How to Determine Singing Range and Vocal Fach (Voice Type)
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Many singers who e-mail me have questions about how they should go about classifying their voices. They are curious to know whether they are altos or sopranos, baritones or tenors, and they want to know what they should expect of their voices after gathering more information about them.
This article presents a basic guide to (self) vocal classification. More information about the common voice types and about voice classification can be found in Understanding Vocal Range, Vocal Registers and Voice Type.
A few words of caution: It is never wise to make a quick classification of any given singing voice. (Sometimes singers are in a hurry to label voices because they want to understand their voices better or because they are anxious to begin singing suitable repertoire.) The development of good vocal habits are essential to correct classification, and if a singer is lacking in certain critical technical abilities, it may be easy to incorrectly categorize that voice. Singers should take the time to gain solid technical skills within a limited and comfortable range of pitches before attempting to push the voice to its extremes (either high or low). Once the basics of good technique 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 then be explored safely.
Furthermore, it is imperative that voice classification not be made until the voice has reached a certain level of maturation. Chronological age should not be used as an indicator of maturity, as each voice matures at its own rate. Although an eighteen-year-old male singer may have experienced voice change at fourteen, it’s as though his voice is really only four-years-old. Young voices should never be encouraged to sound more mature by falsely darkening their tone. The imitation of mature voices heard on recordings or in live performances is potentially damaging. Likewise, more mature voices should never attempt to sound more youthful than they naturally would.
It is vital that vocal teachers avoid encouraging the development of a voice exclusively to their own tastes, as every individual instrument has its own unique qualities and abilities, and all voices should, therefore, be encouraged to develop into what they are naturally designed to sound like. A singer should never be forced or encouraged to train as a certain voice type if that voice type is not what the instrument is naturally. Although all voices within the same voice type (or vocal Fach) have common characteristics, each sub-type has unique features that require a particular approach in teaching.
Also, even if a particular singer in a choir is capable of singing a different voice part (e.g., an alto who is able to comfortably sing the highest notes necessary for a given soprano part), he or she should not be encouraged to regularly sing that other voice part. (This often happens when a choir is short on the number of voices to sing a certain voice part, and the choir director makes a plea for the singer to switch parts.)
I strongly suggest that you hire a vocal technique instructor who can help you make sense of the information that you discover and collect about your voice, and who will ensure that your technique is not limiting your voice in any way nor causing your voice to be incorrectly classified.
Classifying singers is most common and necessary for opera singers, as their voice types determine which roles they will be cast for and will perform. Attempting to perform demanding operatic roles that do not suit one’s voice type, (i.e., they are not written for nor intended to be sung by singers of another voice type), can be damaging to the vocal instrument. Singers often attempt unsuitable repertoire and choose to sing in an overly high or low tessitura because they may feel pressure to impress audiences with their range or because, especially in the operatic world, they believe certain voice types (i.e., tenors and sopranos) to be more desirable than others.
Because most singers of contemporary genres aren’t classically trained and don‘t apply classical technique to their singing nor produce characteristically “classical“ sounds, it’s often a little more difficult to classify these singers by traditional means, (e.g., by using the German Fach system). However, singers of contemporary genres do also risk injury to their voices if they habitually sing in a pitch area that is not compatible with their voice’s natural tendencies or if they frequently use a quality of voice that is unnatural to their individual voice. Although voice classification may not be as critical to the vocal health and success of the rock, pop or jazz singer, as I will explain in the next paragraph, knowing some details about one’s voice can help that singer to make better overall choices. While it may not be all that useful for singers of contemporary styles to know whether they have “lyric” or “dramatic” voices, or even whether they are “baritones” or “mezzo-sopranos”, understanding a little bit about why their voices shine in certain areas of their range or in certain parts of a song can help them to select or write songs that will highlight their strengths and minimize evidence of their weaknesses.
If you sing contemporary genres, voice classification is likely to be less crucial to your career. (Mistakes can nevertheless be harmful, so you should still be true to your voice’s natural qualities and features.) While, in opera, all factors of the voice must be considered in order to determine whether or not a singer fits perfectly into a certain (already written and publicly performed numerous times) role, there is a great deal more flexibility and leeway within contemporary music. Not only is much of the sung music original and written for the individual singer, but the characteristics of the lead singer’s voice (e.g., range, tessitura, technical abilities and style) are also instinctively factored into the writing of original songs. Transposition is an option whenever a singer performs a contemporary cover song, whereas operatic songs are almost always performed in their original keys, making accurate voice classification and appropriate casting all the more critical for the classical singer. Furthermore, a certain degree of “rawness” and uniqueness of sound is often expected from singers of contemporary styles of music, so one particular voice type isn’t necessarily going to be more desirable than the others.
