How to Determine Singing Range and Vocal Fach (Voice Type)
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The passaggi are the two pivotal registration points or register transition points at which the human voice switches from one register into the adjacent register. The primo (first) passaggio lies between the chest register and the middle register in women or between the chest register and the zona di passaggio (“passage zone”) in men. The secondo (second) passaggio is located between the middle register or zona di passaggio and the head register. (Note that falsetto is not a vocal register. Rather, it is a quality of voice that is produced in the male singer’s upper range.)
In order to correctly identify the locations of your passaggi, it’s really important that you do not resist your voice’s natural tendencies. Do not attempt to carry chest voice up as high as you can, beyond its natural boundaries, simply because you can, and do not resist natural acoustical changes in the upper middle register by attempting to maintain speech-like vowel sounds. In addition to being potentially damaging to the healthy function of the voice, the inevitable results of resisting natural register shifts are segmented ranges and an inability to achieve a graduated, unified musical scale. Such register violations almost always produces what is called a register break, where the lower function of the voice gets pushed to the point where it has no other option but to shift abruptly into the next register, often with a crack in the voice or noticeable tonal quality or volume changes. Instead, allow the voice to switch registers whenever it is most natural to do so. Singers who have developed a habit of pushing the heavier mechanism of their voices - that which is associated with chest voice function - up as high as it can go, and those who have a long history of belting, may find it particularly challenging to feel and know when it is appropriate and natural for their individual instruments to change registers due to over development of the thyroarytenoid muscles.
The passaggi may be somewhat difficult to locate for some singers for other reasons. A singer who can smoothly transition between the registers - called “blending” or “bridging” the registers - will not notice a dramatic change in tone or any other signs that would otherwise indicate that the voice has shifted into the next register. Instead, he or she may only notice a graduated acoustical adjustment with ascending pitch – a sign of excellent technique. For instance, if a singer correctly navigates the upper passaggio, allowing acoustical shifts to occur several notes below the actual registration change point (where the muscular shift occurs), it may be difficult to pinpoint precisely where the head register begins, as brighter, ringing head tones have already been incorporated into the voice by the time that the passaggio is reached. (It is usually easier to hear and feel a shift from chest voice into middle or mixed voice.) Additionally, lighter voices often notice little, if any, “lightening” of timbre as they shift from chest voice into mixed voice or head voice, making it more challenging to recognize the signs of changing registration.
To locate your primo (lower) passaggio, where the voice switches from the chest register into the zona di passaggio (in men) or middle register (in women), sing an eight-note ascending scale beginning in comfortable lower range, below the average location for the first passaggio. For a male singer, begin around F3 (the F below middle C) or E3. For a female singer, begin around A3 or B3.
The first passaggio marks the end of the chest register and the beginning of the zona di passaggio (in men) or middle register (in women). At the first passaggio, you may notice a lightening of timbre or a physical sensation that the voice is becoming lighter or “lifting” up out of the chest. This lightening may be more noticeable in heavier voices. You may also notice a register break, in which the voice abruptly shifts into the next (higher) register with a “clunk”, change of volume, a weakening of tone, etc..
For male singers who are into the habit of carrying their chest voice timbres up through their zona di passaggio, instead of encouraging head voice tones in this area, a lightening of the voice may not occur. Instead, they may notice a point at which their voices will usually begin to feel and sound more strained and ‘shouty’, and singing the next few notes higher becomes more difficult and increasingly less pleasant to the ears. Female singers who also habitually push their chest voice functions up higher in the scale than is recommended will also likely begin to notice some strain, tightness and ‘shoutiness’, or a diminished quality of timbre above the first passaggio. That point at which the voice first becomes more strident and tense may be the location of the first passaggio. (Again, for singers who regularly apply incorrect technique to their singing, locating the passaggi can be particularly challenging.)
To locate your secondo (upper) passaggio, where your voice switches from the middle register or zona di passagio into the head register, you’ll want to sing an eight-note scale beginning several notes below the place where most voices within your gender switch. For a man, begin around A3 or B3 and sing a full eight-note ascending scale. For a woman, begin singing an eight-note ascending scale around G4 or A4. Both of these starting points should place the voice several notes below the average passaggio pitch, and the scale should extend to a few notes above these (passaggio) pitches. Regardless of your voice type, starting at or around this point should work for you.
