Classifying the Voice
In most fields, there are stereotypes. Most of which are unfair and fail to address the whole picture. In music, two of the most prevalent are that vocalists are egomaniacs while being poor musicians and drummers are fun but less than intellectual. We're going to hopefully dispel the first one of these stereotypes in this post and the following one.
In this post, we will learn about the four main types of voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) that are used in choral music. Additionally, we will touch on additional classifications that are used to describe soloists. We will also listen to examples of famous singers that fall into the various types.
In the next post, we will talk about, as composers, we can view singers as more than just "singers" but as the skilled musicians they are. Specifically, we will discuss how to include them as part of a larger instrumentation with traditional orchestral instruments. In future posts, we will learn more about writing for small vocal groups, choirs, and solo vocalists.
An Extremely Brief History of Singing in Western Music
In the beginning was the voice. Voice is sounding breath, the audible sign of life. – Otto Jespersen
Singing is no doubt one of the oldest musical activities. In fact, sung communication predates spoken language. Danish Linguist Otto Jespersen wrote "Men sang out their feelings long before they were able to speak their thoughts." The earliest ancestors to Western Music were songs. The oldest piece of notated Western music, the Sumerian song Hymn to Creation, is dated before 800 BCE. The piece was notated in cuneiform writing. The oldest complete piece of notated Western music is the Ancient Greek Song of Seikilos from the first century CE that we discussed in the article about musical texture. Even before that, Ancient Egyptian visual art depicts large choruses and orchestras in the New Kingdom (550-712 BCE). In the ninth and tenth centuries in early Christian Europe, singing and music were intrinsically linked. Early notated music was exclusively unaccompanied singing of religious texts by monks. This style of music is known as Gregorian chant.
Our modern Western notation system is developed from the staff method of transcribing these medieval chants in neumes (later developed into musical notes) that was developed in the ninth century. The monks referred to the names of the pitches of the scale by using a melody and text from one of their chants, ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la. Each line of the text begins on the succeeding pitch of the ascending scale. We still use the names of the pitches that these monks gave them when we sing solfège or do, re, mi... scales, known as solemnization. Si or ti was added later, and ut was later changed to do, which may have been borrowed from an Arabic version of solemnization, Durar Mufaṣṣalāt, (درر مفصّلات, in English "separated pearls"). It uses the syllables dāl, rā', mīm, fā', ṣād, lām, and tā'. Other music traditions from around the world have their own solemnization systems.
The Four Main Voice Types
There are four main voice types used to describe human singing voices. These terms are also sometimes used to categorize instruments. The vocal categories used in choral music are labelled according to the German Fach System. Fach comes from the German word for "compartment." They are the highest voice range, soprano; the second highest voice range, alto or contralto; the second to the lowest voice range, tenor; and the lowest range, bass.
Typically, young children and women sing in the soprano and alto range and men whose voices have changed sing in the tenor and bass range. Male singers who use their head voice to sing in a range similar to the alto range are called countertenors. Some female altos who have an exceptionally strong low-end to their voices will sing tenor part in choral music.
Sometimes a voice part that is between soprano and alto is also included as a third treble vocal part. This part is called "mezzo-soprano" or middle soprano in Italian in operatic music. Many of the women who sing the alto part in choral music are mezzo-sopranos. A voice type that lies between tenor and bass is called baritone.
Teen and Adult Choirs
When choral parts are written for the basic ensemble, it is a Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass arrangement or SATB for short. Other popular arrangements of singers include Soprano, Soprano, and Alto (SSA); Soprano, Soprano, Alto, Alto (SSAA); Soprano, Alto, Baritone, (SAB); Tenor, Tenor, Baritone, Bass (TTBB); and Soprano, Soprano, Alto, Alto, Tenor, Tenor, Baritone, Bass (SSAATTBB). Sometimes large works, such as motets for choir and orchestra, will call for two choirs at the same time in one piece called a piece for double-choir (SATB+SATB).
When an arrangement is for only sopranos and altos, it is a women's choir piece, and when it is written for tenors and basses, it is a men's choir piece. A piece written for a mix of traditionally men's and women's parts is a piece for mixed choir.
