Finding your vocal range and correct key is an important part of becoming a singer. One of the biggest complaints from our instrument playing associates is that popular singers rarely know in which key their music is to be performed!
Ideally it helps if you have some knowledge of music theory or play a musical instrument. The key of a song is often (but not always) reflected in the first note or chord of the song. In sheet music this is denoted by the symbols written at the beginning of the song. The Clef sign may or may not be accompanied by one or several sharps or flats – this informs the musician which key the music should start in and may change in parts or throughout the song from one key to another.
Learning to Sight Read/Sing not only gives the singer more performance opportunities but also helps to gain confidence in their abilities and ensures that the vocalist can discuss any problems/ideas with fellow musicians in a common language.
Find your vocal range
To find your vocal range you will need the aid of a musical instrument (and preferably a singing teacher!). Start by playing and singing a middle C (a piano or keyboard is best for this – middle C is usually the 3rd or 4th octave C on the keyboard, depending on the range and size of the keyboard or piano you are using. On a full size piano Middle C is the 5th C from the bottom which is sometimes written as C4 whilst smaller keyboards usually omit the lower octaves completely). Play and sing each note down the scale – each note that is comfortable to sing is considered as part of your range – once you have reached a note that sounds and feels too low for your voice stop and write down the name of the last note you were comfortable with and its position on the keyboard. Repeat the exercise moving up the keyboard.
Take a look at the notes you have written down and count the octaves from the bottom note to your top note on the keyboard (without including the sharps and flats [black notes], an octave is 7 notes so A to G is one octave). The amount of octaves, plus any extra notes equals your vocal range. A classification of a singers range usually refers to the strongest notes which vary from lower, middle or upper part of the voice in each individual. This is only a general guide as the voice changes with age and training, an experienced arranger, accompanist singer or teacher should be consulted for a true evaluation.
Extending Your Vocal Range
A singer’s range may be extended in time with lessons but the term ‘extending the range’ is not really appropriate. Your actual range is fixed at birth. You cannot sing or stretch your voice beyond its natural capabilities without causing damage to the vocal chords (also known as vocal folds). When a singer or teacher talks of extending their range, they are referring to improving the top or bottom notes to the point where they are as comfortable to sing as the notes in between. It is also worth noting that when starting out, many singers vocal range is very limited, usually due to lack of training or use which can be extended with time, training and practice.
At this point it should be noted that a singers range has little to do with their vocal ability! Whilst a reasonable range allows the singer to perform a wider repertoire of music and is essential for those who wish to perform operatic and classical music, there are plenty of popular vocalists who only use a small proportion or possess a limited vocal range. One example is Johnny Matthis who melted the hearts of many a listener with his smooth rich vocals yet only had about 1 octave in range.
Once you have ascertained your range repeat the above exercise to find the notes/octave which you are most comfortable singing. These notes are the ones you will use as a base to finding the keys which are most suitable for your range and style.
Each note can be used to make up several chords, sometimes the first note of a song is also the ‘key’ in which it is played and sung.
To find the right ‘key’ for a particular song means that you need to practice!
If you are performing ‘covers’ then start by singing along with the artists record. Do NOT try to imitate the sound and style of the artist/s you are singing along to. It is important to find your own sound and style! If your voice feels natural and comfortable performing in the same key as the original singer then the ‘key’ is probably ok for you! Most sheet music is written in the same key as the artists recording, but you should be aware that many books/music are often transposed into easier to sing keys so care should be taken when purchasing.
Even if the songs original ‘key’ is easy for you to sing, it doesn’t mean that it is the ‘correct key’ for you to perform in. Whilst this is usually the case, singers who have a reasonably good range may find that taking the music up or down a tone or semi-tone helps to avoid awkward ‘bridges’ or ‘gaps’ in their vocal range (which can be corrected with exercises/lessons) or utilise the best tonal qualities of their voice, strengths and vocal style – recording your rehearsals for later review is a great aid to finding the keys in which your voice shines – or not!!
A quick word about ‘Money Notes’ – this term is used to describe notes used to greatest effect. The audience identifies these with you as a singer which is why they pay money to come and see you! It can be any note or combination of notes and each singer is different. The only factor that is consistent throughout all types and styles of vocalist it that the notes are rich, strong and with a compelling tonal quality that makes the listener want to hear more. Frustrating huh. The way to discover these notes in your voice is to record everything – especially your live performances. Reviewing these will allow you to hear which songs and notes you perform well and receive the best audience reaction.
