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(Classical) Voice Types for Beginners


Coloratura? Contralto? Countertenor? What are those?! If you're unfamiliar with the voice classifications used in opera and beyond and want to understand a little better, this post is your starting point! Unlike other guides of this type, this article is designed for listeners rather than singers (although singers are more than welcome here, too, and I hope they will find this useful!).


Although pop music and other genres of music do tend to use classical voice divisions to an extent, too, how they are defined and understood is not the same. Pop songs are usually not written with a specific voice type in mind; more often with a specific singer in mind. As amplification is also often used in pop music, it does not matter so much how "big" or "small" a voice is, as instrumental levels will be adjusted so the voice can always be heard above the other instruments. In classical singing contexts, voices are rarely amplified.


 

Voice type categorisation



There are several different systems of categorising voices, such as the famous German Fach system. Pretty much every system includes the overarching voice categories of:

  • soprano

  • mezzo-soprano

  • contralto

  • countertenor

  • tenor

  • baritone

  • bass.


Under each of the main categories, each system of categorisation has a set of subcategories, and this is where they differ. In some voice categorisation systems, there is quite a lot of overlap, and sometimes voices from several different subcategories can comfortably sing the same music. There are also many rare or disagreed-upon subcategories.


I have stuck to writing about what I consider to be the most all-encompassing subcategories, as this post is only meant to be a starting point. I won't go into detail about hyper specific kinds of subcategories, such as the Falcon soprano or the Dugazon mezzo-soprano, or subcategories which are more related to the types of roles they sing, such as "soubrette" soprano or "character" tenor. You can read up about these elsewhere if you are interested!


In general, each voice category has light/coloratura, lyric, and dramatic subcategories. These subcategories have "vocal weight" values of light, medium, and heavy, respectively. Every voice is unique, however, so the exact "weight" (and other characteristics) compared to other voices of the same category will always vary - and so, too, will the exact musical works which show best what that particular voice can do!


Why do the subcategories matter? Isn't it enough to know just the overarching category? Here are a few reasons:

  • Special qualities: Lighter voices are usually more agile and often have access to higher notes than the heavier voices. Heavier voices are capable of more intensity and contrast and often have access to lower notes than the lighter voices. The music they sing reflects this. If a voice is singing music which is too "light" or too "heavy" for them, or which does not sit in the right tessitura, it can cause vocal problems.

  • Instrumental density: The instrumental accompaniment, whether a single instrument (such as a piano) or a full orchestra, is often composed with the "weight" of the voice in mind. Since classical voices are usually unamplified, this is important, as they must be able to be heard without "pushing" the voice (and causing potential vocal problems).

  • Characters and roles: In opera, specific subcategories are cast for specific roles, and many composers write with particular vocal qualities in mind. These roles also tend to have an element of typecasting: a light voice will be more likely to sing characters which are younger and more innocent, while dramatic voices will often sing more complex, older characters. Casting directors choose voices and singers accordingly.


Note that in this article I have NOT included the typical vocal ranges for each voice type. See the "useful definitions" below to find out why! Read these anyway, as you will need to know some of these terms when you read about the voice types.

 

Some useful definitions



  • Total range = The absolute lowest and highest notes a singer can sing. Note: When categorising voices, range doesn't mean much as it is very individual - a high voice may be able to sing lower than a lower voice in some cases, and vice-versa. However, in general, a higher voice will have access to higher notes than a lower voice, and a lower voice will have access to lower notes than a higher voice.

  • Usable/singable range = The standard range of notes a singer will have access to on any given day when singing with their full voice (regardless of minor illnesses, how warmed-up they are, etc.).

  • Tessitura = When talking about voice type, this refers to the area in the range where a voice prefers to "live". A singer may be able to sing much lower or higher, but the majority of the notes in a piece of music which is suitable for their voice will lie in their comfortable tessitura. When talking about repertoire, this term refers to where the majority of notes sit within the range of the work.