If you have good vocal stamina and range, you can choose to sing a two-octave scale to listen for both registration shifts within the same scale, instead. Because the distance between the first and second passaggi is much shorter in males than in females (an interval of roughly a fourth, as compared to an octave in females), male singers may be able to sing just one octave, if begun at the correct location, to locate both registration pivotal points. However, I find that it is often more helpful, especially for lighter voices and voices with poor technique, to break up the scale and focus on finding just one passaggio at a time. (This can be done most effectively by simply singing shorter, five-note scales in every key, ascending the keyboard, beginning in comfortable lower range.)
Note that not all passaggi are located on whole tones within the scale. They may occur on a sharp or a flat that doesn’t actually fall within the same scale or key (e.g., on “accidentals”). Additionally, the passaggi of the human voice are not necessarily related to pitches on a piano. Some voices may actually transition between registers on imprecise (e.g., slightly flat or sharp, yet not quite the semitone below or above) pitches. When I am assisting students in finding their passaggi, and also in improving their blending skills, I typically use shorter chromatic scales, playing all white and black keys in an ascending pattern. Playing all semitones ensures that the location of the register shift is identified more precisely.
Also, sometimes the passaggi may differ slightly (typically by no more than a semitone) from one vowel to the next. It may, therefore, be a good idea to try singing all the five pure Italian vowels – [e] (pronounced “ay”), [i] (pronounced “eeh”), [a] (pronounced “ah”), [o] (pronounced “oh”), and [u] (pronounced “ooh”) – when attempting to locate your passaggi. Singing several vowels will help to reveal the most consistent register shift pattern and location, giving you a more accurate determination of your vocal Fach.
If you are unable to sing more than just a few notes above the upper passaggio notes listed above, it is possible that you are not accessing your head voice at all. You will need to work on your technique, if this is the case. If you do not hear an acoustic shift that creates a brighter, ringing tone, or if you feel strain, tightening and tension as pitch ascends, you may not be singing in head voice, and may instead be carrying your middle voice function up past the point where you should be switching into head voice function. If you are not yet able to access your head register correctly, rely solely upon the location of your first passaggio to help you determine your voice type. (Consider hiring a vocal technique instructor to help you learn correct technique that will enable you to sing in your head register, thereby significantly increasing your singable range and protecting your voice from strain, fatigue or injury.)
Again, the region between these two passaggi in males is designated the zona di passaggio (passage zone). In females, this area is called the middle register. Because men speak almost entirely in chest voice, they tend to have a more extended chest register than women do. The first passaggio marks the end of speech-inflection range (the range of pitches used during normal speaking tasks) in men. Because women tend to speak with much greater inflection than men, raising the pitches of their voices more frequently and substantially during conversation, their speech-inflection range tends to be broader. In women, the end of speech-inflection range is marked by the second passaggio. These differences account for why the zona di passaggio in men is significantly shorter than the middle register in women, and why the chest register in men covers more range than it does in women.
In classical singing, the middle register in higher-voiced women is traditionally extended somewhat in most pedagogic approaches, and the area between the two passaggi is often called the “long middle range”. Due to slight differences in the length of the chest register between lower and higher voice types, (and also the differences in the head registers between higher and lower voice types), higher voices are generally encouraged to change into mixed voice function (middle voice) lower in the scale, giving them a slightly longer middle register than their lower-voiced colleagues. Lyric sopranos are encouraged to never carry open chest tones up any higher than Eb4 or even D4, and dramatic sopranos do not generally sing in chest voice higher than F4. Mezzo-sopranos never carry chest voice function higher than F#4, and contraltos, with their naturally deeper, heavier voices, can safely delay entering the middle range up to G4 or even Ab4. In many schools of classical singing, female singers are taught to carry head voice tones down much lower in the scale than would be done in contemporary styles of singing, even when classical technique is otherwise applied.
