What is a Vocal Range?

A vocal range is the extent of a person's singing voice from the lowest (or heaviest) tone, up to the highest (or lightest) tone. The extreme ends of a person's vocal compass are prone to be unbalanced and unreliable, and the mode of production has to be what a person can normally use. What determines a person's vocal range is the size and mass of their larynx, the length and strength of their vocal cords and the way in which they shape and modify the core laryngeal tone.

The otorinolaryngologist D Garfield Davies says, 'using the various laryngeal muscles and varying the supraglottic resonators, the human voice has a total range of five and a half octaves, from two and a half octaves below middle C to two octaves above. Of course the predominant range of an individual's voice is predetermined by the anatomy of the vocal mechanism. A bass cannot sing in the tenor range, and most sopranos cannot sing alto. (p10 'Care of the Professional Voice, 1998.)

The most common vocal classification in western music is the S.A.T.B. system of choral music, or Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass. The soprano voice is the lightest and therefore the highest in pitch, and the Bass voice is the heaviest and therefore the lowest in pitch.

Eric Taylor gives the following vocal ranges in 'The AB Guide to Music Theory, Part 2, 1991):

Note that the tenor range is transposed down one octave. Another way of recording the ranges, using U.S.A. Standards Association notation, is:-
Soprano C4 to A5, Alto G3 to D5, Tenor C3 to A4 and Bass F2 to D4.

The Oxford Companion to Music states that the normal range of these voices is not possible to define, but offers these values:-

Soprano B3 to B5, Alto E3 to E5, Tenor A2 to A4 and Bass D2 to D4

which are wider and imply greater choral experience and probably some training. It puts the total range of the human voice at five and a half octaves.

Vocal Tessitura and Key.

Distinct from the range of a voice or a single song, is the general position of the vocal line which may be high, medium or low. This is denoted by the term 'tessitura' which is Italian for 'texture'. Hence a song with a high tessitura would have a melodic line which lies high in the voice. Conversely a song with a low tessitura would not suit a high voice, because the texture is low.

The question of key is secondary to that of tessitura. The key of a song simply relates to the sharps, flats and naturals which are prescribed by the key-signature. The adjectives high, medium or low are more meaningful. What a singer needs to know is their vocal range and whether the tessitura of the song would suit their particular voice. If the song's tessitura is too high or too low, then the song's key must be changed. The singer must find a song in the right key to fit his or her vocal range. It is not the case that one special key will match your voice. It is not a question of key but of texture.

What are Vocal Registers?

Vocal registers have been recognised since the thirteenth century, by the different sounds each register could produce. In A.D. 1250, two men John of Garland and Jerome of Moravia identified what they felt were three registers: the head, the throat and the chest, which could be associated with a light - very probably falsetto - voice, medium tone and heavy tone.

In 1841, Manuel Garcia the Younger defined them in his 'Traite' as 'a series of consecutive and homogenius tones going from low to high, produced by the same mechanical principle, and whose nature differs essentially from another series of tones produced by another mechanical priciple. All the tones belonging to the same register are consequently of the same nature, whatever may be the modification of timbre or of force to which one subjects them.'

In 1863 Hermann Helmholz, in his book 'On the sensations of Tone' defines a register as, 'a series of tones produced by the same mechanism'. He proceeds to identify changes in the thickness of the vocal folds, changes in the vibratory pattern and changes of laryngeal position. Manuel Garcia identifies three registers: chest, medium and head. (He appears to ignore the falsetto voice.) Helmholtz identifies five registers: 'lower thick', 'upper thick', 'lower thin', 'upper thin' and -in ladies only - 'small'. The small register might conceivably be referring to a 'whistle' register or a 'falsetto' voice. Today the use of the word 'register' is taken to refer to the resonance phenomenon which is only apparent to the singers and helps him or her to achieve a desired tone at a given pitch.

We now know that the lower part of a singer's voice, called 'Chest Register', is determined by the tension in the vocalis and arytenoid muscles. The upper part of the voice, called 'Head Register' is controlled by the crico-thyroid muscle, which tilts the thyroid cartilage forward, stretching and thinning the lips of the vocalis muscle.

A singer will understand the term register from the resonance which they feel and hear, whereas a speech and language therapist or pathologist will understand the term register refers to the vibratory characteristics of the vocal folds, which are vocal fry, modal voice, falsetto and whistle registers. As the singer cannot feel the vibratory characteristics of the vocal folds, there exists a potentially confusing dichotomy between the scientist and artist. Some singers and teachers avoid the use of what they see as confusing terminology and create incremental changes which they call 'gear changes'. The visual analogy of chest and head resonance has endured because it is meaningful to the singer, who can feel some vibratory sensation in the mask or the chest, although those sensations are too slight to be measured by scientific instruments.

Most recently Jo Estill, using vocal figures to define and describe tonal quality has identified six main vocal qualities, which arguably constitute six registers, by Garcia's definition. Estill avoids confusion by referring to them as Voice Qualities. For further information on Estill's Vocal Figures see the article 'How the Voice is Made'. click here.

Chest and head and passaggio

Historically, singers have preferred to concentrate on two vocal registers, chest and head (or speech and sob). The sensations of tone arising from each are clear and distinct. They are adjacent to each other and have an area of overlap, which is called the 'passaggio'. This region of voice requires a blended production which probably uses a mixture of speech and sob action. The singer by experience learns to coordinate the muscular and breath action to avoid an abrupt change of tone at the passaggio break. It is accomplished by trial and error, since the problem cannot be solved by a one size fits all voices solution. The shape and character of the musical phrase will also dictate where the singer changes register. It is not an exact science and a one size fits all voices is not appropriate.

Garcia placed this passagio between e and f, above middle c, in all voices. Most authorities accept this as accurate. William Vennard and van den Berg attribute the cause of the noticeable break which can occur to the inherent resonance of the bronchotracheal tract, directly below the larynx. As a rule of thumb the singer should not habitually take the chest register too high too often, because it is fatiguing and renders the voice liable to injury and vocal problems which cannot be resolved.

Why Vocal Registers are Important

Vocal registers occur naturally in all voices and they are evidence of different muscular actions taking place in the singer's larynx. Carolus Lehfeldt's book 'Nonnulla de vocis formatione' published in 1835, stated that there was a difference in the appearance of the vocal cords in chest voice and the vocal cords in falsetto voice, when the examined with a laryngeal mirror. All subsequent investigations have confirmed this. Thus the existence of vocal registers cannot be ignored. The larnyx is a moveable structure which should be allowed to move as it wishes, when it wishes and how it wishes. The wise singer will allow their larynx to work freely and comfortably. To inhibite the movement of the larynx and force the voice to operate in one vocal register alone is not good technique. The voice will tire more quickly and probably hoarseness will occur. The singer is bruising his or her voice by forcing it and a bruised voice will take around three days to recover at best. The long-term prognosis is not good it is likely that a more chronic vocal condition will develop.

It should be remembered that the singers cannot hear his or her own voice as other people hear it. The ears are not placed in a position which allows us to monitor our own tone. A more reliable method of monitoring our performance is to judge the tone, primarily, based on what it feels like. Comfortable tone is optimal vocal performance and comfortable tone will always develop favourably. Dramatic use of the voice from time to time may require sub-optimal vocal performance for effect, but the singer must know how to get back to the comfortable tone and allow time if vocal recovery is required.

To return to my homepage click here.

Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Jessop.