Q: “What are the basic differences in male and female singing ranges?”
A: The following Word for the Day definitions help lend some insight into ranges of traditional choral voices. Tune into tomorrow’s inSync where we’ll give you even more information!
- Soprano: Middle C (about 261Hz) to E above High C (about 659Hz), and beyond
- Alto: G below Middle C (about 196Hz), up to D above High C (about 587Hz)
- Tenor: Second B below Middle C (about 144Hz) to G above Middle C (about 392Hz), and beyond
- Bass: E (about 82Hz) an octave and a half below Middle C to Middle C (about 261Hz)
Technically, the lowest-pitched part of any musical work. The word comes from the Latin bassus, meaning “low” or “thick.” In vocal music, a bass is the lowest range of the male voice; it generally extends from low E or F (an octave and a half below Middle C) to Middle C. It’s important to remember that no two people necessarily have the same range, so this is an approximate value.
The term “bass” is also used to identify the lowest-pitched members of many families of musical instruments, such as bass clarinet, bass trombone, bass drum, etc. There are even bass flutes. “Bass guitar” is a correct term for the instrument with strings tuned E, A, D, G – one octave lower than the first four strings of a traditional guitar. However, a “bass violin” is more accurately a “double bass,” with strings tuned two octaves below the violin. The term “bass,” though, has gained general acceptance.
The highest non-falsetto male voice in a choir, or a musical instrument that naturally plays in the same range.
In modern usage, the lowest pitch range of the female voice, usually spanning from F or G below Middle C, up more than an octave to D above High C. The word is Italian for “high.” As used in the 16th to 18th centuries, alto referred to a high male part in church music, sung above the tenor. The part was often sung by boys. As music evolved and included female singers, men were still called altos and women were called contraltos. That term is still used in modern classical music, particularly in opera.
“Alto” is also used to describe various instruments that have the same approximate range as the alto voice, such as the alto flute and alto saxophone. French and Italian music scores call the viola (the string instrument second highest in pitch to the violin) an “alto.”
The highest pitch range of female voice, which generally begins at Middle C and extends upward at least one octave (to High C) and beyond, depending upon the abilities of the individual. As with almost all music performed before the 16th century, women were prohibited from performing, so boys sang soprano parts. As opera became popular in the 17th century, female sopranos became the featured singers and, along with the male tenors, were their era’s equivalent of pop stars.
The term “soprano” also identifies musical instruments that have ranges similar to the soprano voice. The best-known example is the soprano saxophone. The commonly recognized clarinet is actually a soprano clarinet; it has alto and bass versions.