Voice Classification

Voice Classification is a subject about which there is much disagreement.  It is important to remember that the voices of high school age singers bear little if any real relationship to adult, professional, classifications.

At Port Washington High School we  classify voices as high, middle, or low; soprano, mezzo, or alto for women, tenor, baritone, or bass for men.  When we divide for our choral literature we consider singers as 1-1-1 the highest voice, or 2-3-4 the lowest voice or some where in between.  These are the possibilities from highest to lowest.  The first number is when parts are divided into 2, then 3, then 4.
It is expected that students will, often without direction, sing a higher, or lower, part, or leave notes out completely, when their personal comfort and a beautiful sound require it.

Below is some factual, historical, information:

Soprano - MezzosopranoContralto - Countertenor - Castrati - Tenor - Baritone - Bass

It's the highest human voice, whose normal extension is two octaves (C3-C5) The different kinds of soprano voices are:

Light (or doubrette): A sweet, lightweight voice whose range is mostly in middle voice. Plays comedic, saucy, but likable characters.

Lyric Coloratura: A light, acrobatic voice, with a range into the 5th octave.

Dramatic Coloratura: An acrobatic voice with powerful dramatic qualities, with a range up to F5.

Full Lyric Soprano: A sweet, graceful voice, with range similar to that of the doubrette but with a stronger quality, and stronger upper register. Reserved for ingenues and other sympathetic characters.

Spinto Soprano: A full lyric voice that can be pushed to dramatic climaxes.

Dramatic soprano: A powerful, rich, emotive voice. Used for the heroic, tragic, and/or victimized women of opera. Range from Bb2 or A2 to C5.

Wagnerian soprano: A dramatic voice that can assert itself as an instrument over a full orchestra. Usually a mythic heroine.

Two types of soprano especially dear to the French are the Dugazon and the  Falcon, which are intermediate voice types between the soprano and the mezzosoprano: a Dugazon is a darker-colored doubrette, a  Falcon a darker-colored dramatic soprano .


Is a female singer with a range usually extending from the A below middle C to the A two octaves above Middle C (A2-A4). Mezzosopranos generally have a darker (or richer) vocal tone than sopranos, and their voice type sits between the soprano and the contralto. The terms Dugazon and Galli-Marié are sometimes used to refer to light mezzosopranos, after the names of famous singers. A castrato with a mezzosoprano range was called a mezzosoprano castrato.


A contralto is a singer with a vocal range somewhere between a tenor and a mezzosoprano. The term is used to refer to the deepest female singing voice, or the highest male voice. A typical alto will have a range from around the F below middle C to the E a tenth above middle C (F2-E4); at the bottom of their range, altos sound almost like tenors.

Although both men and women may have voices in the alto range, the word is usually used to mean a female singer. However, choirs singing early music frequently include adult male altos, also called countertenors. In English church usage, the term alto is sometimes exclusively used to mean a boy with this range, while contralto is used for a female singer. A few popular music enthusiasts define the contralto and alto separately, as the contralto having an especially dark range, from the D above low C to Tenor C, which is essentially a female of tenor range, while alto is a voice with a range from F below middle C (F2) to the F an eleventh above middle C (F4), and is closer to the mezzosoprano. The majority however define contralto and alto as synonyms, and assign the adjectives light and dark, with a dark alto being a female of tenor range, while a light alto, commonly referred to as simply alto, to include mezzosopranos as well.

The countertenor is a unique and somewhat controversial vocal class for men, being the highest voice class for them. Because of the extensive use of falsetto, which some purists do not view as musical, some view the countertenor as actually being a baritone engaging in "false tenor brillance". Regardless, attempts have been made to assign a "legitimate" fach to this voice class. The prevailing range for a countertenor is D below middle C (D2) to F an eleventh above middle C (F4), although many go much higher.

There are five main class of countertenor: hautcontre, altino, sopranist, baritonic,  and falsettist. Hautcontre, a french word for countertenor, is a tenor who can use his falsetto to reach heights well above Tenor C (C4). The altino is a rare voice type, commonly considered the "true" countertenor. This person can sing high without falsetto well above the usual male passagio. Typically, this rare voice has problems reaching depths of even low C unlike most men, and usually has an androgynous tone, even when speaking. The typical altino will speak normally between the range of F# and B below Middle C (F#2-B2), more in keeping a female than a typical male, whose speaking voice settles closer to low C (C2). An even rarer full voice can sing tenor and female contralto (or even mezzosoprano) parts with equal ease.

