Knowing Your Voice

by Helen Wilkes

The difference between Vocal Classification (voice type) and Vocal Parts is something that many people confuse but is important in understanding what songs might suit you or where you fit in a choir. At times I will refer to my sister and my voices as examples because most of you will have heard us sing, I know our voices well and I know what we’ve done to them over the years.

Vocal Classification

As this is the more complicated of the two topics lets look at it first.

This is, essentially, the biology of your instrument. While there are many sub-categories there are 6 primary categories. These are Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Contralto, Tenor, Baritone and Bass.

As I said your voice type depends largely on your biology. This includes, but is not limited to; your age, thickness and length of vocal cords, flexibility of vocal cords, size and flexibility of your resonance chambers (e.g. passages in your head and chest), bone structure and size and flexibility of specific muscles (e.g. intercostal and abdominal). In other words, as a singer your entire body is your instrument.

Although the damage you do to your body will not affect your voice type it will affect your ability to access your natural vocal abilities. This is really noticeable in the difference between my sister and me. My sister has a naturally lower voice than I do. However, she has looked after hers far better than I have. She didn’t take up smoking, she didn’t drink in the way I did through her late teens and early twenties, she didn’t force her voice to sing in unhealthy ways. As such, she has ended up with an extended range for her voice type while I am having to work very hard to regain the range that I should have for my voice type and may not succeed.

There are many voice classification systems. The one most commonly used in classical music, particularly for choral and ensembles is the FACH system. This looks at the tonal quality, agility (ability to run and jump around the notes), range and how easy you find the pitches, runs and jumps.

Looking at my sister’s voice versus mine it’s easy to see how this works. My voice naturally runs all over the place and becomes tired quickly when I have to sustain notes, where as my sister’s voice tires quickly when she has to do lots of runs and jumps. Although, my sister can hit some pretty impressive high notes she would damage her voice if she lived in the rafters. Equally, I can hit some relatively low notes (e.g. the ones typically found in Alto 2 vocal parts) however, I would damage my voice if I lived down there.

If you can understand this about yourself, you’re far more likely to pick songs that suit your voice and position yourself in the best place for your in a choral or ensemble setting.

Below is a list of attributes typically associated with each of the primary voice type. However, within these there will be some people who can jump, run and leap around while others will do better with long sustained notes and minimal movement. For reference with pitch C4 is middle C on a piano (so when looking at a treble clef stave this would be the first ledger line below the stave and on a bass clef stave this would be the first ledger line above the stave).

Soprano: A soprano typically has a range from C4 to C6. Their secondo passaggio (break)  is usually between D#5 and F#5. The soprano tends to feel most comfortable singing in the upper part of their chest register to the middle of their upper register. Their lower chest register tends to be naturally breathy and is typically a weak point that many sopranos have to work on.

Mezzo-Soprano: A Mezzo-Soprano’s voice sits somewhere between a contralto and a Soprano. As such they tend to have a range from A3 to A5. Their secondo passaggio tends to be a little lower than the soprano around C5-E5 (depending on whether they are a high or low mezzo). The Mezzo-Soprano tends  to feel most comfortable singing in their chest register and popping up to their upper register periodically. They typically have a much richer tone than the Soprano, though not as rich as a Contralto.

Contralto: Not to be confused with the vocal part of Alto the contralto is the lowest of the female voice types. Their range is typically from F3 to F5. Their secondo passaggio tends to be around A4-C4. The Contralto is most comfortable singing in their lower register and produce an immensely rich tone that can sometimes be mistaken for a male tenor.

Tenor: The highest of typical male classifications (there are ones that sing primarily in the female register) the Tenor’s range is usually classed as being C3 to C5. They tend to be able to have a great degree of control over their upper register. Allowing them to sing well into the typical female pitches without having to switch to a falsetto sound. As with the soprano’s they tend to struggle with the lower parts of their range.