  • Vocal weight = Vocal weight refers to how "light" or "heavy" a voice sounds. Usually a lighter voice is more agile, and a heavier voice is better at singing long, melodic lines. Note: Vocal weight is not exactly the same as the "size" (big or small) of the voice. Regardless of vocal weight, with correct technique, the right repertoire, and a good acoustic environment, every operatic voice should be audible in a theatre.

  • Vocal colour = Vocal colour, also known as vocal timbre or tone, refers to the unique qualities or characteristics of a voice. To describe these "colours", we use terms such as "velvety", "chocolatey", "metallic", "silvery", and many more!

  • Opera = A form of musical theatre in which a dramatic story is told through a combination of singing, music, acting, and often stage sets and costumes. Operas typically feature trained singers, known as opera singers, who perform the roles of the characters. The music in opera is usually accompanied by an orchestra or smaller ensemble, and the lyrics, called libretto, are sung rather than spoken. Because an opera is a complete work and composed with a, specific sections such as arias (solo songs) are rarely transposed, so operatic roles must be sung by specific voice types.

  • Aria = An aria is a solo song from an opera. Sometimes, an aria is preceded by "recitative": a sung-spoken dialogue which advances the story or gives us an insight into why a character is feeling a certain way.

  • Art song = An art song is a song for voice and piano (or other instruments), and is usually a musical setting of a pre-written poem. An art song can be a stand-alone song, or it can be from a set, called a "song cycle". Some types of art song have distinct qualities , such as Lieder (German art songs by composers such as Schubert, and often set to texts by famous German writers) and mélodies (French art songs by composers such as Fauré, and often set to texts by famous French writers).

  • Oratorio = A (usually) religious work, similar to an opera. Most commonly, these works are written for orchestra, choir, and soloists (often soprano, alto, tenor, bass).

If you're looking for a specific voice type, click the links below. Otherwise, keep reading for an overview of them all!



 

Female voice types


Soprano

The highest-tessitura female voice category. Most of the "leading lady" operatic roles are written for the soprano voice, and there are more active soprano singers in classical music than there are singers in any other voice category. The comfortable tessitura for this voice type is usually in the upper middle to upper part of the range.


Common subcategories:

  • Coloratura

    • The most important elements for coloratura soprano voices: they must be agile, and they must be comfortable with a lot of high notes. They can lean lighter (lyric coloratura) or heavier (dramatic coloratura). When it comes to the types of characters they sing, think princesses, fairies, and innocent young heroines on the lyric side, and sorceresses, villainesses, and more complex characters on the dramatic side.

    • Role example: Olympia in "Les comptes d'Hoffmann" by Offenbach

    • Singer example: Sabine Devieilhe

  • Lyric

    • Lyric soprano voices generally sit a little lower in tessitura than coloratura soprano voices. They have a medium weight, but can skew lighter or fuller depending on the individual voice. These voices have a sweet and round quality to them. Their roles tend to be more "human" than supernatural/fantastical, and emotional expression is more important than agility.

    • Role example: The Countess in "Le nozze di Figaro" by Mozart

    • Singer example: Miah Persson

  • Spinto

    • A more "metallic" voice which is heavier and darker than the lyric voice, but not quite a true dramatic voice. Some of the great Verdi and Puccini characters are sung by this subcategory.

    • Role example: Floria Tosca in "Tosca" by Puccini

    • Singer example: Elena Stikhina

  • Dramatic

    • A true dramatic soprano is heavier and darker than the other soprano subcategories (and is not uncommonly misidentified as a lower voice type). However, the voice still prefers to live in a high tessitura than a mezzo-soprano, and they are capable of impressive, powerful musical climaxes. Many dramatic sopranos will specialise in singing the dramatic Verdi and Wagner heroines.