Below is a list of the passaggi locations and the voice types with which they are typically associated. Although the passaggi for every mature (adult) singer remain fairly stable and are consistent, those listed below may not be completely accurate for all singers within the same voice type. (These transition points are actually more predictable across male voice types, though, than across female voice types due to the greater amount of overlapping between female voice types.) The late master teacher and writer Richard Miller argued that no single, arbitrary pitch can be established which functions as a line of demarcation between registers. In other words, determining vocal Fach is not always clear-cut, as all voices are unique. There is a great deal of overlap, so the passaggi locations listed below should be taken as 'approximate' locations, and should not be used exclusively as the defining voice characteristic. Instead, register transition points should be reviewed and analyzed along with the other characteristics of the individual singing voice, including range, tessitura, weight and timbre. (As cautioned in the first section, it is wise to avoid drawing a conclusion overly quickly.)
The differences in the passaggi locations between individuals reflects differences in their physical structures. These differences are not necessarily discernable to the naked eye, as they are within the body (the larynx and vocal tract). Therefore, a person of smaller frame and stature may have a surprisingly low range or heavy, powerful voice, whereas another person of larger build and height may have a surprisingly high range or a light vocal weight. Additionally, due to the greater diversity of laryngeal size and vocal-tract construction among males, range demarcations among male voice categories are more distinct than those of female voices. The passaggio points of male voices can be plotted over a wider range of notes. In males, a number of specific pitch designations for the passaggi exist within each voice category (e.g., several possible notes for tenor voices, and quite a few for baritones and basses), whereas only a semitone or whole-tone difference exists within female categories.
Even though it is likely sufficient for a singer of contemporary genres to know his or her range, tessitura and primary Fach designation (i.e., bass, baritone, tenor, alto, mezzo-soprano or soprano), I have included information about each sub-type, as well, to help those who are considering singing choral or operatic music.
Passaggi Locations For Male Voices
- G3 and C4
- These passaggi locations are generally associated with the low bass (basso profundo), who has a low-lying tessitura and range. This exceptionally rare voice type often sings in the vocal fry register. Choral parts designated “Bass” do not reflect the range and tessitura of a true bass. Instead, these lines are more suitable for lower baritones, such as bass-baritones or dramatic baritones. (In the case of choral music, “Bass” denotes a voice part or designated vocal line rather than a voice type. Men who sing bass parts in choirs often mistakenly assume that they are indeed basses.)
- Ab3 and Db4
- These passaggi are generally associated with the lyric bass (basso cantante), a lighter bass voice, likely with more agility and an ability to handle more florid passages than a heavier bass voice.
- A3 and D4
- These pitches reflect the registration pivotal points of the bass-baritone, an intermediate voice type with a range and tessitura lying somewhere between that of the bass and that of the baritone. He may have an extensive lower range, but have more of the timbral qualities of the baritone. He may also exhibit the upper range of a baritone.
- Bb3 and Eb4
- These pitches reflect the registration transition locations for a dramatic baritone (baritono drammatico). The dramatic baritone is a heavier-weighted baritone voice that is richer and fuller, and sometimes harsher, than a lyric baritone and with a darker quality.
- B3 and E4
- These passaggi locations reflect those of the lyric baritone (baritone lirico). The lyric baritone is a lighter-weighted baritone voice that is often mistakenly classified as a dramatic tenor because of the lighter timbre and the vocal agility (dexterity) as compared to other baritones.
- C4 and F4
- These passaggi locations reflect those of either the baritone-tenor or the robust tenor (tenore robusto). These tenor voices are the heaviest and lowest of all tenor voices. Singers who change registers as these locations may eventually have to choose between training as either a baritone or a tenor.
- C#4 and F#4
- These notes reflect the passaggi locations for the dramatic tenor (tenore drammatico). The dramatic tenor is a tenor of substantial weight, with a rich, emotive, ringing, dark-toned, very powerful and dramatic voice.
- D4 and G4
- The spinto tenor (tenore spinto), also called a lyric-dramatic tenor, changes registers roughly at these pitches. This voice has the brightness and height of a lyric tenor, but a heavier vocal weight, enabling the voice to be ‘pushed’ to dramatic climaxes with less strain than the lighter-voiced tenors. Some spinto tenors may have a somewhat darker timbre than a lyric tenor, as well, without being as dark as a dramatic tenor.
- These passaggi locations may also reflect those of a lyric tenor (tenore lirico). The lyric tenor voice is warm and graceful, with a bright, full timbre that is strong enough to be heard over an orchestra but is not heavy.
- D#4 and G#4
- The light tenor (tenore leggiero) likely changes registers at these two notes. This voice is a light, lyric instrument, is very agile and is able to perform difficult and florid (fioritura) passages.
