Unless you just began signing, you probably know which part you typically sing. If you are female, you typically sing either alto, soprano one, or soprano two also referred to as mezzo-soprano. In some young men’s choirs, boys with very high voices sing alto, referred to as contralto or male alto. Think of the boy’s choir staple, “Ave Maria,” as an example of male alto.
In chorale music, with four or five parts, the alto part refers to the contrapuntal part higher than the tenor part, but lower than the soprano one or two parts. The word originates from the Latin word altus and the Italian word alto, both meaning “high.” While the word means high, the alto part refers to the lowest women’s voice type. The highest in the vocal range is the soprano one.
Vocal Range of an Alto
The vocal range of each alto varies, but consider the standard to range from F3 to F5 on the treble staff. Alto soloists typically have a greater range than a choral alto in both the lower and upper ranges. Beyond range, a contralto also boasts greater timbre and tessitura. Those with exceptional ranges may sing as low as D3, but an E5 or F5 would cap their range.
An Introduction to Singing Alto
While alto may consist of your typical vocal part, you may read this as a soprano ready to accept the challenge of singing a part lower than typical for you. Especially in opera singing or musical theater, altos receive juicy parts with warm, earthy solos. Their characters may tend toward the tough cookie role or the wise woman and their songs carry an everywoman character to them. Think of the song “There Are Worse Things” from the musical film “Grease,” made famous by actress and alto Stockard Channing.
Unless the part asks for a throaty voice, you still support from the diaphragm when signing the alto part. Rather than trying for the breathy, ringing tone of a soprano, you need to shoot for an open, warm tone. You may hear this referred to as “belting out” your solo. A soprano attempting the lower part can find this a challenge since they typically ring out each note and hit the highest notes. While they support fully, too, they are not expected to carry the punch of an alto.
Singing Alto: The Basics
Get started with the proper technique for singing alto using these seven basics.
1. You need your airflow clear, so relax your vocal cords and throat. Your tongue should rest on the top of your teeth and vocal cords relaxed to avoid restricting airflow. Rest your tongue on or at the top of your bottom teeth.
2. Jut your lower jaw forward to a more full and clear sound.
3. Breathe from your diaphragm so your lungs remain full to support each note. Your abdomen should rise as you inhale if you are doing this right.
4. Use what vocal instructors call the chest voice. This is your speaking voice as a singing voice. To learn to recognize this as you sing, begin speaking the song lyrics. Transition slowly to an “ooh” vocal warm-up sound. The “ooh” should trigger resonance in your chest. You should be able to feel this if you lay your hand over your chest.
5. Start with a soft, low volume. Gradually sing louder (without straining) as you practice.
6. Inhale slowly through your nose and mouth in a sort of relaxed yawn to teach yourself how to create open space in your throat, mouth, and nose. You should be able to feel the added air and open space. Humming can also help you develop this ability. Hum and move the hum from your throat to your chest and throughout your headspace.
7. Sing with a choir or chorus in the alto section. If you are in school, ask your chorus teacher if you can sit with altos for a day or two, rather than in the soprano section. Explain the part you want to learn and your need to listen to a group of altos so you can better learn and match the part by hearing others sing it. Hearing others sing the part will let you determine how you should sound when you hit low notes.
Finding Your Alto Range
Start with middle C on the piano or keyboard, playing the note, then matching it with your voice until you reach a note you cannot hit. If you do not have access to these musical instruments, use a smartphone, tablet, or computer to access an online MIDI keyboard. You could install a free program like Anvil Studio for Windows or an Android app like MIDI Keyboard or ORG 2021. You can use these to play the sound of the notes so you have the appropriate key to sing along to while learning and developing your vocal range.
First, sing to the bottom of your register. Work your way down from middle C as if you were performing vocal scales, but simply progress, octave by octave, down the piano to determine your natural range. The end of your natural range is the note you can hit consistently and sustain strongly. Strongly means you do not run out of breath when holding it for a full count of at least a whole note (four quarter notes). Preferably, you can hold it for the duration of two whole notes by supporting from your diaphragm.
Developing Your Range
Although you probably want to gallop ahead and progress your vocal range, take the slow approach, budding alto. You need to practice the range you have for at least a week if you just began singing. If you have sung in a choir or chorus for some time, you may already feel comfortable, but at least spend a few days warming up your existing alto range.
After a week, begin the process of challenging your range. You do this one half-step at a time. That may seem snail’s pace, but you could hurt your vocal cords if you try to force your range. You move one half-step down and learn that lower note. Once you can successfully hit it immediately and hold it at least a whole note for a week, you can try moving down another half-step. While this sounds arduous, it ensures you are not just hitting the note on a fluke and that you have developed your voice to consistently sing the note. While you can do this at home on your own, it is a great idea to talk with your voice teacher or chorus, or choir director first. They will have tips and may offer to work with such a serious student during lunchtime or after school.