Children's choir music is often written in a SA, SSA, or SSAA arrangement. Sometimes older boys who sing tenor and bass are also included. Choosing to write for a children's choir rather than a women's choir or mixed choir is especially effective as an orchestration tool. Because adult singers often have developed vibrato or a rapid, slight variation in pitch in singing that provides a richer tone, while child singers have not yet developed vibrato and have a cleaner, purer tone. When writing for amateur children's choir, it is a good idea to keep the range small, usually from B♭ below middle C to E on the top of the treble clef staff.
Sometimes a composer will write a piece for a blend of children's and adult choir. This is will notated in the score. These works are for intergenerational choir. Some possible arrangements of intergeneration choirs include: children’s choir with teen choir, adult with children's choir, adult SSA choir plus children's choir, adult choir, and teen choir with children’s choir.
A soprano's vocal tessitura (or comfortable range) is usually between middle C to the A above the treble clef staff in most choral music. When writing for younger or less-experienced singers, it is preferable to limit the number of high notes in soprano parts and give options for high notes. Experienced singers will often sing up to the C two octaves above middle C and even higher than that. Occasionally, sopranos will sing parts down to the A or G below middle C.
Solo soprano voices are divided into the brighter or "lyric"and darker or "dramatic" voices. Most women are naturally lyric sopranos or lyric mezzo sopranos. Lyric voices are strongest in the middle to middle high parts of their ranges and have flexible, agile voices. Dramatic singers are known for their full voices that usually have voices that carry over an orchestra. Other types of the soprano voice are soubrette, spinto, and coloratura sopranos.
The coloratura soprano has the highest vocal range and is the most agile singer. One of the highest notes in operatic music is for the coloratura role of the Queen of the Night Mozart's famed opera, The Magic Flute. Mozart composed the role for his mother-in-law, who was a soprano known for having one of the strongest high voices at the time. He calls for the singer to hit an F two and one-half octaves above middle C in the Queen of the Night's featured aria. Listen to coloratura soprano So Young Park sing the aria in the video below. When composing, it's important to keep in mind that notes this high are not typical for most sopranos and that pitches this high should be reserved for featured soloists.
Some famous classical sopranos include Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Jessye Norman, Leotyne Price, Sarah Brightman, and Renée Fleming. Some non-classical sopranos include Kelly Clarkson, Kate Bush, Erykah Badu, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, and Ariana Grande.
Since sopranos have the highest voices, their voices naturally carry. Like the flutes in a woodwind ensemble or the violins in the string orchestra, they are the voices that usually sing the melody in a heterophonic texture. When you hum the tune of a familiar festive songs like Silent Night, Hava Nagila, or Auld Lang Syne or patriot songs like The Star Spangled Banner, O, Canada or God Save the Queen (My Country Tis of Thee), you are humming the soprano line. In choral settings, sopranos are often divided into soprano 1 and soprano 2 sections. In opera, sopranos are usually the leading ladies.
A mezzo-soprano's vocal tessitura is usually between middle A below middle C to the G above the treble clef staff. Mezzo-sopranos soloists are divided in lyric and dramatic types as well. Some of the most famous roles written for mezzos including the title role in Bizet's Carmen who sings the Habenera aria, L'amour est un oiseau rebelle (Love is a rebellious bird). This is most likely the most widely known aria to people outside of classical music. Listen to the aria below, sung by Elina Garança.
Some famous classical mezzo-sopranos include Cecilia Bartoli, Joyce DiDonato, Janet Baker and Elina Garança. Some non-classical mezzo-sopranos include Paula Abdul, Beyoncé, Susan Boyle, Ella Fitzgerald, Idina Menzel, Rihanna, and Barbara Streisand.
As mentioned above, mezzo-soprano is a term that applies specifically to soloists. Mezzo-sopranos often sing alto parts in a chorus. This part is called "alto 1" in SSAATTBB or SSAA choirs arrangements. Since they often sing harmony parts, mezzo-sopranos often have developed and are generally a quick study with new melodies as well as harmonies. In opera, mezzos are known for playing secondary characters, especially "witches" and "britches" as they often portray femme fatale or "pants" roles (boy) characters. However, some leading parts call for mezzos such as the title role in Bizet's Carmen.
An alto's vocal tessitura is usually between the G below middle C to the D on the top of the treble clef staff in most choral music. When writing for younger or less-experienced singers, it is preferable to limit the number of very low notes in alto parts and give options for the lowest notes. Experienced singers will often sing up to the F two octaves above middle C and sing down to the E or F below middle C and even lower than that.
