voices are subtle and invisible things. Even the experts agree there is very little “science” involved when deciding what makes one voice so different from the next. It’s almost like asking someone to explain how one cloud differs from another; that is, it’s nearly impossible. So what do vocal professionals do when they have to describe something as seemingly indescribable as the human voice? They call on their other senses for help.

Singers, voice teachers, and other vocal scholars like to fall back on sight, touch, and taste when discussing specific voices. Vocal professionals will often “borrow” words associated with these senses so they can expand the vocabulary used to define the qualities that make a voice special and unique. This is where phrases like “color” and “texture” come in. For example:

Want to tell a friend about an extraordinarily deep voice but can’t find the right words? Try these metaphors on for size:

  • “His voice makes me think of the color purple.” (eyesight)
  • “His voice is like velvet.” (touch/texture)
  • “His voice reminds me of hot chocolate.” (taste)

Comparisons like these will help get the point across because the brain is pretty good at translating one sensation into another. Your friend may never have heard this particular deep voice, but they’ll get the meaning that the taste of hot chocolate is like a rich, soothing, and beautiful sound.

The timbre of a voice along with its musical range, its tessitura (pronounced tes-see-TOO-rah, meaning the span of notes where the voice feels most comfortable), and its flexibility (how fast the voice can move from note to note) combine to form a vocal category. The standard vocal categories in Western music are:

Soprano
Mezzo-Soprano
Contralto
Tenor
Baritone
Bass

The following is a basic overview of each of these voice types and a look at how they function in modern and classical music. As you read on, though, keep in mind that these voice categories are merely guidelines. There are many variations within each voice group, so much so that vocal scholars often have trouble agreeing on where one voice category begins and another ends. Get to know these voice types, but don’t get too attached––there’s no “ultimate” example of a voice category. No soprano is more soprano-y than another.

Women's Voices

Sing It Out Loud: The Broadway Belter

Wicked

You may be asking yourself, “What kind of singer is a belter?” Fact is the “belt” is a kind of vocal trick or stylistic choice, and a “belter” is someone who uses this type of singing to their advantage. Belting is a complicated but exciting technique in which singers push the heavier chest voice register up past its natural range (more information on registers can be found here). Any vocal category can produce a belt, but the most familiar belter is the mezzo-soprano, who is often showcased in Broadway musicals. Elphaba in Wicked? Mezzo. Eponine in Les Misèrables? Mezzo. Elle in Legally Blonde? Mezzo. You get the picture.

Famous examples: Ethel Merman, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Lea Salonga, Idina Menzel, Linda Eder, Sutton Foster

Listen:

The Diva Team:
A Look at (Mostly) Female Voices

Welcome to the vocal women’s league. The following voice types represent the many different shades of the beautiful female voice, save for a few exceptions in which specialized male voices join the women’s team. For the most part, though, these unique sounds––soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto––are a woman’s domain.

Sopranos

This voice is characterized by impressive high notes (hence the name, which comes from the Italian “sopra” or “above”) and a timbre that usually sounds brighter or more sparkling than the other voice types. But don’t let the word “bright” fool you–––sopranos are often capable of immense depth and richness of tone. In opera, sopranos are divided into three basic groups: coloratura (kuhl-er-ah-TOOR-ah), lyric, and dramatic, with coloratura being the lightest and most flexible sound, and dramatic being the darkest and most powerful. (“Lyric” lies more or less in the middle.) Sopranos often sing the melody or main tune of a piece while the other voices add support or “back-up” harmonies.

Who they are

  • Sopranos are usually women, but young boys may also fit into this category––their soft and airy tone works well in choir music. In addition, during the 17th and 18th centuries, some men put themselves through physical operations and rigorous training to be able to strengthen the uppermost parts of their voice and sing soprano roles.

Adjectives/colors/textures/tastes that can be used to describe them

  • shimmering, shining, gleaming, bell-like, yellow, white, silvery, metallic, crystalline, silky, creamy

Who they might play in an opera or a musical

  • romantic heroines (ingénues), young women, queens, princesses, angels

Famous examples

  • Maria Callas, Renée Fleming, Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa, Dawn Upshaw, Sarah Brightman, Kristin Chenoweth, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell (early recordings), Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Alison Krauss

Listen:

Mezzo-Sopranos

Mezzo-sopranos get their name from the Italian prefix “mezzo,” meaning “half.” Although the category translates as “half-soprano,” there’s nothing “halfhearted” about the warm but sturdy voices that make up this group. In fact, mezzos often sing just as high as their soprano counterparts. In addition, operatic mezzos are also divided into the basic coloratura, lyric, and dramatic groups. What sets mezzos apart are their strong middle voices, their smoldering lower registers, and their lush tone quality. If a mezzo and a soprano were to sing the exact same pitch, the mezzo’s note would most likely sound a little bit fuller, darker, or heavier (imagine a clarinet playing the same note as a flute). Most female pop and Broadway artists fall into the mezzo category.