Karaoke singers should note that the backing tracks used by many companies are often written in easy keys which are not necessarily those on the original recording, plus the karaoke operator may use ‘pitch control’ which allows them to change the key of the music without your knowledge. If you want to be certain that the songs you wish to perform are in the correct key for your voice then purchase the tracks in that key or make sure you sing along (quietly) when someone else does the track at your local venue before attempting to try it live. Many home karaoke machines are also cabable of changing the pitch but most do not give you an indication of what key is being played!
If you play by ‘ear’ you will need to find the ‘key’ by listening to the song and varying the chords played/notes sung until you find the correct combination.
Its also worth noting that some artists record their songs in higher keys than when they perform ‘live’ – this is partly because the song sounds more effective in the recorded key but may be too strenuous on the vocalists voice when giving a full nights performance and partly due to the extra amount of movement required for some types of music (pop singers who dance are the main examples of this).
Singer/lyricists should collaborate with a competant musician and endeavour to learn as much about music as possible so that the most effective key for both song and voice can be used!
Vocal Ranges & Classifications
Everyone has a different vocal ability which in (mainly) classical, operatic and theatrical circles is grouped into a classification which are also known as ‘vocal fach’. Although some of these terms may be used for other singers of popular, jazz and other styles of music, the terminology, whilst helpful in identifying the types of songs that may be performed, can be misleading. A singer with a wide vocal range may cover more than one ‘fach’ and as the voice develops with age, training and experience, the classification into which the singer has initially been grouped may no longer apply.
Our own particular feeling about the subject is that whilst it can be a useful tool for identifying the vocal range of an individual, it should not be allowed to limit the singer who may spend far too much time singing one style or catagory of song due to being pigeonholed into a classification. Any song that is comfortable for the vocalists range should be attempted, regardless of style or genre, as this is the only way to truly discover your voices capabilities and expand your knowledge.
As a general rule Fach voice types are determined by the following characteristics :
- Age and Experience
- Height and Build (physical characteristics)
- Range: the spoken and vocal range of notes you can comfortably produce
- Registers: the extent of each vocal register
- Weight: character of the voice i.e, light, bright, agile, heavy, powerful, dark, rich
- Size: dramatic effect and amount of sound you can produce
- Timbre: quality of voice’s colour and texture
- Tessitura: the most comfortable part to sing in your range
The following classifications are used to identify what parts are suitable to apply for in Opera productions – some are definitive and recognised in the opera/classical community, others are merely descriptive terms:
All soprano’s are able to sing high notes with ease, the term indicates a high female voice, G3 (below middle C4) to F6 above high C6 although anywhere above high C can be included. Maria Callas is a good example of a famous Soprano Opera voice.
High female soprano with a young, sweet, light, bright sounding voice, Diana Damrau is a good example.
Lyric Coloratura Soprano
A high bright flexible voice who sings ornamental passages in music – C4 to F6 or G6 above high C6, Joan Sutherland and Ana Maria Martinez are good examples.
High flexible female voice with a dark quality.
A high voice with bright metallic and theatrical qualities
Warmer fuller middle sound – Bb3 below middle C4 to high C6 or D6
Usually a young more powerful fuller sound, Adrianne Pieczonka is a good example.
The loudest and lowest with dark, rich cutting power – low Bb3 or A3, to a pushed high C6, Christine Brewer is a good example
Middle female voice with darker quality than other soprano’s with range from Low A3 or G3 (below middle C4) to at least high C although it is not uncommon for high A6 or Bb6 to Eb6 above high C6. Janet Baker is a good example of a famous Mezzo Soprano Opera voice.
Coloratura Mezzo Soprano
A bright rich agile mid range soprano capable of singing ornate passages, a good example is Agnes Baltsa
Lyric Mezzo Soprano
A strong, flexible voice with poignant quality, a good example is Ann Murray.
Dramatic Mezzo Soprano
An imposing, powerful and rich voice, a good example is Brigitte Fassbaender.
Alto / Contralto
Low full Female Voice, low C3 (below middle C4) to high C6 or up to high A6. Kathleen Ferrier is an example of a famous Lyric Contralto Opera voice and both Karen Carpenter and Alison Moyet as more contemporary pop singers.
