Opera is a rare form of performance that brings elements of music, drama, and visual art together to create one incredible experience for its audience members. First developed more than four centuries ago, opera today is written and performed in many languages in countries around the world. To better understand and appreciate the art form, one must be familiar with the unique set of opera voice types among men and women, as listed here.
Female voice types
There are typically seven different types of voices among opera singers: three standard female voices and four standard male voices. An opera singer’s voice often influences which role he or she plays in the libretto, or the story, of the opera. For female opera singers, the highest voice is the soprano. Sopranos sing at a range from around middle C to about the C two octaves above, C6. Because of their sweet, high voices, sopranos often play the love interest or heroine of the story. They may also play characters notable for their youth and purity. Famous soprano opera roles include Cio-Cio-San from Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, and Violetta from La Triviata by Giuseppe Verdi.
Mezzo-soprano singers, sometimes referred to as simply “mezzos,” follow the sopranos as the next-highest voice, with a range beginning at A3 below middle C, and extending two octaves above, ending around A5. In some cases, a mezzo-soprano will be asked to portray young men or young boy characters, but when she doesn’t, she is most often the one to play a motherly type, a seductress, or the villain of the story. The most famous lead mezzo roles in the opera include Carmen from the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet, and Rosina from The Barber of Seville by Carlo Rossini, though the latter role can also be sung by a soprano.
The lowest and rarest of all female voice types is the contralto, known more commonly as the alto. Alto singers have a voice range that extends from the F3 below middle C up to F5. Alto voices are rich and have a much darker timbre than the other two types of female opera vocalists, and often play specialty roles such as goddesses or divine characters. Early on in opera’s history, however, altos were relegated to roles portraying grandmothers, older women, and witches. Women in the opera with true contralto voices are difficult to come by, and many times the alto parts are sung by mezzo-sopranos. Some of the better-known contralto parts in famous operas include Hippolyta in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Giunone in George Frideric Handel’s Agrippina.
Male voice types
The highest of the male opera voices, the countertenor, is capable of reaching octaves in the range of female voices, generally singing notes similar to that of the mezzo-soprano, from between G3 and C4 up to either C6 or F6. These voices are the rarest of all singing voices, and for the most part waned in popularity from the 17th century until the singing style saw a renaissance in the mid-1900s. Famous roles for countertenors include the eponymous character in Handel’s Giulio Cesare as well as the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The most common of the high male voices is the tenor, and singers who reach these octaves, between C3 and C5, most often play young men, the love interest, or the hero within an opera. The most popular operatic roles for tenors include Radamés in Aida by Verdi and Rodolfo in La Boheme by Puccini. Tenors sing one step higher than the most common type of male operatic voice, the baritone. Baritone singers have a range of between A2 and A4. Depending on the style of the voice, a baritone may play the hero, the comedic relief, or the villain in an opera. Papageno in The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Count di Luna in Verdi’s Il Trovatore are both traditionally played by baritone singers.
Lastly, the lowest of all standard operatic voices is the bass, which extends from E2 to E4. Some bass singers have voices that reach notes even lower than E2, though operas are seldom written with notes at such a low register. Characters written for bass singers are often characterized as wise and noble, but on occasion may play humorous roles as well. Good examples of this include Sarastro in The Magic Flute and Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville.
Irrespective of vocal range, all opera vocalists engage in certain behaviors to preserve their ability to sing. To begin, no opera singer ever practices or performs without first participating in a rigorous warm-up ritual to prepare the vocal cords for high-intensity use. Vocal warm ups for an opera singer are comparable to stretching for an athlete. Without warm ups, an opera singer risks doing significant damage to his or her voice. Vocal warm ups frequently involve practices such as singing scales, humming, and deep breathing to prepare the muscles for vocal work.