Who they are

  • Most mezzos are female, with the exception of some male specialists known as countertenors who, much like their 17th- and 18th-century predecessors, train their vocal chords to approximate a female mezzo sound. Countertenors are usually only heard today in Baroque opera performances.

Adjectives/colors/textures/tastes that can be used to describe them

  • dark, musky, glowing, fiery, golden, burgundy, copper, smooth, velvety, chocolate-y

Who they might play in an opera or a musical

  • seductive women, older women, queens, mothers, nurses, witches, gypsies, young men (these roles are known as “pants roles” and occur often in opera)

Famous examples

  • Agnes Baltsa, Olga Borodina, Tatiana Troyanos, Shirley Verrett, Frederica von Stade, Judy Garland, Audra McDonald, Beyoncé, Lea Michele, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga

Listen:

“Where Did the Altos Go?”

Empty stage

Nowadays, the word “alto” is a general term used to describe a lower female voice rather than a specific vocal category. Chorus music usually calls for an “alto” part for voices with a strong middle and lower register, but there’s no real separate alto voice type in Western music. If you hear someone say, “She’s an alto,” what they really mean is that the singer is a mezzo-soprano or a contralto.

Contraltos

And you thought the mezzos had deep voices? Check these ladies out. Contraltos are arguably the rarest of female voice types and they possess a tone so dark they often give the men a run for their money. If mezzos are like clarinets, contraltos are more like bass clarinets. The lower register is the key feature of this category, and contraltos know better than anyone how to make the most of their low “chest” tones. This doesn’t mean contraltos skimp on the high notes, though––operas often feature a coloratura contralto that can reach pretty far up into the vocal stratosphere with lightening speed. Contralto voices play a big part in jazz and pop music, however, and you’re probably more likely to hear a contralto on the radio or in a cabaret setting than on the operatic stage.

Who they are

  • Females

Adjectives/colors/textures/tastes that can be used to describe them

  • heavy, strong, bronze, purple, smoky, husky, rich, dark chocolate-y

Who they might play in an opera or a musical

  • mothers, grandmothers, earth goddesses, witches, nuns or priestesses, military generals (a sort of 18th century mega-pants role)

Famous examples

  • Elena Obraztsova, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Tracy Chapman, Cher, Annie Lennox, Toni Braxton

Listen:

Men's Voices

Between the (musical staff) Lines: Bass-Baritones

Bryn Terfel

So many male voices possess qualities of both the baritone and the bass that many vocal professionals feel they deserve their own category. Say hello to the bass-baritone. He has roughly the same vocal range as a dramatic baritone, but his timbre carries enough extra weight and color to be considered bass-like. Look out for his featured roles in many a Mozart opera. Figaro and Don Giovanni are bass-baritone favorites.

Famous examples: Bryn Terfel, Samuel Ramey, José Van Dam

FYI: You’d be hard-pressed to find a singer in pop or rock music that makes use of this kind of timbre. It’s really more of an operatic voice.

Listen:

The Divo Team:
A Look at Male Voices

Now for the boy’s club of singing. The following voice types explore all aspects of the male sound, from the light and lilting to the dark and forceful. No girls allowed–––these voices are strictly for the men.

Tenors

Tenors are the highest male voice and, like sopranos, they are capable of delivering thrilling high notes and often have a brilliant shining timbre. Think of them as the trumpet of the vocal orchestra. These boys get their name from the Italian “tenere,” which means, “to hold,” because, in very early music, it was their job to hold down the melody and drive the song. This often remains true in today’s music, as many of the lead singers in pop groups and rock bands are tenors. In opera, tenors have several subcategories, which range from the softer sound of the tenore buffo (ten-OR-eh BOO-foh, a high-range tenor who sings comedic roles) to the bold and hefty sound of a Heldentenor (HELL-dehn-ten-OR, the term for a strong-voiced tenor who sings heroic roles in lengthy German operas).

Who they are

  • Mature males. It’s important to note that, although they sing some pretty high notes, tenors are different from young boys whose voices haven’t changed yet. As singing expert Richard Miller puts it, a tenor voice is a full and energetic adult sound.

