As a composer, I always keep an orchestration textbook on hand to check the range of instruments I’m writing for. Many of these books contain standard range charts for instruments. These tell you the highest and lowest notes those instruments can play. It would be incredibly useful if we had some kind of standardized vocal range chart to reference when we want to write a new piece of music for singers.
However, writing music for singers is much more complicated and nuanced than most people realize. A simple chart outlining the highest and lowest notes a voice type can sing might not give us a complete picture of that singer’s capabilities. It might only serve as a general guideline rather than a hard and fast indicator of the abilities of sopranos, mezzos, tenors, and basses.
There are several factors that make the delineation of vocal range especially challenging to create for singers, compared to other instruments. As both a singer and composer myself, I have a unique perspective from which to discuss a few of these factors.
Every Voice is Unique
The technical term for classifying voices in classical singing is called fach. We use the fach system to break voices down into specific categories by range, tone color, and capabilities within different vocal registers. This system is most useful for determining what operatic roles a singer might be capable of performing. However, the system has limits, and singers do occasionally perform music not commonly done by other singers of the same vocal fach.
This is because, as singers, our instruments are our bodies, and no two bodies are exactly alike. When your instrument is truly a design with no single exact replica in the world, it’s no wonder not all voices fit squarely inside the box of each of these classifications. If one were to attempt to create a vocal range chart, it might serve as no more than a frame of reference. Some singers would be able to sing well outside of those guidelines, and others not being able to sing the full range of notes within them.
Not all notes within a singer’s range are comfortable to sing in the context of music.
When I take my voice students through vocalizing exercises, I’ll have them run through the entirety of their range. Say I have a soprano who can comfortably vocalize up to a high C. That doesn’t mean I will assign them a piece of music that has a high C in it. If a note is at the extreme end of a singer’s range, that may not be a note that’s totally comfortable for them to access within the context of a piece of music.
Another important thing to consider is that even if a note is comfortably accessible within a singer’s range, it might not mean they can sing that note over and over for an extended period of time.
A soprano might be able to sing a high C at the dramatic climax of a piece of music, but that doesn’t mean their voice will sustain them to sing twenty high C’s within a single piece, or even in a single evening.
This shows us that a simple chart showing the highest and lowest notes within a singer’s range might be an incomplete picture of their capabilities. These are things that are important for composers to take into account when they write music for voice.
When writing for vocal ensembles, range may vary drastically as well.
Even in a situation where you are writing for groups of singers, a standard vocal range chart may be misleading. One could make the argument that situations involving large groups or ensembles of singers could result in some kind of average that would make a vocal range chart more applicable. That’s true.
However, those charts could vary significantly based on a number of factors, such as the age and level of musicianship of the members of the ensemble. A childrens’ choir will be working within very different vocal ranges than an adult community choir, or a professional symphonic choir.
The best way to truly learn about vocal range is to write music for singers.
Composers have been writing music with specific singers in mind for hundreds of years. Mozart, for example, often wrote operas knowing which singer would premier each role. Those singers may have fit within a specific category on the fach system, but, just as described above, they may have had capabilities that defied categorization. Mozart created vocal lines that played to the strengths of those singers.
This practice of writing vocal music with specific singers in mind continues into today.
Present-day composers often work closely with singers during the process of creating new works, making sure every note of text they set musically has the intended dramatic effect based on where it sits in the singers’ voice. The more you get to know each singer’s voice, the more you will gain an understanding for the range and strengths of each voice type.
Considering even just a few of the factors that go into writing music for singers, one can see how a vocal range chart might be a bit of a controversial thing, and might only serve as a general guideline rather than a hard and fast fact about the capabilities of each voice type. The best way to grow accustomed to the ranges of singers is to write music for them, and ask them lots of questions about their voices.
Learn more than just the highest and lowest notes they can sing. Learn about the different parts of their range, where they can create the most vocal warmth, where they have the most agility, how they can handle different dynamics in different parts of their range, what notes feel the best and worst for them to sing, what kind of quality their voice takes on in different areas of their range, and what happens to their sound at the extreme low and extreme high ends of their range.
Look at other pieces of music they sing that they feel best show off their strengths. Look at repertoire written for people with similar voice types, and take note of what kind of writing seems to best suit that voice. These are all ways to gain a better understanding of vocal range, far more than a standardized vocal range chart could provide.