Singing voices: A complete guide from soprano to bass
Have you listened to the stand-out songs from West End musicals? From the highest notes soaring around the theatre to serenading with lower tones, read our guide to the different categories of singing voices all the way from soprano to bass, detailing the differences between each one. We’ve also put a guide together detailing the basics of music terminology, so you can improve your tuneful ear too!
The different types of singing voices
A soprano vocalist can often reach the highest notes with ease and are able to songs in a higher range easier than songs with a range of lower notes. While it may be suggested that a soprano singer has better vocals as they can sing higher, a person’s ability to sing soprano is down to how their vocal cords align with their physique; someone being able to sing soprano does not instantly qualify a “better” performer. Many musicals showcase the talents of soprano vocals, with Sierra Boggess’ performance in The Phantom of the Opera demonstrating the ability to sing some of the highest notes alongside the Phantom.
The second highest female voice type, a mezzo-soprano (often referred to as mezzo for short) usually has a voice suited to lower notes, typically singing a harmony line below the tune that a soprano may perform in order to give a richer, rounder sound to a musical number. As well as this, mezzo singers are sometimes associated with characters that could perform jazzier numbers, belting out a showstopping song to round off a performance. Mezzo voices in musical theatre include Idina Menzel as Elphaba in Wicked with Menzel’s vocal ability in “Defying Gravity”.
Females with a lower voice register will typically perform the contralto line, shortened to alto in colloquial terms. Usually singing a supporting melody to a soprano or mezzo, an alto line can help to balance out the high notes performed by the soprano vocalists to help form a full sound. Examples of alto songs in musical theatre include “Broadway Baby” in Follies and “The Dark I Know Well” in Spring Awakening.
Someone who can sing with a falsetto range has the ability to sing higher notes that are initially perceived to be higher than what is expected. Used in parts of songs, a falsetto delivery goes beyond a normal vocal range, with popular falsetto voices including Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars. If you are wanting to listen to falsetto in musical theatre, Frankie Valli in the Jersey Boys is a good place to start.
Male singers who have a vocal range matching that of most female singers are categorised as a countertenor. Possessing an ability to sing the highest notes with ease, a countertenor is a valued singer within a cast and are few and far between. An example of a countertenor performance is Mary Sunshine in Chicago, with the score reflecting notes that a soprano would typically have to sing.
As there are so few countertenors, a tenor is traditionally the highest male voice you will find. With a small, higher vocal range associated to a tenor voice, a tenor part may be associated to a younger character such as Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or a role that could be suited to an operatic voice, such as Tony in West Side Story. Listen to the song “Any Dream Will Do” here, showcasing a tenor voice.
Many male singers are said to have a baritone voice, typically considered as a medium between tenor and bass, comfortably singing the notes in the middle of a ‘normal’ male range. With an ability to blend their voice in higher or lower ranges, a baritone’s repertoire can extend through to many musicals and characters with a powerful sound. An example of a baritone song comes from Les Misérables, with this video showing Michael Ball performing the role of Marius, singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”.
Singing the lowest notes in a musical score, a bass voice can often stun audiences with their deep pitch and tone alongside the ability to ensure that their voice bounces around a West End auditorium. A bass singer will not be able to develop their voice until they are older, as a consequence of the male body developing. Yet, a bass singer will often carry the rhythm and tone of a musical number, especially if a song is moody and dramatic.