Another way that opera singers practice good voice care is actively avoiding situations in which they will need to raise their voices above speaking level to make themselves heard. Yelling can do significant damage to vocal cords over time, and prevents a singer from performing to his or her best ability. This requires opera singers to avoid places like sports games, loud restaurants, or parties where they cannot easily communicate at an average speaking level.
Lastly, opera singers of all voice types makes sure that they stay hydrated at all times. Well-hydrated vocal chords help singers maintain healthy mucosal membranes, which gives them greater flexibility while singing and prevents the damage that can occur through friction between swollen vocal folds.
As the most personal of all instruments, the voice can be a powerful tool for creating music that inspires others. Talented singers have the ability to motivate listeners to push through a difficult time, entertain and delight audiences, or even bring people to tears with their voices. To become a great singer with this level of ability, many vocalists do the following eight things.
1. They use effective warm-ups.
Just as a professional athlete does not participate in a sport without stretching his or her muscles beforehand, a professional singer does not begin to sing without first performing vocal warmups. Warmups make it easier for the singer to hit the higher and lower notes in his or her range, prevent damage to the voice, and strengthen the muscles around the singer’s vocal folds, leading to more control over the sound they produce.
2. They follow a healthy diet.
What a vocalist eats and drinks can have a significant impact on the sound quality of his or her voice. Great singers make a point of drinking a large amount of water, which helps keep the vocal cords hydrated. They also avoid excessive alcohol consumption and limit the amount of caffeine that they drink, as both substances dry out the body and constrict the blood vessels within the throat.
In addition to avoiding certain beverages, serious vocalists may refrain from consuming dairy products before a performance, as these foods can cause excess mucus to build up in the throat. In general, master vocalists attempt to eat a healthy diet that is low in sodium and rich in vitamins A, C, and E—all of which contribute to the maintenance of healthy mucus membranes.
3. They have good speaking habits.
Professional singers have to think about vocal cord care any time they are using their voice—not just when they’re performing. Master vocalists know that certain speech habits should be avoided when possible, including heavy coughing, long bouts of shouting or talking at an elevated volume, and speaking in a very low tone.
Great vocalists also avoid singing when they are sick. During an illness, a singer’s voice is already unlikely to reach peak performance, since the vocal cords are inflamed and irritated. Choosing to sing when the throat is already raw will not only diminish the quality of sound, but can also cause additional damage, prolonging the healing process unnecessarily.
4. They get plenty of sleep.
The vocal cords need rest like any other part of the body, and the best singers make an effort to stick to a healthy sleep schedule. Getting an average of eight hours of sleep per night helps singers fight off vocal fatigue and allows them to consistently perform at a high level, even when their schedules require them to perform on a daily basis. Those who wish to give their vocal cords enough rest should try to get at least eight hours of sleep per night in order to wake up fresh and ready to warm up the next day.
5. They don’t skip practice.
No vocalist can have a well-developed talent for singing if he or she avoids practicing. Though some people are born with a natural aptitude for singing, recent studies show that practice can have a greater impact on a person’s performance quality than raw ability alone. In addition to regular practice, great singers also spend their practice time efficiently, choosing to focus on additional areas outside the development of a repertoire. They dedicate time to mastering specific vocal techniques that challenge them and put their abilities to the test. Great singers avoid exclusively using their practice sessions to run through the same songs every time.
6. They display the correct breathing techniques and posture.
Accomplished singers have mastered the ability to manipulate their breath to create power and control their voices when performing. To support the breath, singers must also know how to assume the correct physical posture during a song in order to create a clear pathway between the diaphragm and the vocal cords. Straight posture that elongates the spine prevents the diaphragm from locking and allows the stomach to expand further, bringing more oxygen into the lungs.
7. They use their ears.
Becoming an adept singer means more than just knowing how to manipulate one’s vocal cords for optimal sound. Talented singers also know how to use critical listening skills to gauge their sound both while they’re singing and while listening to their recorded performances. Active listening allows singers to hear and adjust vocal elements in the moment, including pitch, tone, and volume, to better suit the accompanying music. The ability to accurately hear and adjust one’s own singing can be honed through ear training.
