Discovering your voice type is the first—and most important—step in figuring out what your voice is capable of and how much you can improve it. So, how do you go about doing it?
While you might not be interested in singing Opera at all, Opera has come up with a comprehensive system for determining voice types.
They've used it since the 19th century, but it is full of confusing terminology. I'm going to go through all the main points of the Fach system, and my goal is to make it easier to find your voice type, which will make you a much more advanced singer overall!
First: Understand the "Fach" System
What is the Fach system?
The Fach system is a vocal classification system designed by German opera houses in the 19th century, which ensured that the right performers were auditioning for the right parts in their operas.
In hindsight, of course, it seems evident that you wouldn't want a low bass in a tenor part, but there was once a time when those distinctions didn't exist.
The system breaks down voice types into six main categories, based primarily on gender and range. It then breaks down the classification further based on several variables including vocal range, vocal registers, weight, timbre, and physical qualities. By making these specific designations within the vocal types, operas are more likely to attract an artist who comfortably fills the part with no complications.
Using this logic, it would be a good idea to study up on some Opera singing to really start to understand your voice better.
Women's voices break down into three main categories: Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, and Contralto. Each group has separate specialties that designate the character type and vocal range of the characters within it. This complicates the process but adds specificity.
Like women's vocal types, men's voices break down into three main categories that illustrate their broad range and then contain specializations within each group. The primary classes are Tenor, Baritone, and Bass.
Consider These Variables in Finding Your Voice Type
With all those operatic classifications and specifications, where do you even start to figure out what your voice type is? First, try not to be overwhelmed by all of it.
I'll walk through the main variables that the professionals use to designate voice types.
Range - Your range determines your fundamental vocal category. It's a measure of the notes you can comfortably hit without straining your voice. Check online for guides on how best to assess your vocal range. There are many apps and articles with step-by-step instructions on how to self-assess.
Tessitura - Tessitura acts as a marker within each vocal category. It marks the point where you switch from a chest voice to a head voice. Your lowest and your highest possible notes may determine your range classification, but tessitura determines which notes within that range are the easiest for you to sustain.
Transitions - Transitions mark your facility for switching between your head voice and your chest voice and vice versa. It illustrates your skill in changing notes and moving along the scale to a different form of singing.
Vocal Registers - Transition determines where your register's breaking point is. Once you've figured that out, go back and determine how much of your range is in each scale between your chest voice and your head voice.
Weight - Weight is a difficult thing to measure. Think of it as the character of a voice. Some people have a deeper, fuller sound within their classification, while others may sound lighter and more versatile.
Age/experience - If you've heard children sing, you know that there is a vast difference between the same notes sung by a child and a 50-year-old. For one thing, your voice isn't fully mature until you reach a certain age, and from that point, different experiences affect your vocal cords.
Size - In one sense, 'size' includes volume. It's a measure of dramatic intensity, which incorporates power. So, this is a measure of how much volume and intensity you sing with comfortably (not while straining).
Speech Level - This measures your fundamental speech level or the typical notes you use when speaking. There is even a school of thought that suggests that you should insist on singing within your average speech level to create the best tones.
Timbre - Timbre is a complicated concept similar to color tones. Think of the color pink, then think of hot pink versus cool pink. You know they're different, and yet they're both pink. Timbre seeks to explain the different characteristics between two identical notes. It's a measure of precise technique and minuscule physiological changes in sound production.
Physical qualities - Your build and general physical attributes affect the character of your voice through distinct, almost imperceptible ways.
A larger person likely has a different vocal style than a thinner person simply because of the different ways air resonates with their voice. It's similar to subtle differences in the construction of musical instruments.
Read Next: Head Voice vs. Falsetto Voice
Female Voice Types
The soprano is the top of the musical scale, singing in the highest pitch of any other classification. Their range generally covers from middle C to high soprano C, which is two octaves above the middle C.
There are five subcategories of Sopranos:
Lyric Coloratura Soprano - A lighter weight to the voice designates these. It's characterized by liveliness and high agility while still having a rich sound.
Dramatic Coloratura Soprano - Dramatic sopranos generally have more power and deeper tones, but still contain a lot of ability.
Lyric Soprano - Lyric Sopranos have a warm timbre with a lot of power. Their range extends from middle C to High D.
Dramatic Soprano - These often have a darker timbre than other sopranos but contain a lot of power. Their tessitura is usually lower than other sopranos.
Character Soprano - These are often considered the 'jack of all trades' of sopranos. They're often found more in musical theatre than Opera, and their basic range is usually between A3 and B5, but they're versatile enough to stretch further.
Mezzo-sopranos exist between the Soprano and Contralto, naturally enough. In Opera, they're frequently (but not always) secondary characters. Learn about the Alto singing voice here.
Their range is typically between the A below the middle C and the A two octaves higher.
