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A voice type is a particular kind of human singing voice perceived as having certain identifying qualities or characteristics. Voice classification is the process by which human voices are evaluated and are thereby designated into voice types. These qualities include but are not limited to: vocal range, vocal weight, vocal tessitura, vocal timbre, and vocal transition points such as breaks and lifts within the voice. Other considerations are physical characteristics, speech level, scientific testing, and vocal registration. The science behind voice classification developed within European classical music and is not generally applicable to other forms of singing. Voice classification is often used within opera to associate possible roles with potential voices. There are currently several different systems in use including: the German Fach system and the choral music system among many others. No system is universally applied or accepted. This article focuses on voice classification within classical music. For other contemporary styles of singing see: Voice classification in non-classical music.
Voice classification is a tool for singers, composers, venues, and listeners to categorize vocal properties, and to associate possible roles with potential voices. There have been times when voice classification systems have been used too rigidly, i.e. a house assigning a singer to a specific type, and only casting him or her in roles they consider belonging to this category.
A singer will ultimately choose a repertoire that suits his or her instrument. Some singers such as Enrico Caruso, Rosa Ponselle, Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas, Ewa Podleś, or Plácido Domingo have voices that allow them to sing roles from a wide variety of types; some singers such as Shirley Verrett or Grace Bumbry change type, and even voice part over their careers; and some singers such as Leonie Rysanek have voices that lower with age, causing them to cycle through types over their careers. Some roles as well are hard to classify, having very unusual vocal requirements; Mozart wrote many of his roles for specific singers who often had remarkable voices, and some of Verdi’s early works make extreme demands on his singers.
A note on vocal range vs. tessitura: Choral singers are classified into voice parts based on range; solo singers are classified into voice types based in part on tessitura – where the voice feels most comfortable for the majority of the time.
(For more information and roles and singers, see the individual voice type pages.)
There are many different voice types used by vocal pedagogues today in a variety of voice classification systems. Most of these types, however, are sub-types that fall under seven different major voice categories that are for the most part acknowledged across all of the major voice classification systems. Women are typically divided into three groups: soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto. Men are usually divided into four groups: countertenor, tenor, baritone, and bass. When considering the pre-pubescent male voice an eighth term, treble, can be applied. Within each of these major categories there are several sub-categories that identify specific vocal qualities like coloratura facility and vocal weight to differentiate between voices.
The range specifications given below are based on the American scientific pitch notation.
Soprano range: The soprano is the highest female voice. The typical soprano voice lies between middle C (C4) and "high C"(C6). The low extreme for sopranos is roughly B3 or A3 (just below middle C). Most soprano roles do not extend above "high C" although there are several standard soprano roles that call for D6 or D-flat6. At the highest extreme, some coloratura soprano roles may reach from F6 to A6 (the F to A above "high C").
Soprano sub-types: As with all voice categories, sopranos are often divided into different sub-categories based on range, vocal color or timbre, the weight of voice, and dexterity of the voice. These sub-categories include: Coloratura soprano, Soubrette, Lyric soprano, Spinto, and Dramatic soprano.
Two types of soprano especially dear to the French are the Dugazon and the Falcon, which are intermediate voice types between the soprano and the mezzo soprano: a Dugazon is a darker-colored soubrette, a Falcon a darker-colored soprano drammatico.
The mezzo-soprano is the middle-range voice type for females and is the most common female voice.
Mezzo-soprano range: The mezzo-soprano voice lies between the soprano voice and contralto voice, over-lapping both of them. The typical range of this voice is between A3 (the A below middle C) to A5 (the A two octaves above A3). In the lower and upper extremes, some mezzo-sopranos may extend down to the G below middle C (G3) and as high as "high C" (C6).
Mezzo-soprano tessitura: Although this voice overlaps both the contralto and soprano voices, the tessitura of the mezzo-soprano is lower than that of the soprano and higher than that of the contralto.
Alto is the term used for a designated vocal line in choral music based on vocal range. The alto part in choral music may range as much as two octaves, approximately from G3 (the G below middle C) to F5 (the F in the second octave above middle C), though not often in one work, and is usually sung by female voices. As with all voice types, personal range, color and intensity vary.