An agile light voice which can produce and sustain a powerful and rich sound, a good example is Ewa Podles
Flexible rich voice, a good example is Kathleen Ferrier.
Low, full warm, rich dark luscious voice a good example is Dame Clara Butt
The following terms are not recognised by all but have been suggested a Contralto group as alternatives to describe the rare female tenor and bass singers.
Contralto Profondo (Female Tenor)
Mainly uses the chest and middle register, producing a dark full resonant tone capable of singing Lyric Tenor arias down to B2/Bb2, good examples are Bally Prell and Ruby Helder.
Contralto Basso (Female Bass)
Capable of singing A2-E2 and below this dark lower register should include full vibrato and rich resonance – Margaret Jackson-Roberts is a good example.
High Male Voice, C (an octave below middle C) up to high C or D (or above) a good example is Juan Diego Florez.
Countertenor or Contratenor
High agile male voice, also called alto, often falsetto, equivalent in pitch to Mezzo Sopranos, a good example is Jochen Kowalski or Russell Oberlin.
Warm soft bright, flexible voice capable of hitting highest tenor notes, Rolando VillazÃ³n is a good heavier example.
Theatrical, light voice similar in range but with more oomph than lyric, a good example is Placido Domingo
Powerful, emotive full tenor voice with plenty of stamina, John Vickers is a good example.
Character Tenor / Heldentenor
Almost baritonal low powerful voice, Siegfried Jerusalem is a good example.
Middle Male Voice, low G/F an octave below middle C to B, F or G above middle C (just below the Tenor high C) a good example is Gerald Finley.
Flexible, light, fruity, deep sweet and smooth voice from the A one and a half octaves below middle C to the A just above it, a good example is Stephan Degout.
Range A to G# this voice is considered agile, warm and brilliant sounding
Character / Verdi Baritone
Theatrical, flexible and powerful, Tito Gobbi is a good example.
Full, imposing, powerful, a good example is Bryn Terfel.
Bass / Baritone
More like a bass than a baritone but lacks the low bass notes, Hans Hotter and Jose Van Dam are good examples.
Low Male Voice, low E (or lower) an octave below middle C to E, F G above middle C. Barry White is a good Pop example and Jerome Hines a good Opera example.
Low full rich voice often performing comic roles, Alessandro Corbelli is a good example
High bass voice suitable for solo singing
Deep rich powerful bass voice encompassing about two octaves above C below the bass staff, Eric Halfvarson is a good example.
These are just a few classifications which are split into sub classifications covering all types of vocal range and tone. Please note that the tone, resonance and ornamentation of the voice should be taken into consideration before assuming it falls into one or other ‘fach’….. The amount of notes or range/register alone does NOT equal ‘fach type’. An individuals vocal range may extend in each direction of their comfortable ‘fach’ or lack the full range of indicated notes but would still fall into the category due to the tone and quality of the voice. Also note that ‘Middle C’ denotes the C note closest to the center of the keyboard or the piano. In the UK this is often referred to as C4 but this is not standard for all countries who may have a different numbering system.
These are just a small sample of links to articles that are available in our Singers & Musicians Articles section. All links open in a new window.
Cambiata Vocal Music Institute of America
Site with articles on two basic approaches on teaching boys whose voices are changing which includes information on different ways boys voices change and tips on choosing music for adolescents aimed at the choral community and voice teachers.
Expanding Vocal Range
Part 1 – A non classical approach by Jeannie Deva
Expanding Vocal Range
Part 2 – A non classical approach by Jeannie Deva
Expanding Vocal Range
Part 3 – A non classical approach by Jeannie Deva
Lower Voice or Higher
Vocal Fach article from VoiceTeacher.
Dictionary definition with charts showing where it is located in various clefs plus midi example.
Documentation of the elite singing voice, a research data-gathering documentation project designed to quantify some of the measurable aspects of the singing voice. These spectrograph images and sound samples from vocevista spectrograph software looks at two spots where the auditors would be expected to listen particularly carefully to the voice production and provides observations on vibrato.
Table of Octave Registrations
Provided by Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary which also contains some excellent audio midi examples in each individual voice category (i.e., from the main page click on Alto to read an explanation of the term, audio pronunciation example, scored and audio range example).
Voice Definitions and Ranges
Aims to clarify the meanings and uses of the names given to high pitched male voices. Article by Elizabeth Randell Upton at the Early Music FAQ.