Understanding Voice Types

One thing that people who are not involved in classical singing (I’m going to say singing, because I respect that instruments are voiced, too, for instance, the alto saxophone or the soprano flute) do not appreciate is that harmonies are not simple. (I recently had to explain the simple four-main-harmony split usual in choral work, particularly that of school choral societies like mine when there are no enough chorists or ages to split into the eight harmonies.)

It’s something I myself only recently came to fuller understanding. You see, I managed to snag a place in the Reading University Chamber Choir – with the condition that I sing as second soprano, rather than my usual first soprano position. Nerves steal my audition skill. Now, second sop. is no doubt in my range – as a self-trained singer who started with popular music, I am used to practising in the second sop. timbre, and so much so that I often do it unconsciously, hence probably why I fold into the tone more swiftly – but it made me question how much I know about the actual mechanics of voice types.

Yes, each of the four main choral voice types – Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass – have first (higher) and second (lower) voices. Of course, like any rules, there are middle-grounds, and so there are for male and female voice types: the baritone is the ‘middle-ground’ between the tenor and the bass; the mezzo-soprano is between the soprano and alto voices. Oh, and there’s contralto, a very low female voice, which, I’ll admit, I know very little about. Don’t give me low, give me high!

Let’s do some more digging, though. According to Wikipedia, the “typical soprano voice lies between middle C (C4) and “high C”(C6). The low extreme for sopranos is roughly B3 or A3.Which actually doesn’t sound that low. Yeah…

I’m no alto, yet I do pretty well reaching the altonic depth (I just don’t feel comfortable down there as I do at the top). So, I thought, what if I’m a mezzo-soprano? In fact, the more thought I’ve given, the more I believe that the stretch of my range is better suited to mezzo.

Katherine Jenkins, your eye-candy mezzo for the day 😉

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). (J. McKinney, via Wikipedia)

Voice types go even deeper (median-wise, rather than actual pitch-wise!), too. Every mezzo, and every voice type for that matter, has a style of singing, which is influenced by range and tone and vocal ability (eg. to perform demanding pieces in pitch and ornamentation, often involving long trills and jumps).

For instance, the ‘coloratura’ mezzo-soprano – this Italian word means ‘colouring’ and its etymology is from the first declension Latin verb colorare, to colour—wait, have we Brits been spelling it wrong all this time? 😮 – is the most elaborate of the operatic voice types. This voice is agile but also warm – it reaches the top notes from middle notes and rounds both of them equally.

The dramatic mezzo, as the name suggests, is best in the broad, range department out of the three main styles of mezzo; think the powerful belters of popular music like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. These actresses/operatic mezzos tend to be cast as older women or theatrical witches.

The lyric mezzo-soprano. “This voice has a very smooth, sensitive and at times lachrymose quality.” And a range of G3 or lower to B5. This is the voice most likely to be used in musical theatre, though I did laugh aloud when I read that it’s the voice type used for ‘trouser roles’. If you’re not of the theatre and don’t know what that means, it’s where a woman plays a male role. Like tasteful drag for women. And I do mean that in the nicest way, since I went to an all-girls school, and my ratio of playing women to men was 2:3.

I suit suits. I prefer to slump in my living room chair than point my toes and angle my knees whilst sitting, though I am not opposed to the latter. Any NeoVictorian lady opposed to the latter must be a mechanic. #sterotypealert

Mezzo styles are also very flexible. That makes sense when one considers how voices are used. As I said, I trained myself in popular music with a tinge of musical theatre – I sang a lot with throat closed and croony, and only really opened up when I tried belting high notes. Nowadays, I try opening the back of my throat more and rely more on my diaphragm than my larynx. Still…I am a mongrel of the classical, popular and theatrical, and my voice type shows such.

This revelation and its learning, however, has only deepened my love of the vocal arts, reminding me why my young self became so captured with singing in the first place.


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