Glossary of Vocal Terminology

Aria – A solo in opera or oratorio. There are also concert arias, which are the same sort of thing but not from a larger work.

Art Song – A song in the classical tradition. It may be simple or almost as dramatic and complex as an opera aria.


  1. A register with a lot of power and edge. More like a trumpet than a flute. Heard in all popular styles of music and also musical theatre. Women belt in the middle part of their total range. A man can belt, too, but it’s usually on the high end of his range. Examples would be Ethel Merman, Barbra Streisand and every rock singer you ever heard.
  2. To “belt it out” means to deliver a song solidly.

Cadenza – A portion near the end of an aria where the singer seems to go crazy with fast notes, high notes, whatever. Generally unaccompanied and without words. Basically the singer gets to show off. A cadenza is either improvised or (more likely) written out and learned beforehand.


  1. A word applied to any (classical) voice that sings very fast – even basses! Since such flexibility is easier for high, bright voices, it is mostly used to refer to the highest sopranos, who sing trills and staccato notes and frequently cover over an octave and a half within a few beats. “The Queen of the Night” is a famous coloratura role.
  2. Those fast notes that she sings.

Concert – In classical music a performance with many musicians, such as a chorus. Unlike rock concerts, there shouldn’t be any screaming from the audience.

Countertenor – A classical male singing voice that covers the same range as a female contralto or mezzo soprano. Since he usually does this by singing falsetto, he probably has a baritone speaking voice.

Dress rehearsal – Final practice before a performance held in the performance hall, if possible. In theater it generally means that costumes, make-up, orchestra, lighting, set and props are all in place as in the performance. For a recital or choir concert, it means the last rehearsal, often held at the performance site, but no tux, gown or uniform.

Encore – An additional song at the end of a recital because the audience clapped long and hard, refusing to let the singer leave without singing one more. It’s usually a familiar or fun song that the singer has prepared. (“Just in case” the audience response is overwhelming. Some singers don’t take much convincing to sing more.)

Fach – Voice type, according to a system that’s much more specific than just soprano, alto, tenor, bass. There are something like 25 categories.

Green Room – Where performers wait. Usually bigger than a dressing room, and shared with others. The stage manager will make announcements here to warn you when your cue is coming up. The performance is often played over a speaker, too. Only very big stars have spacious rooms to themselves.

Intonation – How well you match the pitch. Flat means you’re below the target note and sharp means you’re high. “Pitchy” (used by folks like Simon Cowell) means there are general intonation problems in your singing, i.e., bad intonation.

Laryngologist – The specialist you should go to when you think you have a medical problem with your voice. Also otorhinolaryngologist or Ear, Nose and Throat doctor. (ENT)

Larynx – The voice box, which holds the vocal cords or folds. The Adam’s apple is the front of the larynx. Often incorrectly pronounced lar-nix.

Libretto – The text of an opera.

Lyrics – The words of a song.

Master Class – A session that’s like having a voice lesson in front of a room full of people. A visiting performer or respected voice teacher will hear a student, and then work with him/her for about 15 minutes. The singer is often more nervous than usual because the room is full of voice teachers, but they’re not there to critique the singing. They want to see how the master teacher works.

Prima Donna – “First lady,” or, the leading female singer.

Recital – A performance of only a few musicians, or made up mostly of solos or duets.  Often in a small venue. (See Concert)

Recitative – In opera and oratorio, a passage that is rhythmically like speech and not very melodic.

Register – The “gear” of your voice at any given time. You may have noticed registers if you can sing a note in two different voices. Or if your high notes can’t be sung with the same feeling as the low notes. Chest register (mostly for low notes) and head (mostly for high) will blend in mid-range. Belt is also a register. Think of it like a color or flavor. But choosing the wrong color in this case can result in a weak note, a crack or even damage to your voice.

Vibrato – A slight variation of pitch that makes a note pulse pleasantly. Vibrato is most often noticed in classical singing because it’s continuous, but almost all singing has vibrato. Each style of music tends to have a different type or speed. There are good ones and bad ones, as well. So if you think you don’t like opera because of all that “wobbling,” it might be that you heard one singer with a poorly produced vibrato!

Vocalise – A singing exercise. The final syllable is pronounced like “ease.”

Vocalize – To sing! The final syllable is pronounced like “eyes.”