The four voices: Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass

Music Appreciation: A Primer

Chapter 1: Sources of Musical Sounds


1.11 Introduction

Voices are classified according to range, gender and somewhat according to quality. From high to low, the basic classifications are:

Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass.

Soprano and alto designate respectively high and low female and unchanged male (boys') voices. Tenor and bass designate high and low changed male voices. The compass of any one voice is limited, but the span from the top of the highest soprano voice to the bottom of the lowest bas voice is about 4 octaves (cf. a piano with a range of a little over 7 octaves).

The most ordinary range for a woman's voice lies between that of a true soprano and alto. This intermediate voice is called Mezzo-soprano. The parallel male voice with a range between that of tenor and bass is known as Baritone. These, together with the four previously named, constitute the 6 usual voice types. Further distrinctions are made, primarily in operatic music, on the basis of style and quality.


Soprano voices are subdivided into coloratura, lyric, dramatic and mezzo. COLORATURA soprano have unusually high voices and specialize in performing music coloured by oranamentation, runs and rapid passages requiring great agility. In operas, the herioine's role often calls for a coloratura soprano.

LYRIC sopranos concentrate on beauty of sound rather than extreme range or power. Their literature demands a light vocal quality and a melodious, flowing style. A lyric soprano voice is ideal for many art songs and for leading parts in light operas and musical comedies. Arias in grand operas, too, may require lyric soprano style and quality.

DRAMATIC soprano is the appelation for sopranos with powerful voices and pronounced histrionic ability. Operatic roles portraying intense emotions are assigned to dramatic sopranos, and only sopranos of this type can cope with the heavy orchestral accompaniments and emotional demands of Wagnerian music drama.

MEZZO-SOPRANO voices lack both the brilliance of the higher soprano voices and the richness of the lower alto voices. Since more women's voices fall in this category than any other, supreme vocal quality and musicianship are essential for mezzo-sopranos who make a career of signing. Carmen is one the few operas with the leading role assigned to a mezzo-soprano, but many supporting parts in operas are sung by mezzo-sopranos.

Suggested Listening

1. Leo Delibes: Opera Lakme (1883) Act II. Bell Song. Coloratura aria.

2. Verdi Giuseppe: Opera, La Traviata (1853) Act I. Sempre Libera ("Always Free"). <La Traviata is based on Dumas' 'Camille'. The coloratura herione sings of a life of freedom and pleasure in this brilliant aria.>

3. Bizet: Carmen (Opera) (1875) Act I: Habanera, Act II: Sequidilla, Act III: Gypsy Song. <Carmen, a mezzo-soprano in the title role, sings the taunting Habanera as she begins her flirtation with Don Jose, a soldier. She tempts him with the prospect of a rendezvous in the seductive Seguidilla. The Gypsy Song is song by Carmen for the entertainment of her merrymaking friends at the inn of Lillas Patia.>

1.13 ALTO

Alto and Contralto are used synonymously, though contralto sometimes seems to carry the connotation of a particularly deep alto voice. There is no distinction between them in the literature. It exploits the low tones of the female voice. The quality, typically is rich, resonant, dark and 'throaty'.

Suggested Listening

1. Handel: Messiah (1742) 9. "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings", "He Shalt Feed His Flock" and "He Was Despised" are the three arias for alto (or contralto) in this immortal work of Handel.

2. Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) (1908) 4. "Von der Schoenheit" ("Of Beauty")

1.14 TENOR

Tenor voices, like soprano voices, sometimes are classified according to type. Robusto (robust), lyric, drammatic and heroic are adjectives commonly attached to tenors.

TENOR ROBUSTO is the type with tremendous power in the upper register featured in Italian Opera. This is the type of voice to which most young tenors aspire.

LYRIC TENORS, also referred to as "Irish" tenors, are the counterpart of lyric sopranos. Their voices possess the same qualitities, and they sing the same type of music, of times the same songs.

DRAMMATIC and HEROIC TENORS have much in common with robust tenors, but the terms are associated with German opera. These tenors often begin their careers as high baritones and through training and practice add to their natural range the high baritones and through tones necessary to sing tenor roles.

Suggested Listening

1. Verdi: Rigoletto (Opera) (1851): Act I: Questa o quella (One is as fair as another); Act IV: La donna e mobile (Woman is fickle).

2. Bizet: Carmen (Opera) (1875): Act 2: Flower Song. <Don Jose discloses a flower preserved from his first meeting with Carmen and sings of his devotion in this tenor aria>.

3. Mozart: Don Giovanni (Don Juan) (Opera) (1787): Act I: Dalla sua pace (On her all joy dependeth); Act II: Il mio tesoro (To my beloved). <In the second of these arias, the tenor executes florid passages similar to those associated with coloratura sopranos. It was replaced by the first when the tenor engaged for the Vienna performance found the original too difficult. Both love songs are included in modern scores and performances>.


Baritones, like mezzo-sopranos, are in competition with the most prevalent voice types of their sex. They cannot hope to impresss audience with extreme range or feats of brilliance. They compensate with solid production and skilful interpretation. The designation is not customary in choral music, but operatic parts are entrusted to baritone voices.

Suggested Listening

1. Bizet: Carmen (Opera) (1875) Act II: Toreador Song. <This rousing song about the glory of the bull ring is sung by the baritone, Escamillo, to an entranced group, including the impressionable Carmen>.

1.16 BASS

Bass is a general term for all low male voices. Subdivisions, as with other voices, are predicated more upon the role or selection being sung than upon the characteristics of the voice. A bass singer especially proud of his low notes may advertise himself as a BASSO PROFONDO. One who claims a range encompassing that of bass and baritone combined (or who lacks extremes of either) may adopt the title of BASS-BARITONE. A bass specializing in a lyric style will be known as a BASSO CANTANTE, and one associated with comic roles will be known as BASSO BUFFO.

Suggested Listening

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute (Opera) (1791): Act II: In Diesen Heiligen Hallen (Within these sacred halls). <In this aria the bass, High Priest Sarastro, consoles the despairing Pamina and assures her that Prince Tamino will soon be free to marry her. When the opera is sung in Italian, this aria is known as Qui sdegno non s'accende.

2. Mozart: Don Giovanni (Don Juan) (1787): Act I: Madamino (Catalog Aria) <In this humorous bass aria, Leporello, Don Giovanni's man-servant recites a catalog of his master's conquests - 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey and in Spain 1003!>.

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