A baritonal countertenor is an adult male singer who uses the falsetto part of his voice more than usual to sing a higher range than the typical adult male voice. When people think of or hear a countertenor, usually this is the voice they are hearing. A countertenor trains himself to use the whole of the vocal cords as well to produce a rich sound, as distinct from the falsettist who makes a much slighter sound by only using the edges of the cords (or falsetto). What singers term 'onset of tone' (in layman's terms, the beginning of the sound) is perhaps the key to the different usages. A healthy voice uses both the fine edges of the cords and the 'body' of the cords. The difference in onset between, say, a baritone and a countertenor is how much of the edges of the cords are being used at the 'onset' or start. A countertenor will use a huge amount of falsetto in the onset of tone - then expanding into the rest of the cord - while a baritone will use the main part of the cord in onset, whilst having some falsetto present.


A castrato is a male soprano, mezzosoprano, or alto voice produced by castration of the singer before puberty. Castration before puberty (or in its early stages) prevents the boy's larynx from being fully transformed by the normal physiological effects of puberty. As a result, the vocal range of prepubescence (shared by boys and girls) is largely retained, and the voice develops into adulthood in a unique way. As the castrato's body grows (especially in lung capacity and muscular strength), and as his musical training and maturity increase, his voice develops a range, power and flexibility quite different from the singing voice of the adult female, but also markedly different from the higher vocal ranges of the uncastrated adult male.

It's the highest male voice, whose normal extension is two octaves (C2-C4). The different kinds of tenor voices are:

Dramatic (Tenore drammatico): A powerful, rich, heroic tenor.

Heldentenor: the German equivalent of the tenore drammatico, however with a more baritonal quality.

Light (Tenore leggero): A light, flexible tenor, specializing in the Mozartean repertoire, but also in the operas of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, and sometimes specializing in Baroque repertoire or in comical roles.

Buffo: A relatively weak voice with certain limitations, with a timbre that is not entirely appealing. Specializes in comic roles.

Lyric: A lightweight, graceful, lyric tenor.

Spinto: A lyric tenor with more "punch", therefore able to play more heroic roles.

Trial: a high, thin, nasal tenor, used for character roles.

Baritenor: A lyric dark tenor, or one with a strong baritonic lower register. A  baritenor is a male voice having a tessitura between the baritone and the tenor. The term isn't commonly used as baritones can have extension. A baritenor is closest in tessitura to the heldentenor, a special tenor having a thick-baritone lower register. The baritenor's voice is more lyrical in quality, and usually cannot pitch as high. A baritenor's range is usually A1 to B3.


The baritone voice is lower and huskier than tenors' voice. His average extension is about two octaves, from A1 to A3. The baritone voice is commonly subdivided as follows:

Dramatic: A voice with a somewhat heavier, darker quality.

Lyric:  A voice that is lighter and perhaps mellower than the dramatic baritone. It is probably the most common of the baritone voice types.

Verdi: A more specialized voice category, referring to a voice capable of singing consistently and with ease in the highest part of the baritone range, perhaps even up to the A above middle C (A3).


A male singer who sings in the lowest vocal range of the human voice. A typical bass has a range extending from around the E or F below the bottom of the bass clef to the E above middle C (E1-E3). Bass also used to refer to a low speaking voice. The different kinds of bass voices are:

Deep (Basso profondo): A particularly deep and resonant voice. It may reach the B below the bass clef (B0), but is most distinguished by its dark and cavernous timbre.

Singer (Basso cantante): A lighter, more lyrical voice, perhaps with a slightly higher range.

Buffo: literally means "comic bass." It is used to describe operatic roles that do not call for lyrical, elaborate singing but do require a strong comic acting ability.

Bass-baritone: A voice with the resonant low notes of the typical bass but with the ability to sing in a baritonal tessitura. Sometimes it also refers to a voice with a range and tone somewhere between a bass and a baritone.