The Different Voice Types
As a voice teacher in Austin, TX, I have people ask all the time about different voice types. I absolutely love this question because people are always surprised to learn their true voice type.
“Oh, I’m a bass”, they’ll tell me. Dig a little deeper and we find out they think that because they sang in choir when they were little and their choir teacher gave them bass parts.
In my experience, the two rarest vocal types are the Bass and the Alto. I almost never hear them.
The vast majority of voice types fall somewhere along the spectrum of Male Tenors and Female Soprano voice types. Tenors are normally thought of as the higher male voice type; and sopranos the higher female voice type.
But modern thinking of voice types has changed slightly and it’s easier to think of Tenor as the normal, mid-range to high male voice type, and Soprano as the normal, mid-range to high female voice type.
In my years of teaching experience, I feel that the real percentages are more like this:
- Bass (1% of male singers)
- Tenor (99% of male singers)
- Altos (1% of female singers)
- Sopranos (99% of female singers)
But wait, if basses and altos are so rare, then why are there so many basses and altos in church choirs?
Simply said, there’s a lot more music written for basses and altos than there are true basses and altos to sing them.
The true alto and bass are are actually physically different in terms of the size of their vocal folds (vocal cords) and resonating cavities (specifically the throat). More than anything, it’s our anatomy that dictates our voice types and with this perspective, the mechanics that create an alto or bass voice type are quite rare.
Choir directors and musical theater directors end up choosing singers who can hit lower notes out of necessity.
Of course, just because someone can sing low notes doesn’t mean that they are definitely a bass or alto voice type. But often, they are categorized this way in youth and the singer accepts it as truth. Then they continue singing low-voice music.
This is the same as choosing diesel fuel for your car just because they’re out of unleaded. Yes, it’s all fuel, but the mechanics of the motor (or voice, in this case) require different things.
Go down the road a few years and you’ve got singers who believe that they are true basses or altos and have never experienced the higher end of their voice.
This makes it a difficult task to bring them smoothly from chest to head voice. So after a while, they stop trying and say “Hey, I just sing low. That’s how my voice is.” Or they can’t hit high notes without falsetto.
Then after coming in for lessons, my sopranos and tenors are amazed at how much higher they can sing.
At first they think there’s no way they can sing higher notes. Then they do it perfectly on some exercises, and then we work on their favorite song.
Revealing how much range my singers actually have is one of my favorite parts of my job.
Now, what about baritones and mezzos? These are voice types that have a slightly lower natural range than the true Tenor or Soprano, but higher than the bass and alto voice types.
But all things considered, I find that one of the most helpful concepts for understanding voice types is Tessitura.
I think the concept of texture is incredibly helpful in understanding what your voice is and can do. Tessitura comes from the Latin meaning “texture” and it refers to the texture and weight of your voice.
Applied to your range, we like to think of Tessitura as the natural sound and feel of your voice. Is it dramatic? Soft? Vibrant? Commanding?
These are just some of the textures that we hear in voices every day and can be a great clue as to what music and range fits your voice.
Which Voice Type Are You?
In addition to the texture of your voice, tessitura also takes into account the general area or range where your voice rests.
So even though you’ve been taking lessons for a while and can sing way higher than you were before, are those high notes something you’re going to actually sing in a song?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Stretching and strengthening the voice with exercises and vocalise is far more important than performing vocal olympics on songs that aren’t right for you.
So where is the texture of your voice the richest? Where does it naturally rest? These are great indicators of your voice type.
If you’re male and have a high, vibrant speaking voice chances are that you’re some kind of tenor. Ditto for the higher-speaking female.
In both sexes, a lower voice may indicate a lower voice type such as a bass or alto, but more likely, the important metric is the texture, or tessitura of the voice. Matching tessitura to the voice type is far more effective than using just your lowest and highest notes.
Summary of Popular Voice Types
99% of Male singers are a Tenor of some kind.
99% of Female singers are a Soprano of some kind.
Don’t let the simplicity of the percentages fool you. There are a million shades and textures to the human voice but learning where your voice is richest and works best is a great place to start. Voice lessons are a great way to learn how to truly reveal your true range and work with songs that are a good fit for your voice.