Most people have heard of Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. These divisions are
used in choirs in the western or European tradition, and basically just divide
high and low women and high and low men. Solo singers usually want to know their
own voice types more precisely. Classical singers have the most complex system,
which helps a singer to know what pieces suit his or her voice best. Categories
overlap and the terminology is even used differently by different people, making
it hard to be absolute about any of it, but here are the basics.
The highest voice is the coloratura. While the term can be applied to other
voices, it most commonly refers to the highest soprano, who can do fast passages
more easily than any other voices. The rest of the sopranos are called lyric or
dramatic. Lyric means a bright, younger-sounding voice and dramatic means the
darkest, heaviest and loudest soprano.A mezzo soprano can be a lyric or dramatic and often has a wide range with
nearly the same high notes as a soprano, and more sound in the middle and low
ranges. A contralto is the lowest female voice and is quite rare.
The countertenor is a man who sings in the contralto range. Usually he sings
falsetto, and is frequently heard in music written before 1750.
Tenors can be described as lyric or dramatic. Baritones, the middle men’s
voices, can also be lyric or dramatic. Basses are the lowest, with the term
basso profundo referring to the very lowest and darkest bass. Lyric and dramatic
are not generally used for contraltos or basses, although there are coloratura
basses – those who specialize in singing fast notes, like in Messiah, by G. F.
There are scores of other terms used for classical singers, but many singers
defy any categorization, or switch between categories.
If your voice seems to fit musical theater better, or if you just like to
sing it sometimes, be aware that the types are described differently here.
Usually (in the older, traditional shows) the hero and heroine are young, light
tenor and soprano voices, called legit. The mother or aunt figure is a lower
voice (maybe in the contralto range). The girl’s best friend (not quite as
innocent and pure) may be a belter. The other male parts are probably mid-range
In popular or jazz singing, the divisions are not made much of, but people do
tend to say they are low or high voices, or simply “A higher key would be better
So what voice type are you? While some singers are pretty easily identified,
for many people it’s very hard to say before you have studied long enough to get
the voice secure and free in all its range. Having high notes doesn’t
necessarily mean soprano or tenor, while difficulty with high notes right now
doesn’t always mean you are a low voice. On top of it all, voices mature and
change, so just when you think you’ve figured it out, your voice goes through
another change. This can happen at least until you are 30 years old, and there
may be other changes for you based on improvements in your technique. In the
meantime, we’ll keep experimenting to figure out where you are most comfortable.