    • Role example: Elsa in "Lohengrin" by Wagner

    • Singer example: Christine Goerke


Mezzo-soprano

The mezzo-soprano voice is most comfortable in the middle to upper middle part of the range. In a choir, mezzo-sopranos will often sing the "Alto" (particularly Alto 1) parts (as true contraltos are rarely identified), but higher mezzos will sometimes sing the Soprano 2 parts. As soloists in oratorio, concert, and similar works, they sing the Alto solos. In opera, they sing all the standard mezzo and contralto operatic roles depending on the weight, range, and exact tessitura of the voice. Higher mezzos can also sing some lower soprano roles.


Common subcategories:

  • Zwischenfach

    • This subcategory has become more commonly accepted as a voice type in its own right in recent years. Although it can refer to any voice type which sits between two categories, it is often used specifically in reference to a voice which lies between the soprano and mezzo-soprano categories. A Zwischenfach voice can be difficult to identify, as this voice likes to sing a little higher than most mezzos, but doesn't have the weight of a dramatic soprano voice. They tend to sing lower-lying soprano roles and higher mezzo roles.

    • Role example: Santuzza in "Cavaleria Rusticana" by Mascagni

    • Singer example: There are a number of soprano and mezzo-soprano singers who could be more accurately described as Zwischenfach. However, since they generally choose to brand themselves as sopranos or mezzos for the sake of obtaining roles, it can be difficult to pinpoint specific singers! Take a look at sopranos who are singing mezzo roles and mezzos who are singing soprano roles for idea of who might be a Zwischen!

  • Coloratura

    • A coloratura mezzo-soprano tends to specialise in music which requires height and agility, such as in works by composers such as Rossini, Handel, and Vivaldi. This voice prefers to "live" a little lower than a coloratura soprano voice and has a darker quality to it, but still has an extended and flexible upper range. Lighter lyric mezzos often sing repertoire from this subcategory.

    • Role example: Angelina in "La Cenerentola" by Rossini

    • Singer example: Joyce DiDonato

  • Lyric

    • Lyric mezzo-sopranos possess a warm and expressive tone, with a focus on legato (smooth) singing and emotional depth. They excel in portraying sympathetic characters with lyrical melodies and nuanced phrasing. They also often play "trouser" roles, where the character depicted is meant to be a young boy (so a post-pubescent male voice would not be suitable).

    • Role example: Cherubino in "Le nozze di Figaro" by Mozart

    • Singer example: Kate Lindsey

  • Dramatic

    • Dramatic mezzo-sopranos have powerful and resonant voices, capable of conveying intensity and emotion in dramatic roles. They often portray characters with strong personalities and women with a bit of life experience under their belt! Heavier lyric mezzos (or what may be considered "spinto") may cross over a little into some of this repertoire as the voice matures.

    • Role example; Amneris in "Aida" by Verdi

    • Singer example: Jamie Barton


Contralto

The contralto is the lowest female voice type. As they are rarely identified (most often being trained as mezzo-sopranos), there is a misconception that this voice type is rarer than it truly is. There are not many opera roles specifically written for the contralto voice, so they often sing roles which may also be performed by mezzo-sopranos and countertenors. However, there is a substantial amount of sacred music, such as oratorio, for this voice type. In a choir, both mezzo-sopranos and contraltos (and sometimes countertenors) sing the "alto" part (contralto/alto are not distinct solo voice types).


Common subcategories:

  • Coloratura

    • Coloratura contraltos possess agility and flexibility in their voice, with a focus on executing rapid ornamentation and intricate melodic lines. The "colour" of the voice is more androgynous than that of a mezzo-soprano, and they are more comfortable in a generally lower tessitura. They often portray otherworldly, historical/literary, and religious characters.

    • Role example: Tancredi in "Tancredi" by Rossini

    • Singer example: Delphine Galou

  • Lyric

    • Lyric contraltos possess a rich and velvety tone, with a focus on warmth and depth of sound. They excel in performing roles that require emotional expression and lyrical phrasing, often portraying maternal characters. Some lyric contraltos are comfortable exploring some of the mezzo-soprano repertoire. As there are few operatic roles for this subcategory, they are more often found singing works from the expansive art song repertoire.