8. They stay confident.
When it comes to great vocal performances, confidence is crucial. Without confidence, singers have a tendency to be demonstrably affected by nervousness, which can manifest in a shaky voice that may fail to reach the quality that a singer is typically capable of producing. Great vocalists recognize that the practice they have put into their craft and the unique beauty of their own sound are worth sharing with people. They work toward confidently delivering strong performances while enjoying themselves in the process.
The human voice is designed much like any handheld instrument that relies on the power of the lungs to produce sound. The larynx acts in a similar fashion to the reed of a clarinet or saxophone, while the cavities of the head and chest work together to amplify the sounds produced by the vocal cords. This makes the voice a powerful and highly personal instrument, capable of producing some of the most emotive sounds in music. Read on to learn all about the use and care of the singing voice.
1. Is a good singing voice a natural talent or a developed ability?
Professionals suggest that with enough time, dedication, and practice, almost anyone can develop the ability to sing decently well. At the same time, some people are born with physical characteristics that make them better equipped to sing, such as an ideally shaped and sized set of vocal cords and larynx. The size of the person’s head also matters. Other factors that may influence a person’s ability to sing well include the age at and frequency with which he or she was exposed to music as a child. Still, most of those with relatively little exposure to music in early life and limited natural talent for singing may employ the help of a vocal teacher to learn techniques that can dramatically improve the quality of their singing voice.
2. What are the different voice types for men and women?
From a functional standpoint, male and female voices are not dramatically different. The tone of a person’s voice is shaped by the length of the vocal cords and the size of the larynx, both of which are influenced by the levels of testosterone in a person’s body. To distinguish between the vocal ranges of women and men, professionals use two sets of terms to describe male and female voices, depending on variables such as range, tessitura (that part of the range at which the singer is most comfortable singing), and vocal register (a term that describes the way a singer physically produces sound).
Among women, the singers capable of reaching the highest notes are sopranos, who have the ability to sing notes between B3 and C6, though certain subgroups within the soprano range can sing even higher. Next, with a range between G3 and A5, are the mezzo-soprano singers, followed by the contraltos. Known more commonly as “altos,” contraltos sing in the E3 to F5 range and are the rarest of the female voice types.
For men, there are four different vocal classifications, with the highest voice being the countertenor at a range of G3 to C6. Countertenors are the rarest voice type among both men and women. The second-highest range, from C3 to B4, is sung by the tenor, followed by the baritone at G2 to G4. The lowest of all voices is the bass. Men with bass voices can sing as high as E4 and as low as D2, rivaling the tone of the notes played on a cello.
3. What is a vocal register?
A vocal register refers to the different ways that sounds are physically produced in the body when a person is singing. Research performed by professionals within the fields of speech pathology and vocal training suggest that there are three basic vocal registers—the head, middle, and chest. Singers with exceptionally high voices may find that they are capable of reaching an additional level called the whistle register, while singers with low voices may also produce sounds that reach a register known as vocal fry.
Among the three basic vocal registers, the voice sounds its deepest, lowest, and most powerful when produced in the chest register. These notes are felt primarily in the chest cavity, and the vocal cords will feel thicker than they do at the middle register. Within the middle register, singers often feel the most vibration within the area of the upper neck and lower face. In the head register, the singing voice resonates primarily within the sinuses, creating a higher sound that can be felt predominantly in the upper half of the face.
4. Why is it important to care for the voice?
Whether a person considers singing to be a hobby or a professional pursuit, he or she must take certain steps to prevent damage to the vocal cords. Becoming a good vocalist is a long process, and those who ignore simple voice care face the possibility of ruining their hard work through neglect and bad habits. Actions that can cause immediate short-term damage to singers’ voices include excessive shouting, throat-clearing, or untreated acid reflux.