Coloratura Mezzo-Soprano - These singers have the most agility of all the Mezzo-sopranos and have a hearty lower register and a lively high register. Coloratura Mezzo-Sopranos can dip below the normal range for Sopranos.
Lyric Mezzo-Soprano - Lyric Mezzo-Sopranos usually lack the quickness of coloraturas. They traditionally have a limited range between the G below the middle C to the A two octaves above the middle C. You often hear this warm voice with smooth, long tones.
Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano - Dramatic Mezzo-Sopranos don't have the versatile range of the coloratura, but they frequently can project better with a much warmer high register than either of them. This singer type is often used in Opera to portray older women, witches, and other evil characters.
What's nice is that this voice type gives you flexibility, something that Christina Aguilera mentions in her online masterclass singing course.
Contralto is generally the lowest of the female voice types. It's a rare vocal type with a low tessitura, and it's often referred to as a 'female tenor.'
Coloratura Contralto - This is a rare vocal type that is light and airy with a lot of virtuosity capable of quick, high notes. Yet, it still maintains the lower register notes of the normal contralto range.
Lyric Contralto - Lyric contraltos don't usually have the versatility of the Coloratura Contralto but can still contain higher register notes.
Dramatic Contralto - This is the lowest and most potent of the Contralto. Dramatic Contralto has a dense timbre and is powerful enough to be heard over a full orchestra.
Male Voice Types
The tenor is the highest vocal classification for men and is relatively rare in its legitimate form as the majority of men fall within the Baritone classification.
There are six significant sub-classifications within the tenor set.
High Tenor - High tenor features a high tessitura and is very versatile. It's the highest voice in the Tenor range and features rich textures.
Light Tenor - This is also called leggero tenor. It is light but capable of a lot of variation.
Lyric Tenor - Lyric tenors have a lower, warmer timbre with a lot of strength and weight, which means they can project well.
Dramatic Tenor - These tenors have a rich and powerful voice. It ranges from the B1 octave below Middle C to the B1 octave above the middle C. Dramatic tenors often have a heroic sound.
Character Tenor - Character tenors are typically darker and capable of sustaining long, low, heroic notes. It's a dominant vocal type that extends over the orchestra without being flashy with virtuosity.
Baritone-tenor - This is the last official tenor within that range. Its lower register crosses over into Baritone, which means it has a rich and deep natural range without a great deal of variability.
Composers usually write music for the Baritone between the second F below the middle C to the F above middle C. The word Baritone actually means 'heavy-sounding.'
Lyric Baritone - Lyric Baritones have a higher tessitura and are therefore lighter and higher. It's similar in range to a tenor with a lower overall register.
Cavalier Baritone - Cavalier baritones have enough versatility to sing lyric and dramatic roles with a powerful, but not overwhelming weight.
Dramatic Baritone - Dramatic Baritones have a darker quality and are written for music between the G half an octave below middle C to the G above middle C.
Bass Baritone - The lowest of the baritones, Bass-baritone crosses the line between high bass and Baritone. It has the lower register of the bass, but a higher tessitura.
Bass is the lowest vocal type of all, characterized by dense, deep, and rich vocal tones. It usually exists between the second E below middle C to the E above middle C.
Lyric High Bass – These singers usually have a higher vibrato with a higher tessitura than other bass voices. Capable of excellent agility and range.
Acting Bass – Acting bass features a lot of versatility in a coloratura technique that makes it perfect for more substantial, comedic parts.
Lyric Basso Profundo - This is characterized by deep, low, vibrant notes that eschew the vibrato but can still contain elements of 'wobble.'
Low Bass – Low Bass is the lowest of the low and usually full of power.
Know Your Voice Type for Improved Vocal Performance!
By now, you're likely wondering just what use all of this is for your singing and your improvement. That is if you haven't thrown up your hands in disgust with all the terms and jargon, of course. Either way, knowing your voice type is critical to your improvement as a singer.
Before I discuss why it's so important, though, it might be useful to address how you fit yourself within these classifications.
Of course, there are voice lessons which will assess your voice for you (amongst making you a better singer overall), as well as online videos that can help you pinpoint your vocal type without the expense. The simplest— and cheapest— way is to do it yourself.
Start by finding the middle C on a piano scale. Try to match that note. Then, if you hit it, go up and down the scale matching each note until you feel your voice strain. Mark the places on the scale where you first think your voice is straining.
Be aware of which note causes you to shift from your chest voice to your head voice. That marks your tessitura, which is an important consideration when figuring out your voice type.
Knowing your voice type lets you set a playlist and sing within your vocal range without straining your voice, losing breath, or damaging your vocal cords. Singing within your type of voice tones also helps you set a practice regimen that allows you to improve.
Knowing your vocal type helps you build confidence in your voice, helps you with learning how to sing better in general, and it strengthens your vocal cords to enable you to hit higher notes and get the kind of power you desire.
The practice is, as always, the key to improvement, but you don't want to aim high and miss because you can severely damage your voice.