Baritone: The Baritone is similar to the Mezzo-Soprano in that they sit somewhere between the Tenor and Bass voice types. Their range is typically A2 to A4 though some have an extended range of F2 to C5. They tend to sound best when singing in the middle of their range and produce a beefier tone than the Tenors, though not as beefy as the Basses.

Bass: The Bass is the lowest of the male voice types. Typically, their range is from E2 to E4. They have the beefiest sound and tend to be happiest singing in the middle to lower part of their range.

Voice Parts

This is the line of music you would sing in a choir or ensemble and knowing your vocal strengths and limitations will help you to better assess where you belong in these settings.

In a mixed voice choir, there are usually four main parts (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass), each splitting in two when it’s needed. So, how do you know which of these parts you should sing? This depends on your voice’s characteristics and the type of music being performed.

The list bellow is a rough guide to which primary voice classifications would sing the vocal parts. However, this should not be taken as a definitive guide and only used as a start point. I must also stress that the label 1 and 2 has no baring on the singer’s ability and simply on the range of notes routinely expected from them. Equally, the terms professional and amateur are not intended to be derogatory, again they merely express the difference between what is expected.

Soprano vocal Part: As expected people whose voice classification is Soprano would typically join the soprano section of a choir. This means they sing the highest notes. Soprano 1 tends to consist of Sopranos while Soprano 2 tend to be Mezzo-sopranos whose vocal ability lets them sing higher in their range for extended periods of time or Sopranos who can’t quite hit the dizzying highs expected of Soprano 1. In fact, it’s the Mezzo-Sopranos that often give the soprano section a much richer tone than you’d typically expect to come from this section.

Alto vocal Part: While you’d think, from its name, that this section would be made up of Contraltos, this is highly unlikely as the contralto voice is one of the rarest female voices. These women can, especially in amateur settings, often choose whether to sing as an Alto 2 vocal part or a Tenor 1. The Alto vocal part is actually usually made up of low Mezzo-Sopranos. In the Alto vocal part it’s the mix of Contralto and Mezzo-Soprano voice types that give it a very rich tone that still sounds incredibly feminine.

Tenor vocal Part: As stated in the Alto vocal part some women can sing in this section. However, this section tends to consist of Tenors and high Baritones. The Tenors tend to take the tenor 1 line while the baritones beef up the Tenor part lower notes and take the Tenor 2 line.

Bass vocal Part: Here you will only find Basses and Baritone voice types. This is too low for tenors, even those with an extended lower range. Here the Baritones tend to take the Bass 1 line and provide a richness to the upper notes of the Bass vocal part while the Basses take the Bass 2 line and provide that beefiness that grounds chords being sung by the choir.

When reading about vocal parts I’ve often found a “touch” of rivalry, in terms of difficulty and prominence within music. However, I have to say that all of the parts are needed. Each performs a role and there are very few people in this world who can switch successfully switch across multiple vocal parts. For example, a Sop 1 would be highly unlikely to be able to switch to an Alto part, while someone most comfortable singing in Sop 2 would be unlikely to be able to sing an Alto 2 part. Not just because of the pitches but what is asked of them.

Sopranos tend trill and float about the place or carry the melody line above the other vocal parts. Altos tend ground the female voices and provide gorgeous harmonies that are often really difficult to find when you listen to the accompaniment. The tenors are often singing counterpoint or adding weight to melody and the Basses tend to keep everyone grounded in the key they’re singing in or the chord they’re trying to produce. As I said, we all need the others and no-one in a choir is better or more important than anyone else

Vocal comparison

Below is a video of my sister and me singing For Good from the musical Wicked. This is here to illustrate the points I made about our voices earlier in the article.

During this duet you will hear how Sarah (right) has a rich tone and easily hits the low notes. There is a smoothness to her voice as she hasn’t damaged it by being irrisponsible through her teens and early twenties as I (Helen – Left) was. With my voice there are times where you can hear it cracking and breaking and you can visably see that I have to work hard to sustain long power notes and to reach the lower notes.