Over the long term, lasting damage can be caused by failing to warm up before a practice or performance, frequent dehydration, alcohol or tobacco use, or pushing the voice to reach high registers at loud volumes through unhealthy means. Those who fail to take care of their voices run the risk of developing nodules, polyps, or hemorrhages in their vocal folds, which can completely ruin an individual’s ability to sing at his or her personal best.
Though science has yet to determine music’s evolutionary purpose, its significance to humankind today is undisputed. Research even shows that a small portion of the human brain is specifically designated to process music. While it may have served a different purpose in prehistoric days, today we use music in many complex ways—even when we don’t think we’re “using” music so much as simply listening and enjoying it. For example, music can be a tool for coping and healing during difficult times. Listed below are four ways that music can make hard times more bearable.
Music helps us make a connection with others.
When you’re experiencing a difficult time in life, you may spend more time alone, pulling away from bonds that you share with friends and family. This kind of isolation can often make you feel socially disconnected at a time when you most need the support of a community.
In these instances, music may provide a simple and effective way to reestablish connections with other people, as studies show that listening to or performing music is an excellent way to form social bonds. It is a nearly universal interest for people from entirely different backgrounds, cultures, and lifestyles. Because nearly everyone enjoys music in some form, it is also an incredible unifier, giving strangers something in common from the moment they meet.
When we listen to music with other people, science suggests that the brain releases neuro-chemicals that help facilitate feelings of intimacy and connection. The effects of music on human connection may be even stronger when people make music together, by playing instruments or singing. At times when people feel alone during difficult periods, music may provide a way for them to reconnect and find the social support needed to overcome challenges.
Music allows us to evaluate difficult emotions.
In the same way that difficult times of life often leave people feeling socially isolated, they can also cause people to shut down emotionally, unable to express or understand the negative feelings that they are experiencing. However, expressing emotions is one of the best things that you can do for your mental health during a challenging time, as it allows you to sort through your feelings, gain perspective, and let go of stress and tension.
When you don’t have someone that you feel comfortable talking to, music can provide a healthy outlet for emotional expression. Listening to music that resonates with a particular emotion can be a subtle yet effective way to explore complicated inner thoughts, and may allow you to gain a better understanding of your own feelings. Lyrics and melodies written by musicians may convey complexities that you can’t put into words yourself, but which perfectly capture your underlying emotions.
Music promotes relaxation and stress reduction.
Along with prompting sadness, discouragement, or anger, life’s challenges cause an enormous amount of stress. While a small amount of everyday stress can have a positive influence on human behavior, intense stress can lead to mental and physical health problems, including depression, inability to focus, fatigue, headaches, and trouble falling asleep.
Studies in recent years have revealed that people who are dealing with significant stress can turn to music as a method of stress reduction. In one instance, researchers found that music with a tempo of about 60 beats per minute encouraged the brain to synchronize with the song’s rhythm, generating alpha brainwaves in the process. This helps reduce stress because alpha brainwaves are present in the brain when a person is feeling awake and relaxed. In another study, research showed that hospital patients who needed surgery experienced a lower degree of stress if they listened to music before and after their operation.
During stressful times, setting aside time to listen to soothing music may be an excellent decision. Though it might seem like dedicating time out of a busy day to sit and listen to music is frivolous, the small time investment may lead to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a greater ability to deal with challenging situations.
Music helps you get more sleep.
Sleep problems arise during life’s more difficult periods, brought on by the stress of having to deal with something that stretches your coping abilities. If you’ve ever had difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, you know all too well that sleep problems can wreak havoc with your mood, energy level, ability to focus, and work performance. Over time, sleep deprivation can lead to more serious mental health conditions, such as depression—an illness that can make it even more difficult for people to overcome any problems that they are facing.
To combat the negative effects of sleep deprivation, research has shown that music has the potential to increase both the quantity and quality of sleep. In one study, people who listened to 45 minutes of music while lying down to sleep every night for three weeks had feelings of more restful sleep, fell asleep faster after lying down, and slept for longer periods of time.