    • Role example: Marthe in "Faust" by Gounod

    • Singer example: Marie-Nicole Lemieux

  • Dramatic

    • Dramatic contraltos have powerful, resonant, dark voices, capable of conveying intensity and authority in dramatic roles. Their roles demand vocal heft and depth, and they often portray formidable or tragic characters. These voices can sometimes have quite a large extension in the lower range. In rare cases, this may be to the extent of being considered "female tenors"!

    • Role example: Erda in "Das Rheingold" by Wagner

    • Singer example: Maria Radner


 

Male voice types


Countertenor

Countertenors sing in the "female" range of the voice. In the past, many roles were written for "castrati" - male singers who had been castrated in order to retain their prepubescent vocal colour (the last castrato died as recently as 1922!). The roles written for them are now sung by countertenors, contraltos, and mezzo-sopranos. Some roles are written specifically for countertenors in more recent times.


Common subcategories

  • Sopranist

    • This is a specific type of countertenor voice which sings in the same range as a soprano voice. As this subcategory is so rare, there are not many specific roles written for them.

    • Role example: Mephistopheles in "Historia von D. Johann Fausten" by Schnittke

    • Singer example: Bruno de Sá

  • Mezzo-soprano/Alto

    • Most countertenors sing in the mezzo-soprano/contralto ranges, and so they do not usually use a subcategory to describe themselves. They simply say they are countertenors!

    • Role example: Oberon in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Britten

    • Singer example: Jakub Józef Orliński


Tenor

The tenor voice is the highest male voice type after the countertenor. The comfortable tessitura is in the upper middle to upper part of the voice. Most "hero" roles and romantic leads in opera are sung by tenors, and there are even quite a few vocal ensembles made up entirely of tenors!


Common subcategories

  • Leggero

    • A "light" tenor is essentially the tenor equivalent of a coloratura soprano. This voice has a light and agile quality to it, and often sings characters which are young romantic heroes.

    • Role example: Don Ramiro in "La Cenerentola" by Rossini

    • Singer example: Juan Diego Florez

  • Lyric

    • Just like a lyric soprano, a lyric tenor is versatile and suitable for many types of roles, depending on whether they lean lighter or fuller. These voices are bright and strong, but medium in weight and they possess a smoothness and sweetness to them.

    • Role example: Lensky from "Eugene Onegin" by Tchaikovksy

    • Singer example: Stephen Costello

  • Spinto

    • A spinto tenor has a darker, heavier, and more "metallic" sound than the lyric tenor, but does not have the weight or intensity of a dramatic tenor. Puccini, Verdi, and some Wagner roles are where these voices shine!

    • Role example: Cavaradossi from "Tosca" by Puccini

    • Singer example: Carlo Bergonzi

  • Dramatic/Heldentenor

    • Dramatic and Heldentenors are more or less two sides of the same coin, but certainly distinct. A dramatic tenor leans slightly lighter and higher and specialises in dramatic Italian roles, and a Heldentenor leans slightly lower and darker, and is known for singing the lower-lying great Wagnerian tenor roles over enormous orchestras.

    • Role example: Florestan from "Fidelio" by Beethoven

    • Singer example: Simon O'Neill (Heldentenor)


Baritone

Baritone voices are the "middle" male voices, and their comfortable tessitura is in the middle part of the voice. This is the most common male voice type, and there is a vast array of repertoire and character types for them, depending on subcategory and temperament! In a choir, baritones usually sing the Bass 1 (or sometimes Tenor 2) parts, unless a work specifies a Baritone part.


Common subcategories

  • High or light, or baritenor

    • Similar to dramatic/Heldentenor tenor voices, these subcategories are related, but still distinct. They are Zwischenfach voice types, which lie between the baritone and tenor categories. They are comfortable singing higher than typical baritones, but the colour of the voice is richer and darker. High/light baritones are also known as Barytonmartins, and they lean more baritone than tenor. Baritenors are the opposite, leaning more tenor than baritone.

