The one instrument all humans have in common is their singing voice. The voice box (officially, the larynx) is one of the human body’s most amazing things. And there are so many different styles of singing – folk, pop, jazz, rock, choral and classical, to name but a few. Singers have to work hard, training the muscles in their throat and chest to produce a certain kind of sound, especially opera singers, who sing without a microphone!
The soprano voice goes as high as any human voice can go. A highly skilled and trained soprano can go fantastically high! Check out the ‘Queen of the Night aria’ from Mozart’s wonderful opera The Magic Flute. Can you go that high?
Younger boys’ voices sing in the soprano register as well, up until about the age of 13 or 14 when their voices ‘break’ or slip downwards. Boys’ and girls’ voices can go as high as adult female voices. One piece that shows this off wonderfully is the ‘Miserere’ by the early 17th century Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. Search for ‘Allegri’s Miserere’ online and hear the beautifully soaring high soprano line.
Mary Bevan is a wonderfully talented young British soprano. Her voice is at the stage right now where there is a perfect balance of purity (something that is more present in younger voices) and richness (as trained voices get older, they tend to gain more weight and variety of colour). Mary currently specialises in singing music by composers such as Bach, Handel, Mozart and Rossini.
Here, she sings a short extract from Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate.
Mezzo is the Italian word for ‘half’ or ‘middle’. There are three main female voice types. The highest and lowest are soprano and contralto, and mezzo-soprano is therefore the one in the middle of those. A ‘mezzo’, as these singers are often called, has a vocal range that is about a fifth (that’s half an octave) lower than a soprano’s. The true contralto is quite a rare voice type in classical singing now, and the mezzo-soprano tends to take the ‘alto’ line in ‘SATB’ line-ups. SATB is soprano-alto-tenor-bass.
Sarah Connolly is one of the world’s most celebrated ‘mezzos’. Listen to her singing here the opening of one of Gustav Mahler’s most emotionally powerful songs, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (I am lost to the world). She is accompanied by pianist Joseph Middleton.
Sarah’s first big successes were singing a variety of operatic roles that Handel wrote for voices of her range. She is now equally celebrated for her singing of music by Wagner, Mahler and Elgar, as well as songs for piano and voice by German and English composers.
Once a boy’s voice changes or ‘breaks’ at the age of 13 or 14, the naturally lower speaking or singing voice is known as ‘chest voice’. There is another kind of voice that men have, and that is called ‘falsetto’. This is the Italian word for ‘false voice’, and this higher voice type is known as the ‘counter tenor’ or ‘male alto’. Or BeeGee.
The highest chest-voice type of voice is called the tenor. Its range can go as high as an octave above middle C, but tenors with great ‘top Cs’ are quite rare, and they get paid more money than the rest! In a lot of operas, the tenor is the ‘romantic lead’. He is often the heroic-sounding, handsome one, but in other non-operatic classical music, there are lots of other kinds of music written for the tenor.
James Gilchrist is a particularly good example of the ‘lyric’ tenor, a lighter but always lovely type of tenor voice. He is prized around the world for his singing of baroque music (Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach and Handel) and a wide range of songs for solo voice and piano – composers such as Schubert and Schumann, and Britten and his 20th century contemporaries.
Here, James sings the opening verse of the first song from Schubert’s ‘song cycle’ (a sequence of songs) Die schöne Müllerin (The beautiful miller-girl).
If the tenor is the male equivalent of the soprano in terms of vocal range, then the baritone is the mezzo-soprano and bass is the contralto. Men who are proper basses sing very, very low. And high baritones can sing pretty high too (some of them are called ‘lazy tenors’!)
A Bass-Baritone is a singer who has some pretty useful low notes, but who can knock out a few higher notes too. The colour of a baritone voice is usually quite smooth and mellow, whereas a bass or bass-baritone has a darker, grittier quality in the voice.
The Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has been one of the most celebrated singers of any voice type since he started making an impact in his early 20s, about 30 years ago. There is terrific drama and power in his voice, and he has a very appealing, magnetic presence on stage. On page 8 of the book, Sergio Trunk talks about ‘charisma’. Bryn Terfel is the ultimate definition of musical charisma. He was knighted Sir Bryn Terfel by Her Majesty the Queen in early 2017.
Listen here to how, with some simple scales, Bryn warms up his voice before a performance.