During difficult times, being well rested is a crucial part of being equipped to handle challenges, but it’s often an elusive state to attain. Soothing, enjoyable music is a natural antidote to the restlessness and exhaustion that accompany frustrating circumstances.
The United States is one of the world’s most prolific producers of popular art. The rich cultures and unique backgrounds of all Americans make the country an ideal place for art to flourish, and this diversity has had an obvious influence on music. People in the United States collectively appreciate a huge range of musical styles, but the most popular genres among Americans are the following four.
Rock and roll, or simply “rock,” originated in America in the 1950s, but quickly spread to England afterward. Each of these two countries played an important role in the development of the genre, but both have their own definition of what rock music is. From a general perspective, rock may be best defined as music with a strong beat that uses electric, amplified instruments to play fast-paced songs, though ballads in rock music are also commonplace.
Rock music would not have found the widespread success that it did without the guitar amplifier, then a new invention, as the amplifiers allowed musicians to play their music louder and to larger audiences than ever before. The intense energy and sense of belonging that young rock bands created for the youth of the mid-20th century carried the genre forward through the decades and allowed it to evolve, rather than die out. Some of the most important early musicians to influence the development of rock include Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix, who each contributed to the sound and lyrical content of the genre.
R&B, which stands for “rhythm and blues,” and hip-hop music are two styles that were grouped together in the late 20th century to represent one larger genre. R&B was the first of the two to enter the American music scene, and the term was used to describe a complex, melodic sound that appeared in the 1930s in African American communities. Inspired by jazz and gospel, the genre also incorporated elements of blues music, but relied on upbeat tempos and witty lyrics rather than the emotional, call-and-response style singing of the blues masters. Eventually, thanks to performers like Ray Charles, B.B. King, and Sam Cooke, this genre spawned what is now known as soul.
R&B continued to evolve, inspiring different styles within the genre, and eventually became one of many influences in the creation of hip-hop in the 1970s and 80s. Born in African American communities in the Bronx, New York, hip-hop is known for the incorporation of turntables, rapping, break dancing, and spoken rhyme into its songs. Pioneering artists in the genre include DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, the Cold Crush Brothers, and Kurtis Blow.
Unlike the rest of the genres included on this list, pop (short for “popular”) music is not easily defined by its characteristics, because they continually evolve and change with the times. Pop music is a name for a form of music that is purposely commercial, designed specifically to appeal to a mass audience. It is written by professionals who attach their names to the music, and thus stands in stark comparison to folk music, which was traditionally written by unknown musicians and achieved mass popularity in America through widespread performance and word-of-mouth in the early 20th century.
In the late 1800s in America, popular music was the kind of songs found in vaudeville or music halls. Later, rock and soul music would dominate the pop charts, an occurrence which continues to influence the pop music of today. No matter which genre of music has the greatest influence on pop at any given moment, most pop songs have a memorable melody, catchy lyrics, and a chorus that repeats several times. The subject matter of pop songs often focuses on the highs and lows of romantic relationships. Modern examples of pop music include songs from artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Adele, and Lady Gaga.
The country genre has a long, rural past—one rooted in the folk traditions of the American South, especially of the Appalachian Mountains. In general, country music encompasses songs made from a simple chord progression and simple, memorable lyrics that tend to follow a storyline. Country music incorporates the sounds of traditional instruments, many of which are stringed, including the banjo, the fiddle, the mandolin, and many different variations of acoustic or steel guitars. Vocalists in this genre also often sing in accented American English, with a “twang” to the voice.
Country music evolved in the homes and gatherings of people from mountain towns long before it was brought to the attention of the public. The first country songs were recorded for larger circulation in the 1920s. Once country hit the radio through broadcasts from programs like the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, the genre inspired a generation of performers. Some of the earliest and most influential names in country music include the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Merle Haggard. Though modern iterations of this style have evolved to incorporate more elements of pop, many artists continue to retain core facets of country music in the lyrical content and vocal style of their songs.