- E4 (or F4) and A4 (or A#4)
- The high tenor (tenorino) likely changes registers at these notes. This tenor has the highest upper range and tessitura of all tenors. His voice is very agile and he may have an extensive falsetto range or be capable of countertenoring.
Passaggi Locations For Female Voices
- D4 (or Eb4) and D5 (or Eb5)
- These passaggi are generally associated with the contralto (or alto in contemporary circles). This is the heaviest of all female voice types, with the lowest tessitura and likely the lowest range. Even within current operatic practice, contraltos are often classed as mezzo-sopranos, because singers in each range can cover for those in the other. A dramatic contralto is the deepest, darkest, and heaviest contralto voice, usually having a heavier tone and more power than the others. Singers in this class, like the coloratura contraltos, are rare. A lyric contralto voice is lighter than a dramatic contralto but not capable of the ornamentation and leaps of a coloratura contralto. This class of contralto is lighter in timbre than the others. Coloratura contraltos, who have light, agile voices ranging very high for the classification and atypically extensive coloratura and high sustaining notes, specialize in florid passages and leaps. Given its deviations from the classification's norms, this voice type is quite rare.
- Technically, "Alto" is not a voice type but a designated vocal line in choral music based almost solely on vocal range, (i.e., without regard to factors like tessitura, vocal timbre, vocal facility and vocal weight). (Only in classical music is this subtle distinction between the terms contralto and alto made.) The range of the alto part in choral music is usually more similar to that of a mezzo-soprano than a true contralto. Whenever compositions split the alto line into two parts, the Alto 2 part is generally sung by mezzo-sopranos, and the Alto 1 part is usually more suitable to a contralto voice than a mezzo-soprano voice.
- E4 (or F4) and E5 (or F5)
- These registration transition notes reflect those of the dramatic mezzo-soprano. A dramatic mezzo-soprano has a strong medium register, a warm high register and a voice that is broader and more powerful than the lyric and coloratura mezzo-sopranos. This voice has less vocal facility than the coloratura mezzo-soprano. The dramatic mezzo-soprano can sing over an orchestra and chorus with ease and was often used in 19th century opera to portray older women, mothers, witches and evil characters.
- F4 (or F#4) and F5 (or F#5)
- These two notes are associated with the passaggi locations for the lyric mezzo-soprano. While mezzo-sopranos generally have a slightly heavier, darker tone than sopranos, the mezzo-soprano voice resonates in a higher range (and has a different timbre) than that of a contralto voice. This voice has a very smooth, sensitive and at times lachrymose quality. Lyric mezzo-sopranos do not have the vocal agility of the coloratura mezzo-soprano or the size of the dramatic mezzo-soprano. The lyric mezzo-soprano is ideal for most trouser roles in which female singers dress in men’s clothing for a given role.
- A coloratura mezzo-soprano has a warm lower register and an agile high register. Coloratura mezzo-soprano roles often demand not only the use of the lower register but also leaps into the upper tessitura with highly ornamented, rapid passages. What distinguishes these voices from being called sopranos is their extension into the lower register and warmer vocal quality. Although coloratura mezzo-sopranos have impressive and at times thrilling high notes, they are most comfortable singing in the middle of their range, rather than the top.
- F#4 and F#5
- These passaggi locations are typically associated with the dramatic soprano. The dramatic soprano has a powerful, rich, emotive voice that can sing over a full orchestra. Usually (but not always) this voice has a lower tessitura and a darker timbre than other sopranos.
- F#4 (or G4) and F#5 (or G5)
- These two notes reflect the locations at which the lyric soprano is likely to change registers. This is a warm voice with a bright, full timbre that can be heard over a full orchestra. It generally has a higher tessitura than a soubrette and usually plays ingenues and other sympathetic characters in opera. Lyric sopranos are usually divided into two sub-types: light lyric sopranos, who have bigger voices than those of soubrettes but still possesses a youthful quality, and full lyric sopranos, who have a more mature sound than a light-lyric soprano and can be heard over a larger orchestra.
- The light coloratura soprano is a very agile, light voice with a high upper extension, and is capable of fast vocal coloratura (elaborate and florid figuration or ornamentation).
- The lyric coloratura soprano is a very agile voice with a warm, bright, full timbre that can be heard over a big orchestra.
