What Am I? A Real-World Definition of Singer Voice Types
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
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 a dedicated CCM/Popular teacher, 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 CCM/Popular.
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 very normal 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 CCM it’s not about voice types. It’s about the key for particular song and how that works for an individual singer.
With that in mind, here is what you need to know about voice designations for CCM/Popular.
Soprano, or high female
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 high notes E or 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 inevitable “bump” that will happen when they sing lower than a B or B♭.
Alto, or low female
There are two versions of this singer: trained or naturally good, and 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. 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
The singer who loves popular music and is comfortable with her chest register but who studies classically typically ends up as two singers in the same body; the original, untrained chest-register singer alongside the head-register-trained singer. This definition applies to both her and to the untrained singer, since neither singer has learned to blend the chest register high in a healthy way.
This singer can sing comfortably between G3 to C5. Most can sing slightly lower and/or higher than those pitches, but that range is safe. Higher than a D5 can’t be assumed. Even with a pro.
Tenor, or high male
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 Jon Bon Jovi) 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 male
For Baritones, safe range is G♯2 to B♭3. An experienced or trained baritone, or a bass-baritone, can sing an E. “Money notes” are F♯-B♭. Like the lower voiced female, low-voice men tend not to lose their low notes as they warm up, but do gain more high notes.
There you go. 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.