The human singing voice is arguably the most widely-used method of making music. About 98 percent of the world’s population has the ability to recognize the nuances between musical notes and identify when a note is in or out of tune. Additionally, every cultural group in existence has incorporated the act of singing into their societies in some way.
While early humans often sang to pray, recount history, or celebrate rites of passage, modern-day vocalists sing for artistic expression and the entertainment of others in a diverse array of styles. And although the voice may not be one of the world’s most difficult instruments, it is still important to care for one’s voice in order to give the best performance possible.
From the stylish tones of popular musical artists on the radio to the dramatic arias of opera singers on stages around the world, vocalists must be familiar with the following important voice care tips listed below.
Always Warm up before Singing
To sing, vocalists push air out of the lungs and between the vocal chords, which then contract and vibrate to produce sound. The process is a physical one, and like other physical activities, it requires an individual to warm up prior to practice in order to prevent damage and perform to the best of his or her ability.
A singer who takes the time to warm up his or her voice before a practice or performance will widen vocal range, sing with greater consistency, and have the ability to sing for a longer period of time. Singers who make warm ups a mandatory part of their routines can also help themselves avoid more serious injuries down the line, such as the development of nodules, or polyps in the vocal cords which often require surgery to repair.
Develop Good Lifestyle Habits
Leading a healthy lifestyle is an important part of life for many professional vocalists, and those who want to become accomplished singers should strive for a high standard of self-care. For example, regular physical exercise can help singers develop a healthy posture and better breath control, both of which are crucial to voice projection and manipulation.
Singers should also try to drink six to eight glasses of water every day and eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This increases one’s intake of vitamins A, C, and E, and aids in the healthy development of the throat’s mucus membranes. It is also important to limit caffeine, as it can cause both the larynx and the vocal cords to dry out.
Stay Relaxed When You Sing
Along with developing good posture, a vocalist must make sure to keep the muscles in his or her neck, throat, and jaw relaxed while performing. Singers often have the impulse to tighten the neck and raise the chin when singing high notes and lower the chin when singing low notes. Not only does this strain the vocal cords, but it also can limit a singer’s range over time.
Vocalists who sing through a clenched jaw run the risk of diminishing the projection of the voice. This can cause them to overcompensate for the muffled sound by singing louder than necessary, leading to vocal strain.
Avoid Actions That Cause Damage
There are a substantial number of everyday actions that can instantly harm the voice without a singer being aware of it. For example, a bout of yelling can cause damage to the lining of the vocal cords, as can excessive throat clearing and whispering. Too much talking when the throat feels hoarse, tired, or sore can also result in damage to the voice.
Additionally, acid reflux can have a negative impact on the vocal cords. Singers who experience this condition should talk to a medical professional in order to discuss the best course of action for reducing it.
To combat the effects of everyday damage, music professionals suggest giving the voice plenty of rest. Investing in a humidifier can prevent the air within the home from becoming dry, which can be harsh on the vocal cords.
Don't Sing When You're Sick
This should be an obvious tip, but many vocalists need to be reminded that when illness strikes, it is time to rest one's voice. Attempting to sing while sick puts even more strain on the voice than standard singing.
Not only that, singing was sick generally will not produce the quality of sound that a vocalist is capable of producing when healthy. Singers who are ill should take time to rest, drink plenty of water, and avoid talking until the throat and nasal passages return to normal.
Choose a Quality Vocal Coach
Ultimately, vocalists who are serious about their craft should consider enlisting the help of a professional to coach them. As noted above, the voice is an instrument. Like any other instrument, it requires practice and instruction to become truly proficient.
Singers should look for teachers who are experienced in the vocal techniques that the student is interested in, and who have the ability to make their students feel comfortable performing and asking questions. Great vocal coaches are goal-oriented instructors who help students make meaningful progress toward a better, stronger voice after every lesson.