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Singing: Identifying the Primary Voice Types

The four primary voice types are soprano, mezzo, tenor, and bass. Even though these names sound like characters in a mob movie, they’re nothing to be afraid of. Each voice type has specific traits: the range, register transitions, voice tone, and any subdivisions of that voice type, as well as the names of a few famous singers to help you put a sound with the voice type.

Note that register transitions, they don’t occur on just one note. That’s because not all sopranos (or mezzos, tenors, or basses) are the same.

If you’re confused after reading about all the voice types, remember that naming your voice type today isn’t absolutely necessary. After you read the descriptions of the voice type, you may be ready to vote soprano over mezzo or bass over tenor for now. Try that range for a while and see whether it fits well.

Listen to recordings of singers and read about what they’ve sung during their careers. If you know of singers who have voices similar to yours, look at the roles they sang. Think about the following factors when you’re listening to the singers in the following table:

  • What’s the timbre of your voice? Is the tone more steely than chocolaty? Steely isn’t a negative adjective; it’s merely fact. Very often the steely voice is the character audiences love, but they don’t want to rush up and put their arms around her and rescue her.

  • Is your voice light and flutelike? If so, listen to the lighter voices. Is your voice loud and heavy even when you’re lightly singing? Heavy means the sound that you’re making is loud even when you’re singing comfortably; listen to the singers in the dramatic list.

  • What’s your singing range and tessitura? The difference between a mezzo and a soprano often is tessitura. The mezzo can sing the high notes but doesn’t want to live up there, and the soprano wants to sing one high note after another.

    If you’re new to singing, you may not be able to tell the difference between a soprano and a mezzo or a baritone and a tenor. No worries. Keep listening to the sounds, and you’ll eventually be able to tell the difference between the voice types.

  • Are you able to move your voice easily? Do you enjoy the fast passages in the song and think of them as fun? If the fast notes are easy for you, you can add coloratura to your vocal description. The coloraturas demonstrate some spectacular fast moves with their voices.

  • What do you consider the general or overall strengths of your voice — strong middle voice or head voice, perhaps? Your vocal strengths change as you practice. Notice the differences in the voices in the table. Compare and contrast the sounds you hear between voice types to hear their strengths.

If you’re new to singing, determining your voice type by yourself may take a few months. Your voice changes with practice. So have fun listening and sorting through all the different types.

Singers from the Opera World
Voice Type Examples
Lighter soprano Kathleen Battle, Harolyn Blackwell, Barbara Bonney
Lyric soprano Angela Gheorghiu, Sumi Jo, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa
More dramatic soprano Hildegard Behrens, Birgit Nilsson, Deborah Voigt
Coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay, Beverly Sills, Dame Joan Sutherland
Lighter mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade
Lyric mezzo Susanne Mentzer, Anne-Sophie von Otter, Wendy White
Dramatic mezzo Olga Borodina, Waltraud Meier, Dolora Zajick
Coloratura mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, Marilyn Horne
Contralto Marian Anderson, Kathleen Ferrier, Maureen Forrester
Lighter tenor Rockwell Blake, Peter Pears, Fritz Wunderlich
Lyric tenor Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, George Shirley
Dramatic tenor James King, Lauritz Melchior, Jon Vickers,
Coloratura tenor Juan Diego Florez, Jerry Hadley
Baritone Dimitry Hvorostovsky, Herman Prey, Gino Quilico
Bass Kurt Moll, Paul Plishka, Samuel Ramey
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