Adjectives/colors/textures/tastes that can be used to describe them

  • bright, dazzling, clear, brassy, ringing, sunny, yellow, orange, metallic, tinny, juicy, spicy

Who they might play in an opera or a musical

  • leading men, romantic heroes, young boys, princes, knights, soldiers

Famous examples

  • José Carreras, Enrico Caruso, Franco Corelli, Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Juan Diego Flórez, Paul McCartney, Chris Martin (lead singer of Coldplay), Justin Timberlake

Listen:

Baritones

The most common of all male voices, this category occupies the wide range of vocal timbres between the tenor and the bass. Interestingly, this voice type wasn’t officially acknowledged until the 19th century when, as Miller puts it, composers caught wise to the fact that using vocal variety and “contrast” made for much more exciting music than simply dividing parts between the guys who could sing high and the guys who could sing low. As a result, the baritone voice, recognizable by its glorious middle register, came into fashion and was championed in many 19th-century operas, particularly those of Verdi.

As with all other categories, the baritone comes in many forms, including the lyric (a lighter voice often featured on the classical concert stage) and the dramatic (a darker tone used in lead operatic roles). In contemporary music, baritones are more likely to show up in the country western and R&B genres than in pop or rock ballads, which tend to favor tenor voices.

Who they are

  • Males

Adjectives/colors/textures/tastes that can be used to describe them

  • smooth, warm, brown, tan, velvety, lush, plush, rich, coffee-like

Who they might play in an opera or a musical

  • the tenor’s rival for the soprano, seductive men, the tenor’s best friend, husbands, older heroes, fathers

Famous examples

  • Thomas Hampson, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sherrill Milnes, Leonard Warren, Toby Keith, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, Harry Connick Jr., Luther Vandross

Listen:

Basses

The name says it all. These men make up the bottom of the musical staff, and their incredibly deep tones are a rare but essential part of music making. Basses do for low notes what sopranos do for high notes. Yet what makes basses so special isn’t so much the depth of their notes, but the volume and strength with which they can sing them. Pitches at the bottom of the scale are notoriously difficult for the ear to pick up, so think of the skill involved in making a magnificent low note sound loud enough to be heard over an entire orchestra. Kind of amazing, wouldn’t you say?

The potential of the powerful bass sound wasn’t lost on composers. In fact, many opera composers used the bass voice to represent characters that are literally out of this world, like gods and devils. There’s also a special subcategory of the operatic bass voice known as the basso buffo, which exploits the bass’ low range for comic effect. Basses are also an important part of jazz and R&B music; their warm and beautiful sound is instantly calming and makes for easy listening.

Who they are

  • Males

Adjectives/colors/textures/tastes that can be used to describe them

  • dusky, dark, heavy, blue, purple, marble-like, wool-like, thick, dense, iron-like, espresso-like, dark-chocolate-y

Who they might play in an opera or a musical

  • gods, emperors, kings, devils, fathers, grandfathers, priests, monks

Famous examples

  • Boris Christoff, Nicolai Ghiaurov, René Pape, Ezio Pinza, Paul Robeson, Barry White

Listen:

Credits

Writers

Eleni Hagen
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Producer

Sources

Christiansen, Rupert. Prima Donna: A History. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1985.

Davies, Garfield & Anthony Jahn. Care of the Professional Voice. London: Hodder Arnold, 1999.

Dornemann, Joan with Maria Ciaccia. Complete Preparation: A Guide to Auditioning for Opera. New York: Excalibur Publishing, 1992.

Frisell, Anthony. The Soprano Voice. Boston: B. Humphries, 1966.

McKinney, James C. The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Nashville: Genevox Music Group, 1994.

Miller, Richard. English, French, German and Italian Techniques of Singing. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1977.

Miller, Richard. Securing Baritone, Bass-Baritone and Bass Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Miller, Richard. The Structure of Singing: System and Art of Vocal Technique. New York: Schirmer, 1986.

Miller, Richard. Training Tenor Voices. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993.

Nair, Garyth. The Craft of Singing. San Diego: Plural Pub, 2007.

Riding, Alan & Leslie Dunton-Downer. Eyewitness Companions: Opera. New York: DK Publishing, 2006.

Tetrazzini, Luisa & Enrico Caruso. The Art of Singing & How to Sing. New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.

Works Cited

McKinney, James C. The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Nashville: Genevox Music Group, 1994.

Miller, Richard. Securing Baritone, Bass-Baritone and Bass Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Miller, Richard. Training Tenor Voices. New York: Schirmer Books, 1993.

Nair, Garyth. The Craft of Singing. San Diego: Plural Pub, 2007.

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