- The dramatic coloratura soprano is a coloratura soprano with great flexibility in high-lying velocity passages, yet with great sustaining power comparable to that of a full spinto or dramatic soprano.
Remember that the classical long middle range for the lyric soprano would be from Eb4 (first passaggio) to F#5 (second passaggio); for the dramatic soprano from F4 to F#5; the mezzo-soprano from F#4 to F5; and for the contralto from G4 to E5 or Ab4 to D5. This means that women of lower voice types may have a higher primo passaggio and a lower secondo passaggio, and thus a shortened middle register when classical technique is applied to singing.
Also, though it is possible for women to be of intermediate voice types, because there isn’t as much of a possible range of pitches for the passaggi locations within each voice type as there is amongst men, (particularly tenors), it is not quite as easy to designate precise pitch locations for the registration events of intermediate female voice types. The contralto-mezzo, for example, might share passaggi locations with the mezzo-soprano, but her timbre, weight, tessitura and range might indicate that she is not quite as high-voiced as the mezzo-soprano.
As always, don’t classify your voice without first taking into consideration all the possible characteristics of the voice, including range, tessitura, weight, timbre and passaggi locations.
Although it can be somewhat influenced by one’s technique, whether good or bad, voice type is determined by your natural instrument - by its structure and size - not by how you use it or what you attempt to make it into. This means that if you are an alto, you will never become a soprano, no matter how hard you train to increase your upper range and develop your head register. Likewise, a tenor will always be a tenor, a baritone a baritone, a mezzo-soprano a mezzo-soprano, etc.. (This also means that while a singer may be physically able to push the lines of registration for his voice, the voice break that occurs does not necessarily reflect the true passaggi locations. The passaggi for a given voice do not move with technique applied, as some methods incorrectly teach. A register break can occur at any point in the scale, but the passaggi locations are relatively fixed, and are based on the physical dimensions of the larynx.) Again, training and performing as another Fach is very stressful on the vocal instrument over time, and can lead to frustration, discouragement, lack of success and vocal damage, so it is in your best interest to make an accurate determination of your voice type, and then accept it wholeheartedly.
There are many unique qualities to individual voices, and each voice type has its own strengths and its own appeal. Every singer needs to accept and fully embrace his or her unique vocal qualities, strengths and limitations if he or she is to make the most of the instrument with which he or she has been entrusted.
In the majority of cases, when an adult singer has had a change in vocal Fach, it is because he or she had been training and attempting to sing (with little success, a great deal of discouragement and likely some physical discomfort) repertoire written for a higher Fach. A lower Fach designation and training in an appropriate tessitura for the singer’s voice are sometimes thought of as embarrassing or less desirable, as though the singer’s voice will somehow be perceived as less worthy for being of a lower voice type. However, the voice may be saved and the singer’s career prolonged and made more successful by making such a necessary and healthy change. Remember that just because you are able to sing in a higher or lower range, that doesn’t necessarily make it a good or healthy one for you to be singing in regularly.
Once a singer learns and accepts what voice type he or she belongs to, the only other question remaining is what kind of tenor, alto, etc. he or she is. If a singer has a natural lightness in his or her vocal weight, making him or her a “lyric”, he or she can certainly attempt to add more weight by falsely darkening his or her tone, but this will be at the expense of his or her natural timbre and resonance. Likewise, a heavier voiced individual should not regularly sing with a lighter sounding voice quality that is not natural to his or her instrument. Whenever singers attempt to “fake it” by intentionally altering the sounds of their voices, they invite acoustic distortion and bad technique, both of which lead to vocal limitations and potential injury.
If you are having difficulties successfully locating your passaggi and classifying your own voice, please feel free to contact me, and I’ll attempt to assist you based on the information with which you provide me. (You may consider sending MP3 files of your recorded voice singing a few chromatic scales, as described in the Passaggi section above, to aid this process.) Otherwise, consider taking some voice lessons with a classical technique instructor who can get to know your voice well, and then make an accurate assessment of your technical skills and an eventual determination of your vocal Fach. (Teachers of classical technique are more likely than teachers of contemporary methods to have a solid background and good understanding of the process of correctly determining vocal Fach, since it is far more essential to the classical styles of singing that they commonly, though not exclusively, teach.)