Friday, November 27, 2009

Examples and discussion: Soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass...

The following is a cross-post from my blog The Chorister. I have copied it to here, because I thought members of City Choir might find it interesting. I hope so.

The following post provides example clips and discussion of these voice parts: whistle register soprano, soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, basso profondo and oktavist.

A lot of people find it hard to work out which voice part they should sing. Soprano or alto? Tenor or bass?

These samples may help you. They're all of well-known singers, starting from the top to the bottom, who can be classified into the various voice parts.

If you're not sure where you fit in, try singing along with the clips. They might just help you put yourself in place!

I've used popular music clips in this post, and kept away from opera-style vocal stuff, because that is what most people are familiar with, and that is how most of us sing as choristers - I hope!

Correctly classified? Maybe!

Some of these singers are easily classified, others not. Mariah Carey is obviously a soprano, and John Denver is obviously a tenor.

Other singers, such as Charlotte Church, claim to be one thing when the evidence suggests otherwise - to the best of my knowledge, she is still claiming to be a soprano, but my ears tell me I'm hearing a very definite mezzo.

And some have debated whether Elvis was a tenor, but I'm hearing baritone, and Elvisologists (yes, they exist!) now agree he was a baritone.

I hope these clips are useful as well as interesting. What they show me, as a chorister, is that human voices - like people ourselves - are not easily classified into little boxes where we can be categorised and labelled.

Voices follow a spectrum from high to low, and there are a number of us who can sing a variety of voice parts. Flexibility can be incredibly useful, both in the amateur and in the professional world.


Whistle Register - Soprano

Mariah Carey is a soprano, who can also sing in the highest part of the voice, the whistle register. In classical music, the whistle register is famously used in Mozart's Queen Of The Night aria.

Here's a clip of Carey.

Mariah Carey using whistle register.

Common, or garden variety, soprano

Chloe Agnew is a fairly typical clear-voiced soprano, although a bloody good one. Listen to the way her voice pops out at the top of her range, and disappears as she moves lower down in her range.

Chloe Agnew, Soprano, sings Panis Angelicus


Charlotte Church is a well-known child star, who rose to fame as a child soprano, but who is now, if you listen, clearly a mezzo-soprano. She also clearly has tuning problems in this clip, but that is not the point of using it.

Listen to the richness and lower tone to her voice, compared to Carey and Agnew (both sopranos). Sure, she sings high, but her voice lacks that bell-like clarity, and is richer and more solid in its lower notes than in its higher pitches.

Charlotte Church, mezzo-soprano, sings Ave Maria


Karen Carpenter would have been welcomed in any alto section! Listen to the richness and depth to her voice, and the ease with which she manages lower notes!

Carpenter is an absolute delight to listen to, and made lower voiced singing for women an art form. Women aren't just lovely when we sing high - we can be damn sexy in our lower notes too!

Karen Carpenter, alto, sings We've Only Just Begun.


John Denver is absolutely a tenor, and wouldn't have sung anywhere but the tenor section in a typical choir. Listen to the easy, higher tone of his voice - it echoes with warmth and lightness.

Denver's repertoire, focusing on natural beauty, home pleasures and country joys matched his voice perfectly, resulting in massive commercial success.

John Denver singing "Calypso". Clearly a tenor.


Elvis was a baritone who had great command over his upper register and incredible soul to his voice. When people first heard him sing on the radio, they found it hard to believe that he was a white man.

Because Elvis' higher notes were so solid, people have wondered whether he was a tenor, but his lower notes place him firmly as a baritone.

Never say that baritones are boring in my presence, or I'll hit you with a big whacky stick!

Elvis, the one and only, singing "Amazing Grace". A baritone, who often sang tenor-range songs. Pure bliss to listen to.


Leonard Cohen is a well-known bass. Those lovely deep notes are something only a true bass can pull off.

Only about 10% of men in western societies are true basses, according to a well-respected voice and music expert I am friends with back in Australia.

If you're a bass, and have good pitch, you'll be welcome in just about any choir!

Leonard Cohen singing "Hallelujah". A bass.

Basso profondo

At the bottom of the vocal range is the basso profondo and the oktavist.

Paul Robeson was probably the best basso profundo in the history of the world, for ever and ever, amen. Here he is, singing "Old Man River" from the movie musical "Showboat".

Paul Robeson, basso profondo, singing "Old Man River".


Finally, here's an interesting clip from a famous oktavist named J D Sumner. He's in the Guinness Book Of Records for singing the lowest note on record (C1, three octaves below middle C).

Oktavists are named such because of their ability to sing a full octave below the bass part in Russian Church music. Now that's impressive!

J D Sumner, oktavist, performing Wayfaring Stranger.

So there you go, from high to low, a few examples of the human voice, what it can sound like, with examples from popular music.

Interesting, huh?


Leta said...

Very fascinating - thanks for posting this!

Rosi Crane said...

But watch the hairline of that octavist - hilarious.

Now can you tell me why anyone singing looks soooo stupid, yes that includes you and me too!!

web logger said...

I particularly love the bell-like clarity of Chloe Agnew's voice. It's just such a beautiful sound, more pristine and crystalline than, say, Charlotte Church's. I've never been fond of the mezzo sound (in general, not just Charlotte's), which always sounds overly chromatic, for lack of a better word.

daharja said...

Hey Rosi - You're SO right! It IS really, really funny!

But you know what? When you sing, you cannot ever, ever get the giggles. Or you're doomed. Because singing and giggling don't mix. You try to sing, and all you get is a choking *khgrhaaaah* sound come out!

So remind me not to look at the hairlines of the basses, when they pull they bottom note faces!

Christila Dashwood said...

what about Connie Francis and Doris Day? I always confused with their kind of vocal range..

anyway great article. now I know what kind of voice type I'm having :)

George said...

Thanks for the examples. I agree that Charlotte Church is a mezzo-soprano. Listen to her singing "Habenera" from "Carmen" for proof. That is a mezzo part and she does it very, very well.