Voice classification in non-classical music
There is no authoritative system of voice classification in non-classical music as classical terms are used to describe not merely various vocal ranges, but specific vocal timbres unique to each range. These timbres are produced by classical training techniques with which most popular singers are not intimately familiar, and which even those that are do not universally employ.
The term non-classical music is typically used to describe music in jazz, pop, blues, soul, country, folk, and rock styles. In the USA Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM) is being used by some vocal pedagogues. Voice classification systems and vocal type terms were initially created for the purpose of classifying voices specifically within classical singing. As new styles of music developed, the quest for common terms for vocalists throughout these styles was sought, resulting in a loose application of the existing classical music practices. This haphazard and un-systematic approach to contemporary voices has been going on for years.
Approaches to voice classification in classical music
There are two overall approaches within voice classification: one for opera vocalists and one for choral music parts. One of the major differences in classifying voices between these two is that choral music classifies voices entirely upon vocal range, whereas in opera classification systems many other factors are considered. Indeed, tessitura (where the voice feels most comfortable singing) and vocal timbre (the innate quality of sound to the voice) are more important factors than vocal range within opera categorization. Within opera there are several systems in use including the German Fach system, the Italian opera tradition, and French opera tradition.
All of these approaches to voice classification use some of the same terminology which sometimes causes people to confuse them with each other. In the operatic systems there are six basic voice types and then several sub-types within each type. For women: soprano, mezzo-soprano, and contralto. For men: tenor, baritone, and bass. Within choral music there are only four categories for adult singers. First, for women: soprano and alto, and for men: tenor and bass. Within England, the term "male alto" is used to refer to a man who uses falsetto vocal production to sing in the alto section of a chorus. This practice is much less common outside of the UK where the term countertenor is more often applied. Countertenors are also widely employed within opera as solo vocalists. The term male alto is never used to refer to a solo vocalist. Children's voices, both male and female, are described as trebles, although the term boy soprano is widely used as well.
Applying voice classification to non-classical singing
In non-classical singing, it is difficult to place voices within either system for two major reasons. First, these voice categorizations were made with the understanding that the singer would be using classical vocal technique. These specific techniques, through study and training, result in a particular kind of vocal production and vocal timbre for each voice type which is unique to classical music. This is particularly problematic when trying to apply the operatic terms, as the vocal types are more descriptive of vocal timbre and vocal facility than simple vocal range. For example, one category of voice in opera is a contralto, which is the lowest female voice in the operatic system. One of the qualifying characteristics of this voice is a deep and dark quality to the vocal sound. This quality is not entirely innate to the voice, but is developed through classical vocal training. So although a singer in another genre might have a range equivalent to a contralto, they would not have a similar sound.
“These differences in voice qualities are reflections on variation in the muscular, aerodynamic, and acoustical conditions in the larynx and in the vocal tract. The subglottal pressure, the driving force in phonation, needs to be adapted in accordance with the laryngeal conditions.” In other words, the very act of singing consistently within one technique or another literally causes the voice to physically develop in different ways, and thus change the timbre of that particular voice.
Another example would be a coloratura soprano in opera. This is not only the highest female voice in opera, but also distinguished by its ability to do vocal acrobatic leaps, fast vocal runs and trills, and free movement within the highest part of the voice. A non-opera singer might be able to sing as high as a coloratura soprano, but they would not be able to do the vocal acrobatics of a coloratura soprano without classical technique and training. Therefore, the voice classification system in opera is not really applicable to singers in other genres.
A second problem in applying these systems is a question of range specification. This is particularly a problem when trying to apply the choral music system to the non-classical singer. The choral system was developed to delineate polyphonic structure and was not really intended to designate a vocal type to individual singers. In other words, choral music was designed to be broken down into four vocal sections and it is the sections themselves that are labeled soprano, alto, tenor, and bass and not the individual singers. For example, most women that sing the alto line in choirs would be considered mezzo-sopranos in opera due to their vocal timbre and their particular range resting somewhere in the middle between a soprano and contralto. A small portion of them, however, would most likely be contraltos. Therefore, one could say, "I am a mezzo-soprano singing the alto line", and the other "I am a contralto singing the alto line." They have two different ranges and sounds but they are singing the same part. This is important to understand, because it means that choral music isn't really about vocal type but about vocal range within a specific type of music: choral music. It is not uncommon for men with higher voices to sing the alto line or women with lower voices to sing the tenor line. It is, however, improper for a man to call himself an alto or a soprano, or a woman a tenor or bass. A woman who sings the tenor line is really a contralto when applied to the classical vocal type system, and a man who sings alto or soprano a countertenor or sopranist.
That being said, non-classical singers can adopt some of the terms from both systems, but not all of them, when classifying their voices. The six-part structure of the operatic system is much preferable to the four-part choral system for non-classical singers because it has three sets of vocal ranges instead of two to choose from. Most people's voices fall within the middle categories of mezzo-soprano for women and baritone for men. There are also a fair number of tenors and sopranos, but true basses and contraltos are rare.
The sub-categories in opera, however, should never be applied to a non-classical singer, for they are too closely associated with classical vocal technique. Words like lyric, dramatic, coloratura, and other defining qualities should never be applied to a non-classical singer. Also specific kinds of voices like soubrette and spinto should not be used outside of classical singing. The main categories, however, can be, as long as they refer solely to range. A non-classical singer could use the chart that follows.
Vocal categories and ranges for non-classical singers
- Soprano: The highest female voice being able to sing roughly between C4 (middle C) and C6 (high C), and possibly higher.
- Mezzo-soprano: A female voice in between the soprano and contralto that is able to sing roughly between A3 (A below middle C) and A5 (two octaves above A3). Some mezzos may be able to sing slightly lower or higher.
- Contralto: The lowest female voice being able to sing roughly between F3 (F below middle C) and E5, and possibly lower. Some very rare contraltos share a similar range to the tenor.
- Tenor: The highest male voice being able to sing roughly between B2 (2nd B below middle C) and A4 (A above Middle C), and possibly higher.
- Baritone: A male voice in between the tenor and bass that is able to sing between G2 (two Gs below middle C) and F4 (F above middle C). Some baritones may be able to sing slightly lower or higher.
- Bass: The lowest male voice being able to sing roughly between E2 (Two Es below middle C) and E4 (The E above middle C), and possibly lower.
Some men can sing in the same range as women using their falsetto voices or as a result of some rare physiological conditions. These men do not fall into the three female categories. These men are known as countertenors within classical music. Within contemporary music, however, the use of the term tenor for these male voices would be more appropriate.
Vocal pedagogical methods for contemporary commercial music
Teaching voice within non-classical music is an emerging field. Up to this point, voice teachers and voice research have been largely concentrated with classical methods of singing. However, new approaches and methods to teaching non-classical voice have recently emerged, such as the Complete Vocal Technique (CVT) by Catherine Sadolin at Complete Vocal Institute or Speech Level Singing (SLS) by Seth Riggs. Another examples is Jeannette LoVetri's method known as Somatic Voicework. It has really only been within the last few years that music conservatories and music programs within universities have begun to embrace these alternative methodologies suitable to other kinds of vocal music. As an example, the Dutch conservatories requires all vocal teachers to have undergone CVT training, and all Danish conservatory vocal teaching covers the CVT method. Likewise, LoVetri teaches the Somatic Voicework method in the graduate vocal music department at Shenandoah University in the U.S.
- List of baritones in non-classical music
- List of tenors in non-classical music
- List of contraltos in non-classical music
- List of mezzo-sopranos in non-classical music
- List of sopranos in non-classical music
- Vocal register
- Voice type
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