Contralto range: The contralto voice is the lowest female voice. A true operatic contralto is extremely rare, so much so that often roles intended for contraltos are performed by mezzo-sopranos. The typical contralto range lies between the E below middle C (E3) to the second E (E5) above middle C. In the lower and upper extremes, some contralto voices can sing from the D below middle C (D3) to the second B-flat above (B♭5), which is only one whole step short of the "Soprano C".
Contralto tessitura: The contralto voice has the lowest tessitura of the female voices. In current operatic practice, female singers with very low vocal tessituras are often included among mezzo-sopranos.
The term countertenor refers to the highest male voice. Many countertenor singers perform roles originally written for castrati in baroque operas. Except for a few very rare voices (such as the American male soprano Michael Maniaci or singers with a disorder such as Kallmann syndrome), singers called countertenors generally sing in the falsetto register, sometimes using their modal register for the lowest notes. Historically, there is much evidence that "countertenor", in England at least, also designated a very high tenor voice, the equivalent of the French haute-contre, and something similar to the "leggiero tenor" or tenor altino. It should be remembered that, until about 1830, all male voices used some falsetto-type voice production in their upper range.
Countertenor ranges (approximate) :
Countertenor: from about G3 to E5 or F5
Sopranist: extend the upper range to usually only C6, but some as high as E6 or F6
Haute-contre: from about D3 or E3 to about D5
Countertenor sub-types: There are several sub-types of countertenors including Sopranist or male soprano, Haute-contre, and modern castrato. The last actual castrato singer, Alessandro Moreschi, died in 1922.
Tenor range: The tenor is the highest male voice within the modal register. The typical tenor voice lies between the C one octave below middle C (C3) to the C one octave above "Middle C" (C5). The low extreme for tenors is roughly B-flat 2 (the second b-flat below middle C). At the highest extreme, some tenors can sing up to the second F above "Middle C" (F5). Tenor tessitura: The tessitura of the tenor voice lies above the baritone voice and below the countertenor voice. The Leggiero tenor has the highest tessitura of all the tenor sub-types.
Tenor sub-types: Tenors are often divided into different sub-categories based on range, vocal color or timbre, the weight of the voice, and dexterity of the voice. These sub-categories include: Leggiero tenor or Tenore di grazia, Lyric tenor, Spinto tenor, Dramatic tenor, and Heldentenor. Famous tenors include Enrico Caruso, Juan Diego Flórez, Alfredo Kraus, and Luciano Pavarotti.
The Baritone is the most common type of male voice.
Baritone range: The vocal range of the baritone lies between the bass and tenor ranges, overlapping both of them. The typical baritone range is from the second F below middle C (F#2) to the F above middle C (F#4), which is exactly two octaves. In the lower and upper extremes, a baritone's range can be extended at either end.
Baritone sub-types: Baritones are often divided into different sub-categories based on range, vocal color or timbre, the weight of the voice, and dexterity of the voice. These sub-categories include: Lyric baritone, Bel Canto (coloratura) baritone, kavalierbariton, Dramatic baritone, Verdi baritone, baryton-noble, and Bariton/Baryton-Martin.
Bass range: The bass is the lowest male voice. The bass voice has the lowest tessitura of all the voices. The typical bass range lies between the second E below "middle C" (E2) to the E above middle C (E4). In the lower and upper extremes of the bass voice, some basses can sing from the C two octaves below middle C (C2) to the G above middle C (G4).
Bass sub-types: Basses are often divided into different sub-categories based on range, vocal color or timbre, the weight of the voice, and dexterity of the voice. These sub-categories include: Basso Profondo, Basso Buffo, Bel Canto Bass, Basso Cantante, Dramatic Bass, and Bass-baritone.