    • Role example: Pelléas in "Pelléas et Mélisande" by Debussy

    • Singer example: Similar to female Zwischenfach singers, most male singers who straddle two categories generally choose to brand themselves as either tenors or baritones for the sake of obtaining roles, so it can be difficult to pinpoint specific singers. Take a look at tenors who are singing baritone roles and baritones who are singing tenor roles for idea of who might be somewhere in between!

  • Lyric

    • Lyric baritones are the most common subcategory of baritone, with a smooth, round quality. In opera, they have a diverse range of "good" and "evil" and "comic" characters they can play! Lyric baritones historically are also THE go-to subcategory for composers who write art song repertoire.

    • Role example: Papageno in "Die Zauberflöte" by Mozart

    • Singer example: Simon Keenlyside

  • Dramatic

    • Dramatic baritones come in several different varieties beyond the "standard", such as the Kavalierbariton (spinto equivalent). Dramatic baritones have a vocal colour which is rich, full, and dark. Many Puccini and Verdi baritone roles fall into this category (although the Verdi baritone is somewhat specialised). Bass-baritones can also borrow from this subcategory.

    • Role example: Scarpia in "Tosca" by Puccini

    • Singer example: Titta Ruffo

  • Bass-baritone

    • Another Zwischenfach voice type, the bass-baritone voice combines characteristics of both baritone and bass voices. This versatile voice type has a rich and resonant lower register like a bass, but also possesses the flexibility and range of a baritone. Bass-baritones often sing roles that require depth and power in the lower range, as well as lyrical expression and agility in the mid-range. They can be lyric or dramatic.

    • Role example: Leporello in "Don Giovanni" by Mozart

    • Singer example: Bryn Terfel


Bass

The bass voice is the lowest male voice category, with quite a lot of variation and accepted subcategories in some systems of classification. High basses can cross over into bass-baritone, or even baritone repertoire, while basso profundos are known for being able to reach impressively low notes!


Common subcategories

  • Basso cantate

    • This term means "singing bass", and is a type of high lyric voice, with a somewhat fast vibrato and often possessing more agility than other types of basses. These voices are suited to roles which may be more...sympathetic? than some other bass subcategories.

    • Role example: Ferrando in "Il trovatore" by Giuseppe Verdi

    • Singer example: Ferrucio Furlanetto

  • Lyric

    • Lyric basses may be subcategorised further, and may sing "young man" roles or "buffo" (comic) roles, as well as some more serious roles for lower-lying lyric basses. Some baritones and bass-baritones also borrow from this subcategory.

    • Role example: Don Pasquale in "Don Pasquale" by Donizetti

    • Singer example: René Pape

  • Dramatic

    • This voice is dark and deep, and may sit higher or lower in tessitura. Higher dramatic bass voices have more brightness and intensity in the sound, and lower dramatic bass voices have more weight and heftiness. They are often found singing complex and villainous roles in opera. Some bass voices with very low extensions (more common in dramatic subcategories) can be considered "basso profundos".

    • Role example: Fafner in "Das Rheingold" by Wagner

    • Singer example: Matti Salminen


 

Wow, that's a lot!



It is! It was a lot for me to research and write up, too, so I will probably make adjustments over time!


When you are listening to a singer, sometimes you can read online or elsewhere about their voice category. Most often, singers will simply brand themselves with the overarching category and will not always mention a subcategory. This gives them more flexibility to find the repertoire which suits them best as their careers and voices progress.


If you aren't sure which subcategory might be most appropriate when listening, consider what you can hear in terms of the "weight" of the voice, how agile, smooth/round, or dark and intense a voice sounds. Listening only to how high or low the voice can go won't be very accurate in most cases, and the quality of the highest or lowest notes is not always going to give you the right information (as vocal technique can affect this a lot).


If you are:

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