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Voice classification in non-classical music: Wikis


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There is currently no authoritative system of voice classification in non-classical music.[1] The problem lies in the fact that classical terms are used to describe not merely various vocal ranges, but specific vocal timbres each unique to those respective ranges, and produced by the 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.[2] The quest for common terms for vocalists throughout these styles, more related to the music and the voice timbres rather than just being non-classical, has been going on for years. Voice classification systems and vocal type terms that have been loosely applied to contemporary voices were created for the purpose of classifying voices specifically within classical singing. There are two overall approaches within voice classification: one for opera vocalists and one for choral music parts. 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.[3] 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.[4] Within choral music there are only four, which can be classified in several different ways. First, for women: soprano and alto, and for men: tenor and bass.[5] Second, for boys: treble and for men alto, tenor and bass (ref: most sacred choral music). Third, as the second but with women sopranos instead of boy trebles (ref: the modern trend to have women in church choirs).

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 range which is unique to classical music.[6] 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.[6]

“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.[2]

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.[7] 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.[3] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[1] 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.[1] 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

The ranges given below are approximations and are not meant to be too rigidly applied.[1]

  • 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.
  • Countertenor: This highest male voice range applies to men who can sing in the same range as women using a falsetto voice or as a result of some rare physiological conditions. These men do not fall into the three female categories. Within contemporary music, however, the use of the term tenor for these male voices would be more appropriate.[6]
  • Tenor: The highest male voice (without counting countertenor) being able to sing roughly between B2 (2nd B below middle C) and B4 (B 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 A1 (Three As below middle C) and middle C, and possibly lower.

Vocal pedagogical methods for contemporary commercial music

Teaching voice within non-classical music is an emerging field. Up to this point, voice teachers have been almost entirely concentrated within classical methods of singing. It has really only been within the last few years that music conservatories and music programs with universities have begun to embrace other methodologies suitable to other kinds of vocal music. There is currently not one consistent method in approaching non-classical music but several approaches, most of them not very systematic. Probably the most well thought of method is Jeannette LoVetri's method known as Somatic Voicework.[citation needed] LoVetri teaches in the graduate vocal music department at Shenandoah University, which is the only university to offer graduate music degrees in Contemporary Commercial Music.[8]. It is, however, not the only place that a degree is available in contemporary music. [9]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Peckham, Anne (2005). Vocal Workouts for the Contemporary Singer. Berklee Press Publications. ISBN 978-0876390474. 
  2. ^ a b Kappan
  3. ^ a b Stark, James (2003). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0802086143. 
  4. ^ Boldrey, Richard (1994). Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias. Caldwell Publishing Company. ISBN 9781877761645. 
  5. ^ a b Smith, Brenda (2005). Choral Pedagogy. Plural Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-1597560436. 
  6. ^ a b c d Appelman, D. Ralph (1986). The Science of Vocal Pedagogy: Theory and Application. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0253203786. 
  7. ^ Coffin, Berton (1960). Coloratura, Lyric and Dramatic Soprano, Vol. 1. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. ISBN 9780810801882. 
  8. ^ Contemporary commercial Music :: Vocal Pedagogy Inst
  9. ^

External links



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