The human voice is in a constant state of change and development just as the whole body is in a state of constant change. A human voice will alter as a person gets older moving from immaturity to maturity to a peak period of prime singing and then ultimately into a declining period. The vocal range and timbre of children's voices does not have the variety that adults' voices have. Both boys and girls prior to puberty have an equivalent vocal range and timbre. The reason for this is that both groups have a similar laryngeal size and height and a similar vocal cord structure. With the onset of puberty, both men and women's voices alter as the vocal ligaments become more defined and the laryngeal cartilages harden. The laryngeal structure of both voices change but more so in men. The height of the male larynx becomes much longer than in women. The size and development of adult lungs also changes what the voice is physically capable of doing. From the onset of puberty to approximately age 22, the human voice is in an in-between phase where it is not quite a child's voice nor an adult one yet. This is not to suggest that the voice stops changing at that age. Different singers will reach adult development earlier or later than others, and as stated above there are continual changes throughout adulthood as well.
The term treble can refer to either a young female or young male singer with an unchanged voice in the soprano range. Initially, the term was associated with boy sopranos but as the inclusion of girls into children's choirs became acceptable in the 20th century the term has expanded to refer to all pre-pubescent voices. The lumping of children's voices into one category is also practical as boys and girls share a similar range and timbre.
Treble range: Most trebles have an approximate range from the A below "middle C" (A3) to the F one and a half octaves above "middle C" (F5). Some trebles, however, can extend their voices higher in the modal register to "high C" (C6). This ability may be comparatively rare, but the Anglican church repertory, which many trained trebles sing, frequently demands G5 and A5. Many trebles are also able to reach higher notes by use of the whistle register but this practice is rarely called for in performance.
Voice classification is important for vocal pedagogues and singers as a guiding tool for the development of the voice. Misclassification can damage the vocal cords, shorten a singing career and lead to the loss of both vocal beauty and free vocal production. Some of these dangers are not immediate ones; the human voice is quite resilient, especially in early adulthood, and the damage may not make its appearance for months or even years. Unfortunately, this lack of apparent immediate harm can cause singers to develop bad habits that will over time cause irreparable damage to the voice. Singing outside the natural vocal range imposes a serious strain upon the voice. Clinical evidence indicates that singing at a pitch level that is either too high or too low creates vocal pathology. Noted vocal pedagogue Margaret Greene says,
"The need for choosing the correct natural range of the voice is of great importance in singing since the outer ends of the singing range need very careful production and should not be overworked, even in trained voices."
Singing at either extreme of the range may be damaging, but the possibility of damage seems to be much more prevalent in too high a classification. A number of medical authorities have indicated that singing at too high a pitch level may contribute to certain vocal disorders. Medical evidence indicates that singing at too high of a pitch level may lead to the development of vocal nodules. Increasing tension on the vocal cords is one of the means of raising pitch. Singing above an individual's best tessitura keeps the vocal cords under a great deal of unnecessary tension for long periods of time, and the possibility of vocal abuse is greatly increased. Singing at too low a pitch level is not as likely to be damaging unless a singer tries to force the voice down.
In general vocal pedagogues consider four main qualities of a human voice when attempting to classify it: vocal range, tessitura, timbre, and vocal transition points. However, teachers may also consider physical characteristics, speech level, scientific testing and other factors.
Many vocal pedagogues warn of the dangers of quick identification. Premature concern with classification can result in misclassification, with all its attendant dangers. William Vennard says:
Most vocal pedagogues believe that it is essential to establish good vocal habits within a limited and comfortable range before attempting to classify the voice. When techniques of posture, breathing, phonation, resonation, and articulation have become established in this comfortable area, the true quality of the voice will emerge and the upper and lower limits of the range can be explored safely. Only then can a tentative classification be arrived at, and it may be adjusted as the voice continues to develop. Many vocal pedagogues suggest that teachers begin by assuming that a voice is of a medium classification until it proves otherwise. The reason for this is that the majority of individuals possess medium voices and therefore this approach is less likely to misclassify or damage the voice.
Unlike other classification systems, choral music divides voices solely on the basis of vocal range. Choral music most commonly divides vocal parts into high and low voices within each sex (SATB). As a result, the typical choral situation affords many opportunities for misclassification to occur. Since most people have medium voices, they must be assigned to a part that is either too high or too low for them; the mezzo-soprano must sing soprano or alto and the baritone must sing tenor or bass. Either option can present problems for the singer, but for most singers there are fewer dangers in singing too low than in singing too high.
Large, John (February–March 1972). "Towards an Integrated Physiologic-Acoustic Theory of Vocal Registers". The NATS Bulletin 28: 30–35.