Vocal Classification: Busting The Myth

Soprano? Alto? Treble? Tenor? What does it all mean? Does it really matter if you belong to a specific vocal part in a choral group? Should you be worried that your choirmaster or choral director keeps speculating when it comes to your voice classification? Maybe. Just maybe.

The need for polyphonic texture back in the days of the Renaissance period was an advancement in the music of the time. Secular music had begun to increase in importance and Sacred music composers like Da Palestrina and Byrd were breaking the norms and setting new pace. The Gregorian Chant began to give way to parted music, essentially up to five-part polyphony.

Over the years, several misconceptions have arisen and tainted the goodwill of the fathers of music. We shall now study common vocal classification myths.

  1. “You can sing high, so you must be a Soprano (or Tenor)”. This is by far the most widespread misconception that even experienced vocal teachers are guilty of. This applies to lower voiced singers too. Classifying a voice based on the section that is most comfortable (tessitura) is a half-baked method that still returns to haunt many singers. Vocal classification is much more than tessitura; it encompasses vocal weight, texture, range and color to mention a few. Without proper voice finding, a singer may be assigned the wrong part in a choir and begin to inculcate poor habits unknowingly leading to a long period of frustration. This is why basic vocal training prior to joining a choir is always advised.
  1.  “This is not your part”. Beginning in the Renaissance period and gaining form and prominence in the baroque era, polyphony served to add color and style to melody, culminating in the formation of harmony. Singers were employed to sing vocal lines designated as Cantus Firmus or Soprano (a high and prominent female voice carrying the melody), Alto (a low female voice supporting the melody line), Contra or Countertenor (a high male voice in the soprano range), Tenor (a high male voice carrying a counter melody) and Bass (a low male giving a background and structure to the harmony). These were not designated or classified into parts; they were only employed to sing vocal lines that were appropriate to the specified gender.
  1. I am an Alto (or Bass) because it is not a difficult part”. Classifying oneself based on the perceived ease of singing a part is quite wrong. Everyone is born with a different set of vocal folds varying in length, shape, and thickness and these normally determine the natural tessitura and possible vocal part. The fact that a particular part seems easy to sing may be due to ease of the piece or other factor unrelated to the singer’s vocal mechanism.

Voice classification encompasses several factors of which the most important are tessitura, range and texture. All these are a direct function of the vocal folds, which are a primary manipulator of sound. It is of little importance to solo singers in genres like pop, soul and RnB but of great essence to choral singers since they must sing with others to create a polyphonic texture. Singers should not be in a hurry to classify their voices as they may be wrong at the first instance. Voices mature over time and a baritone singer in his twenties may discover a heavier or lighter vocal mechanism by his late thirties. Male voices undergo the most profound of changes (especially register and pitch changes), while the female voices mostly experience timbral changes.

It is most expedient for the neophyte chorister to focus on singing in a range that she/he is most comfortable while performing continuous exercises and undergoing voice training so as to keep the voice in shape, awaiting the arrival of the ‘true’ voice. In doing this, healthy vocal habits will be assimilated and the question of vocal classification will be given a backseat until the individual is ready to advance his vocal studies or attains vocal maturation. 

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