Voices are classified by their perceived qualities or characteristics, including range, tessitura, weight, and color (timbre), as well as vocal registration and vocal transition points that include “breaks” in the voice. (I explain each of these characteristics in the sections below.)
Personally, I don’t ever use register breaks for classifying singers’ voices because breaks generally occur when poor technique is used around the passaggi - the registration pivotal points - as singers get into the habit of pushing or extending the natural boundaries of their registers. Using breaks as an indicator of registration shifts creates inaccuracy in classification. Whenever a new student has a very pronounced register break, I tend to delay classification until he or she has developed better technical skills, as this may help to reveal more accurately where his or her voice actually does shift into the next register, and thus to which vocal Fach he or she belongs.
In both classical and choral music, voices are most commonly classified as basses, baritones, tenors, altos, mezzo-sopranos and sopranos. (For more descriptions of each of these voice types, refer to Understanding Vocal Range, Vocal Registers and Voice Type, or review the last section of this article, Putting the Pieces Together: Making A Determination Of Voice Type.) There are also intermediate voice types, which may have a range or tessitura lying somewhere between two voice types or parts (e.g., a bass-baritone), or may have a vocal weight that lies somewhere between light and heavy (e.g., a dramatic coloratura soprano, etc.).
A note of interest: Most individuals possess medium voices. In other words, the majority of male singers are baritones, and the majority of female singers are mezzo-sopranos. True bass voices are a rarity, and true soprano voices are not quite as common as one might think. (The fact that most leading operatic roles are written for and sung by sopranos may give people the wrong idea about how prevalent that particular voice type truly is.) Possessing a voice that is simply “somewhere in the middle” may not seem all that glamourous and exciting, but it is a fact of nature. How those of us with medium voices develop and use our instruments is what will determine whether or not our voices will stand out from the rest of the crowd.
Voice type is largely determined by the physical size and structure of the larynx and the rest of the vocal tract. As a general rule, those singers with larger vocal tract dimensions have lower passaggio pitch areas and lower ranges and tessituras, while those with smaller vocal tract dimensions have higher passaggio pitch areas, ranges and tessituras. Physical size (e.g., build or height) of the individual doesn’t always provide a clear indication of whether or not that person has a higher or lower, nor lighter or heavier, instrument. It’s what’s inside that counts.
In order to determine your voice type, you will need a correctly tuned musical instrument, such as a keyboard or guitar – one that you can play while singing - or someone else with an instrument who can accompany you by playing some simple scales in order to help you to identify exactly which notes you are singing. As long as you can identify where middle C is, you should be able to use scientific pitch notation (see section below) accurately.
First, to avoid any confusion, I’d like to briefly discuss scientific pitch notation, as I will be using it as I make reference to range and to the locations of the registration pivotal points (passaggi) for each voice type.
Scientific pitch notation is an example of a note-octave notation, which labels pitches with a combination of a letter and a number representing a fundamental frequency that is measured in Hertz (abbreviated Hz). In scientific pitch notation, middle C on the piano is designated C4 because of the note's position as the fourth C key on a standard 88-key piano keyboard. It has a frequency of approximately 261.626 Hz, assuming that the A above middle C (A4) is set at 440 Hz - the A that is vibrating 440 times per second.
Equal temperament is a system of tuning - arguably the most common tuning used around the world - in which the octave is divided into twelve musical intervals of equal size (equal tempered semitones). Every pair of adjacent notes – every step - has an identical frequency ratio, meaning that there are equal frequency ratios between successive notes, derived from the equal division of the octave logarithmically into twelve segments. Any given note's frequency, when doubled, produces a note an octave higher, while the converse is also true. For example A880Hz (A5) is one octave higher than A440 (A4), and A220Hz (A3) is one octave lower than A440Hz (A4).
In scientific pitch notation, the note “C” marks the beginning of each octave, so the D above middle C is labeled D4, the whole note above that E4, etc.. The B below middle C is part of a different octave - the third octave - and is labeled B3. The whole note below that is A3, etc..
The benefit of using scientific pitch notation is that it establishes consistency across the board, eliminating ambiguity and making discussion of specific pitches more accurate and lacking in confusion. (Please read the note below regarding the nonstandard labeling of electronic keyboards, which can introduce some confusion when discussing a voice’s range.) For example, a “high C” can have different meanings depending on whose voice is singing that note. A soprano’s high C, considered to be the defining note for a soprano voice type, would be located two octaves above middle C (labeled C6), whereas a tenor’s high C, based on the highest note that is generally required in standard tenor repertoire, would refer to C5. Using only the letter name for a given note can also create some confusion when discussing range.