Altos have darker voices then sopranos. They have a strong chest voice and the higher part of their voice may not be as developed. True contralto voices are the rarest of all of the voice types. Listen to legendary Marian Anderson sing Schubert's Ave Maria.
Some famous classical contraltos include Marian Anderson, Maria Radner, and Claramae Turner. Some non-classical altos include Billie Holiday, Etta James, Queen Latifah, Grace Jones, and Reba McEntire.
In choir, altos are sometimes divided into alto 1 and alto 2 parts. Alto 2 parts are for true contraltos and will feature the dark, rich low notes. As opera soloists, they often sing roles that are more matronly characters or play "pants" roles. As they nearly always sing harmony in choral music, altos often have finely tuned musical "ears" and have a strong natural sense of harmony.
A tenor's vocal tessitura is usually between the C below middle C to the G above the middle C in most choral music. Sometimes tenor parts will go down to the A on the first space of the bass clef staff. Music for tenors is normally written on a treble clef staff but is sung at octave lower than written. When writing for younger or less-experienced singers, it is preferable to limit the number of high notes in tenor parts and give options for high notes. Experienced singers will often sing up to the C an octave above middle C and even higher than that.
Solo tenor voices come in range of timbres. Types of tenor voices include lyric, dramatic, leggero, spinto, heldentenor, and tenor buffo or spieltenor. There is often a shortage of tenor voices in choral groups, as generally there are less male than female singers and most men sing in bass or baritone ranges. Orchestra choruses normally prefer tenors to have full, resonant voices, but other choral groups will sometimes use on light baritones singing in falsetto to sing tenor parts. (Falsetto is produced by vibrating the ligamentous edges of the vocal cords.)
Some famous classical tenors include Luciana Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Enrico Caruso, and Andrea Bocelli . Some non-classical tenors include Akon, Bono, Tony Bennett, Justin Bieber, John Denver, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Paul McCartney, Sting and Brian Wilson. Listen to The Three Tenors, Luciana Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras sing "Nessun Dorma" from Turandot in the video below.
As tenors are the male equivalent to the soprano, they will sing
A baritone's vocal tessitura is usually between the first line F on the bass clef staff to the F above the middle C in most choral music. Baritone comes from the Italian word for "heavy sounding." Although the voice has a similar range to the tenor voice, it has a deeper, darker timbre. Baritones usually sing bass parts in SATB arrangements but, as mentioned before, may sing tenor parts as needed. Baritone voices are the most common male voice type.
Some famous classical baritones are Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Christian Gerhaher. Some non-classical baritones include Rick Astley, David Bowie, Perry Cuomo, Bing Crosby, Willy Nelson, and John Legend. Listen to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing An Die Musik by Schumann.
The bass range is typically described as extending from the E below the bass clef staff to the E above middle C. The bass tessitura is the notes that fall on the bass clef staff. Some basses have a stronger voice in the higher part of their range and are called bass-baritones as they are in between bass and baritone. The lowest bass singers or basso profundo (Italian for deep bass) voice type sing far below the bass clef staff, with a range extending down to the C below the staff or even lower. The Russian choral tradition features these extremely low bass singers.
Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov divided the bass section into six groups, baritones, light basses, strong basses, strong basses with a good low register, oktavists with medium range, power and a soft sound, and strong and deep oktavists. Oktavists are basso profundi. Chesnokov wrote extensively for oktavists. Oktavists can sing down to the G below the bass clef staff or even lower!
Some famous classical basses are Ezio Pinza, Boris Christoff, and Nicolaï Ghiaurov. Some non-classical basses include Paul Robeson, Tay Zonday, Michael McCary, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Cash. Listen to Paul Robeson sing "Ol' Man River" in his legendary role in Kern and Hammerstein's Showboat.
In the next post, we will look at learn how we, as composers, can use voices as part of a larger orchestration and some examples of orchestrations that use vocalists along with an orchestra.
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Herz, Larry. Where Does Double-Choir Music Come From. The Boston Cecilia. http://www.bostoncecilia.org/beyond-the-score/2016/8/3/where-does-double-choir-music-come-from. (Accessed 17 October 2020).
Galbraith, Robert. Russian Basses. Russian Sacred Music. https://russiansacredmusic.com/russian-basses/ (Accessed 18 October 2020).
Koopman, John. A Breif History of Singing: Antiquity to 1590. Lawerence University. https://www2.lawrence.edu/fast/KOOPMAJO/antiquity.html. (Accessed 17 October 2020).
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.