You will know that you reached the bottom of your range when you strain to hit a low note. Your range consists of those notes you can comfortably hit and successfully sustain. Now, you repeat the process to find your upper range. You begin at middle C and move up the keyboard to find your natural highest note in your range. You also take your time with the higher notes of your range so you do not rush and harm your voice.
Tip: Never skip warmups. Start with a few deep breaths. Sing a few “O-h-i-o” warm-ups and run through the scales in your mid-range first. Practice some general singing exercises daily, too.
Developing Your Alto Voice
Alto provides the full tone of a female voice rich and vibrant. You need to develop a warm chest voice. An alto voice features far more resonance. Focus on supporting the notes as you sing them and making them powerful and audible.
While vocal exercises help you develop your range, you would quickly become bored if the only thing you sang was “O-h-i-o,”“ah,” “ee,” and “oo.” While you need those for warming up your voice, you need to choose a few songs to work on learning perfectly. Pick easy songs to sing that you know well and have access to recordings of their performance. It helps if more than one alto has recorded the song, so you can listen to multiple renditions and compare the performances. Choosing something from a well-known Broadway musical makes good sense because you can find recordings online of various performances with a variety of performers. Most shows use a different road tour cast than New York City cast.
You can also find MIDI recordings of these songs. A MIDI recording only has the instrumental tracks of the song. Think of it as a karaoke recording of the song. This lets you sing along to the music without another voice as competition. You will hear only your own vocal quality and more easily be able to tell if you matched the note of the alto part.
With a choral piece, you would typically have at least four parts. When you practice it, you might feel something is “missing” because its arrangement suits four parts. The alto part never carries the melody line. For this reason, even if you typically sing in a choir or chorus, you should practice developing your voice on solo alto songs. That may mean singing something you are not used to singing. Most solo alto pieces consist of songs from musicals, opera, and a smattering of pop songs although not as many as you might think.
Pop singer Cher sings alto, so you could try something old school like “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” or “Do You Believe in Life After Love?” Annie Lennox, another famous pop alto, provides gems like “Here Comes the Rain Again,” “Why,” and “Walking on Broken Glass.” You might also try a selection from Tracy Chapman like “Fast Car” or “Give Me One Reason.” Now, if you are a younger singer, you probably groaned because that sounds like your parents’ music. Sorry.
Here’s the deal. Few actual altos exist. Most female singers that people peg as alto actually sing mezzo-soprano. Miley Cyrus falls into that category, as does Lorde and Adele. Those ladies currently on the radio actually sing a different part than you, determined alto. Their music will go a little higher in range than you need. So, while “Rolling in the Deep” is fierce, it is not alto.
You will have a much easier time finding true alto parts if you select from opera although this may fall outside of your musical interests. If you want to push your limits or explore classical music, try Verdi’s “Re dell’ abisso” or Handel’s “Verdi prati, selve amene.”
Broadway musicals offer a few selections for the lower female voice, too. A few to try include “Lucky” from A Little Princess, “It’s a Business” from Curtains, and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” from the musical of the same name.
Songs make practice more fun. You also have something to show off for all the work you put into developing your alto voice.
Once you define your range and begin building it, you may think that hours of practice each day will make you a better singer quickly. The opposite is true.
You should spend about half an hour each day on training your voice and building your vocal range. Try to schedule this practice for first thing in the morning. Your voice is fresh then and capable of hitting higher notes than typical.
Practicing too much can strain your voice. It also might bore you in the beginning. When you first begin studying voice, you practice scales. Anything more than half an hour and you will need espresso.
When first learning how to sing alto, rehearse in private. This makes you less self-conscious since you hear yourself, but no one else does.
As you develop your range and begin practicing a song or two, you can add a second practice time. Make it later in the day to give your voice a break. You will still need to do a few minutes of warmups before launching into practicing the song. You can learn the song phrase by phrase, or sing it straight through multiple times. It will take more than one practice session to really learn a song. Ideally, you will stick with each so that you no longer need to sight-read the music, but memorize the notes and can capably perform the song with either a backing track such as the MIDI recording or acapella.
Learning to Belt Out the Alto Part
Most people associate alto parts in songs with the gravely voiced or the bold. While a soprano must hit high, bright notes, the alto can punch a delivery like a boxer with a KO. Alto songs rarely sound dainty or full of lilt. Instead, the alto solo typically has a fiery feel to it or a brassy sexiness. These parts require a delivery to match that.
Work on your self-confidence and develop a bold delivery. You must plant yourself on stage. Rather than imagining yourself as a willow tree, envision yourself as a mighty oak. Open your mouth, support from your diaphragm, let each note ring out and support it to its full extent. Remember to sing with your chest voice and project to the back of the auditorium. Your full, resonant alto will reach even those sitting on the balcony.
James is an ex-writer for Music Grotto who focused the majority of his writing on the musical skill development content on the publication. His 20+ year career as a singing and vocal coach provided insightful content for the website, and his continued thirst for development in guitar and piano playing helped create some excellent skill development content for the publication.