Keep in mind that many electronic keyboards have the notes labeled differently. In many cases, the octave numbering is shifted either up or down, (though most commonly down), by as much as two numbers. This is because many electronic keyboards have ranges that are smaller than the full concert-sized piano (with eighty-eight keys). Typically, the manufacturer bases the labeling of the keys on how many octaves the individual keyboard has, not on the frequencies of the individual notes, (which means that this labeling system is not based on true scientific pitch notation at all). An electronic keyboard with only six octaves, for example, would designate the first octave on that particular device “octave 1”, which would leave the middle C on that particular instrument labeled as “C3” instead of C4, even though its frequency, and thus pitch, matches that of C4. This misleading labeling practice creates a great deal of confusion and inaccuracy in discussing pitch and range for singers who aren't aware of it. Therefore, counting the notes on a short keyboard will not be an appropriate or accurate way of working out the scientific pitch names of notes. For all intents and purposes, the C that is located in the middle of the keyboard should be considered C4, regardless of how it has been labeled by the manufacturer.
In its broadest sense, range refers to the full number of octaves or partial octaves, that a singer is able to sing. The bottommost part of the range is marked by the specific lowest pitch that a singer is able to vocally produce. The uppermost part of the range is marked by the specific highest pitch that a singer is able to produce. The interval between these two notes denotes the singer’s range. A range beginning at C3 and ending at G5, for example, means that the singer is able to sing two-and-a-half octaves.
While range is typically taken into account when classifying voices, it isn’t all that accurate when considered by itself. Examining range alone – a mistake that many people make and a common practice when assigning individuals to voice parts in choral ensembles - is not an effective means of determining voice type, as it may be deceptive for a few reasons.
Typically, untrained singers have a much more limited range than they would have if they were trained. Oftentimes, it is the upper range that is lacking, or is shortened considerably by this lack of training because they don’t apply correct technique to the upper-middle and head registers. (Many untrained singers are unable to access their head registers, and therefore have a significantly shortened range, even though their instruments might be physically capable of singing a much broader range with some training in correct vocal technique.) As a result of focusing exclusively on capable range, many singers incorrectly classify their own voices, assuming that because they can’t sing high notes, they must be of a lower vocal Fach (voice type).
Furthermore, some voices are innately capable of singing a greater range of notes than others. There are some singers who have exceptional ranges and are capable of singing several octaves, including areas of pitch most commonly reached by other voice types. There are true altos, for example, who have such well-developed and extensive head registers that considering their upper ranges alone would suggest that they are possibly mezzo-sopranos or even sopranos (e.g., a certain alto might be able to sing higher than a certain soprano, but that doesn‘t make her a soprano.) Likewise, there are higher voiced singers, such as tenors, who are physically capable of singing lower than some baritones can.
Several characteristics of the voice must, therefore, be factored into the equation before a voice is officially labeled or classified. Incorrect classification of a voice can lead not only to frustration and lack of success, but also to vocal strain, fatigue and injury. The most accurate way to determine voice type is to focus primarily on the registration pivotal points - the two passaggi (“passages”) where the voice shifts in the next vocal register – but to also consider other characteristics such as range, weight, tessitura and timbre to get a better overall assessment.
Nevertheless, one’s range is not an irrelevant bit of information to possess. It is particularly helpful when deciding what key signature to place a song in, as the singer can take into consideration the topmost or bottommost note of a particular song in its original key and decide from there, based on his or her most comfortable top or bottom note, how many keys the song may need to be either lowered or raised (transposed) in order to be more easily singable. (Tessitura is also very important - perhaps even more important - in deciding which key is most suitable for a given voice.)
In Understanding Vocal Range, Vocal Registers and Voice Type, there are diagrams of keyboards that show the expected ranges of each voice type. In truth, these areas are probably more representative of tessitura (see below), as they are intended for consideration by classical and choral vocalists when performing classical or choral repertoire. They show an area of pitch where each voice type is likely to be the most comfortable and skilled, and the areas in which singers of each voice type are expected to be able to sing for classical repertoire – the range of vocal tones that can be rendered with some degree of musicality (‘singable compass’) - rather than the entire possible range of pitches, from the lowest grunt to the highest shriek, that each voice is capable of vocally producing (‘vocable compass’), which varies greatly between individuals even within voice types.
In classical singing, poorly produced upper and lower notes would not actually be considered part of the singers range. In contemporary singing, “performable” range is defined differently because singers generally make use of microphones that can amplify lower and quieter notes, whereas in opera, a singer is expected to sing over orchestral accompaniment without the aid of amplification, and these quieter notes that don’t carry (aren’t loud enough) or have a timbre that is inconsistent with the rest of their range don’t count.
