Voice type classifies a singing voice by range, weight, timbre, register and more. Vocal classification is a tool for singers, composers, venues and listeners to categorise certain properties and to associate roles with voices.
In general, seven different types of voice are recognised. Women are divided into three groups: soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto. Male voices are divided into four: countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass.
The highest female voice, the typical soprano lies between C4 (middle C) and C6 (high C), though at the extreme end some can reach G6 – the G above high C. Most of opera’s heroines are soprano roles as the high, light voice projects innocence and youth.
All voice types are divided into different subcategories based on range, vocal colour or timbre, weight of the voice and its dexterity. Sopranos are generally broken down into five: coloratura soprano, soubrette, lyric soprano, spinto soprano and dramatic soprano.
Some famous sopranos are Maria Callas, Renée Fleming and Kiri Te Kanawa. Non-classical sopranos include Skin of British rock band Skunk Anansie, Ariana Grande and Glee’s Lea Michele. Some of the best-known roles in all of opera are sopranos: the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791), Bellini’s Norma and Brünnhilde from Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Kiri Te Kanawa sings ‘Come in quest’ ora bruna’ from Simon Boccanegra (Verdi, 1857):
This is the mid-range voice for women. The typical range is between A3 (the A below middle C) to A5 (two octaves higher), although a few mezzos can go up to high C. The mezzo-soprano will sound deeper and more mature than her soprano counterpart and as such associated roles might be older women – mothers, aunts and the like – or villainesses. Mezzos will often sing ‘trouser roles’, young male characters.
Mezzo-sopranos are often broken down into three subcategories: lyric mezzo-soprano, coloratura mezzo-soprano and dramatic mezzo-soprano.
Carmen is one of opera’s most famous mezzo-sopranos; her worldliness is contrasted with the innocence of the soprano Micaëla. Verdi made it clear that Azucena, a mezzo-soprano, was Il trovatore’s (The Troubadour, 1836) most important female character.
There is a long list of non-classical mezzos that includes Beyonce, Janis Joplin and Paloma Faith. American Marilyn Horne and Brit Janet Baker are among the most well-known of opera’s mezzos.
Marilyn Horne sings ‘Non non non’ from Les Huguenots (Meyerbeer, 1836):
Also sometimes called alto, this is the lowest female voice; it is noted for its rich and deep vocal timbre. True contraltos are rare and these roles are often sung by dramatic mezzo-sopranos. The typical range is F3 (the F below middle C) to F5 (the second F above middle C). Contraltos are broken down into three subcategories: coloratura contralto, lyric contralto, and dramatic contralto.
Sally Bowles in Caberet is a famous contralto role, while in opera this voice is usually reserved for speciality roles like the earth goddess Erda in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Marian Anderson was one of the world’s most celebrated contraltos; this native of Philadelphia had a pretty groundbreaking career – in 1955 she became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera. Other famous contraltos include Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga and Cher.
Marian Anderson sings ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix’ from Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saëns, 1877):
This is the highest male voice and also the rarest type in opera. The typical range covers E3 to E5 – similar to a contralto. Countertenors often perform roles originally written for castrati and most sing in the falsetto register, a special technique that allows performers to sing higher than their modal voice, or normal register.
Some of the best countertenors are Alfred Deller, Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky. Michael Maniaci is a male soprano noted for his claim to be able to sing into the upper soprano range without resorting to falsetto. Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) was written specifically for Deller. Other notable parts include Philip Glass’s Akhnaten in the 1983 opera of the same name, as well as several roles by Baroque composers Handel, Purcell and Monteverdi. Among pop and rock singers, Neil Sedaka, Jimmy Somerville and Steve Perry might be considered countertenors; Somerville in particular is a good example of falsetto.
Alfred Deller sings ‘O solitude’ (Henry Purcell):
This is the highest male voice sung in the modal register; it is also one of the most sought after, as most men fall in the baritone range (see below). Most of operatic heroes are tenors. The typical range lies between C3 (one octave below middle C) to C5 (one octave above middle C). A tenor can reach most high notes with ease, vocalising the head voice notes with strength and brightness.
Some seven subcategories are recognised: tenore contraltino, leggero tenor or tenore di grazia, lyric tenor, spinto tenor or tenore spinto, dramatic tenor, heldentenor, and baritenor.
Famous roles include Tony from the musical West Side Story, Otello in Verdi’s eponymous opera and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème (The Bohemians, 1896). Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Plácido Domingo are among the world’s best-known tenors. Elton John, Bruno Mars and Paul McCartney are tenors from the world of pop.
Luciano Pavarotti sings ‘Nessun dorma’:
Most male voices fall within the baritone range, which typically covers from A2 (the second A below middle C) to A4 (the A above middle C). This is a weighty voice which is strongest in the mid-range pitches.
This voice type is broken down into nine subcategories: baryton-Martin, lyric baritone, bel canto or coloratura baritone, kavalierbariton, heldenbaritone, Verdi baritone, dramatic baritone, baryton-noble and bass-baritone.
Baritones project power and accordingly often play the part of high-ranking politicians, noblemen and generals. Famous roles include Don Giovanni, Figaro, Rigoletto and Nabucco. Welshman Bryn Terfel is an incredibly powerful bass-baritone. Crooners Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin are baritones, as are actors Zak Efron and Hugh Jackman.
Bryn Terfel sings ‘Te deum’ from Tosca (Puccini, 1900):
The lowest male voice, the bass can sing the lowest notes humanly possible. True basses are a rarity; despite – or maybe because of – this, some of the most iconic voices in pop are bass: think Barry White, Louis Armstrong and Leonard Cohen. The typical range is between E2 (the second E below middle C) to E4 (the E above middle C).
Basses can be broken down into six subcategories: basso profondo, basso buffo, bel canto bass, basso cantante, dramatic bass and bass-baritone.
Villains and other dark characters, as well as wise fatherly or priestly types, are usually basses. At the other end of the spectrum, basses often provide the comic relief. Great bass bad guys include Bluebeard in Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1918) and Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust (1859). Some famous basses are Kurt Moll, Ezio Pinza and Alexander Kipnis.
Ezio Pinza sings ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ from Die Zauberflöte (Mozart, 1791):
Of course, much more can be said about all these voice types and the full picture is much more complicated. Many singers, for example, fall between types, or their voices change over time. Freddie Mercury delivered most songs in the tenor range; however, his known vocal range extended from bass low F (F2) to soprano high F (F6).
Renée Fleming, seen here performing in Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, has a full lyric soprano voice.