Updated: Dec 8, 2021
New students sometimes ask me to label their voices. They want me to tell them if they’re an alto or soprano, for instance. Being someone who teaches microphone-based genres, I’m reluctant to do that, for reasons I’ll explain. But sometimes somebody wants a singer to write down “what [they] are,” so it’s good to have a safe answer.
The terms alto, soprano, bass, and tenor are choral designations,
and even in the setting of your choir or acapella group you may become a different voice type if your conductor is short on tenors.
Those designations, in a decidedly more nuanced way, also apply to classical voice types. But none of my students sing classical music.
The whole “voice type” thing gets a little squishy in popular styles.
Here’s the thing to remember about singers: they are essentially Bb instruments. Generalizations assume exceptions, and it’s generally true that vocal “breaks” (the point where the voice changes from one physiological behavior to another) fall between Bb and B, and between F and F#. All genders, all ages, all voice types. Interesting, right?
Fun fact: it’s not unusual for guitar players in Nashville tune to down to Eb. The reason is because Nashville is a singer’s town, and the singer will sound better if the key you’re in doesn’t put him/her on his/her vocal breaks throughout the song.
In popular styles it’s not about voice types. It’s about the key for a particular song and how that works for an individual singer. This blog answers a question, and hopefully solves a problem. But I hope you don't get stuck in "what kind of voice" you are. If you're not in a choir, in an opera, or auditioning for a music theater role, it really doesn't apply to you.
If your voice does not fit neatly into one of the categories below, I want to empower you to dig into your unique vocal personality! Don't even play the "voice type" game! Just say your song, and your key, and show 'em what you've got.
With all that in mind, here is what you need to know about voice designations for microphone-based styles.
Soprano, or high
Ariana Grande is one of these. I call these singers Disney Princess singers. (Not at all in a bad way. Love Disney.) Their sound is a head register mix. Their natural low notes are B or B♭ and they can typically blend comfortably to an F. They tend to go to pure head tones at F♯ - and then are able to access more of their high range with relative ease. They can hit pitches down to G or even lower if they learn to access their pure chest register. Typically, though, they have to get the hang of smoothing out the typical (but not inevitable) “bump” that will happen when they sing lower than a B or B♭.
Alto, or medium-high
There are two versions of this singer:
trained or naturally good
untrained, or inappropriately trained
Trained or naturally good
This singer can sing two octaves from F# or G below middle C (G3) in a chest register or chest mix. "Money notes" are F5 - A6. Often this singer also has access to her head register to sing even higher but with the lighter, less complex timbre of the the head register.
Untrained or inappropriately trained
A singer who loves popular music and is comfortable with her chest register but who studies classically will sometimes end up as two singers in the same body. The original, untrained chest-register singer alongside the head-register-trained singer. Depending on the person, and their level of training, this can be a situation that is either ideal or really frustrating.
Untrained singers can also feel very frustrated by radically different sounding head and chest registers. Neither the untrained singer nor the kinda-classical singer has learned to blend the chest register high in a healthy way.
The untrained female singer can sing comfortably between G3 to B or C5. Most can sing slightly lower and/or higher than those pitches, but that range is safe. Higher than that cannot be assumed. Even with a pro.
Tenor, or medium-low
For tenors, the safe pop range is D3 to F4. An experienced or trained tenor can sing to an A4. A “money note” singer (the lead singer from Train, for instance, or Bruno Mars) can sing to (or even past) C5. Tenors can often sing lower than the D or D♭ below middle C, but it typically becomes more difficult for them once they’re warmed up. D is safe.
Baritones, or low
For Baritones, safe range is G♯2 to B♭3. An experienced or trained baritone, or a bass-baritone, can sing an F. “Money notes” are F♯-C. Like the alto,or medium high voice, these low voices tend not to lose their low notes as they warm up, but do gain more high notes.
There you go. Like I said...kind of squishy definitions.
If you want to have a designation for yourself for your own peace of mind, or to write on audition sheets, you can use this handy-dandy guide. The better strategy, though, is to find your key for any given song. That’s the way to truly sound fabulous, which is, of course, what it’s all about.
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