To find your vocal range, sit down in front of a keyboard or with a guitar in hand, and begin singing a note that is somewhere in your lower middle range. Sing a chromatic scale - all the sharps and flats (e.g., black keys on a piano) along with the whole notes (e.g., the white keys on a piano) - downwards in pitch. Write down the lowest note that you are able to vocally produce, even if it doesn’t sound great. Warming up your voice prior to singing your lowest and highest notes is strongly recommended.
Then, beginning at a comfortable upper-middle note, begin singing a chromatic scale upwards in pitch. Write down the highest note that you are able to sing, even if it doesn’t sound wonderful.
Now, calculate the distance in octaves and partial octaves between these lowermost and uppermost two notes. The interval (distance or range of pitches) between these two notes serves as your vocal range or vocable compass, by definition in contemporary styles or genres of singing. The highest and lowest notes may not be considered part of your “performable” range (singable compass), as they may not be well produced or have a pleasant tone and sufficient carrying power, but they will do for starters.
If you feel as though your range is smaller than average, or smaller than you would like it to be, consider signing up for lessons with a skilled voice instructor who will help you learn better vocal technique and extend your range. In the meantime, you may read some tips that I have written on increasing vocal range in Tips For Practicing Singing: A Practical Guide To Vocal Development.
Essentially, tessitura of the voice refers to the area of the singer’s range where he or she is most comfortable singing. This area is generally where the voice is the most pleasant sounding and is its strongest and most dynamic. Consistency of timbre, as well as the “strength” behind the notes, also help to define tessitura. If you take a close look at the vocal range figures in Understanding Vocal Range, Vocal Registers and Voice Type, you will probably get an indication of the tessitura that is most likely for each voice type.
A soprano is likely to be most comfortable and have the most pleasant tone in her upper middle and upper range, whereas a mezzo-soprano would be strongest in the middle of her range and an alto‘s voice would stand out best in her lower to middle range. Bass singers will have a more limited higher end, both in range and in dynamic ability, than tenors, who will likely be more limited, both in range and in dynamic ability, in the lower end.
Bear in mind that, with the exception of the occasional vocal embellishment and vocalises (wordless, vocalized ‘gymnastics’ used to give added drama to a song), singers of contemporary genres don’t typically sing in their head registers, as the modified vowels and acoustics of head voice tones don’t tend to suit most contemporary styles of singing. (To gain a clearer understanding of how head voice is correctly defined, and why many untrained singers and singers and teachers of contemporary methods and styles misunderstand it, read Vocal Registration and Contemporary Teaching Methods in my article on ‘Belting’ Technique.) This means that this higher area of their range (above their second passaggio) may be very underdeveloped through lack of use and practice, and therefore may not sound as strong as it possibly could be. This also means that even a natural soprano or tenor may not feel as comfortable as he or she otherwise would if he or she were to spend more time regularly training and exercising the voice in the upper end of the range.
Tessitura is another helpful piece of information to possess when attempting to choose a key signature for a given song. Taking into consideration where the bulk of the melody of a song is written, a singer can adjust the key, either moving it up or moving it down, to better match his or her own tessitura, and therefore offer a stronger performance throughout the entire song. This technique is particularly useful for matching areas of a song that the singer would like to make sound more dramatic and powerful, such as choruses or bridges, with the strongest part of the singer’s range.
Vocal weight refers to the perceived 'lightness' or 'heaviness' of a voice. A lighter voice, often described in the opera world as “lyric”, usually has a more youthful quality to it, whereas a heavier voice, often described as “dramatic”, usually has a fuller and more mature quality.
In general, lighter voices find it easier to sing at higher pitches (higher lying tessituras), have more vocal agility, and change registers at slightly higher pitches than heavier voices within the same voice type do. The ease with which the lighter voice negotiates the extreme upper range is not necessarily due to better technical facility than that of the heavier voice, but to the fact that those pitches lie in less demanding relationship to the lighter voice’s passaggi events. (Read page two of this article for more information on the passaggi locations.)
There is a common misconception that the tenor and soprano voices are high, light instruments, quite distinct in character and timbre from that of the baritone and alto. In reality, though, such an incorrect assumption may lead to inaccurate voice classification, which may, in turn, cause frustration and voice health issues. A lyric baritone voice, for example, may have no greater difficulty singing and sustaining the same high notes as a dramatic tenor.
Timbre simply refers to the quality or “colour” of tone being produced by the singer.
I am purposely leaving timbre (vocal 'colour') out of this discussion because it is a very complex topic to broach. Though it is important in singing and in determining vocal Fach, it is also difficult to describe, and there are countless timbres amongst individual singers. Using passaggi locations, range, tessitura and weight should suffice in determining your voice type.