It’s a Tenor’s World: How to Survive as a Baritone Singing Pop

It's a Tenor's World - How to Survive as a Baritone Singing Pop

Today’s pop music certainly makes it seem like a tenor’s world out there. But if you’re more of a baritone, don’t worry. Here, you’ll learn about the baritone singing range, the best baritone pop songs to add to your repertoire, and more.

You’ve probably noticed that every single guy on Top 40 radio is a tenor. Sam Smith, Jason Derulo, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake, David Guetta, Adam Levine, Usher, Justin Bieber, and Nick Jonas are all tenors. Every member of One Direction is a tenor.

How did this happen? Where are the bass and baritone pop songs? And what are you to do if you love to sing pop music, but have a bass or baritone singing range?

But First, What is a Tenor?

Before we go any further, let’s discuss vocal classifications. There are four primary male vocal classifications: bass, baritone, tenor, and countertenor. A tenor is the highest classification of male voice that sings primarily in chest voice. Countertenors are men who specialize in singing in falsetto; they often sing lead roles in baroque operas. It could also be argued that pop singers who sing almost exclusively in falsetto (like Justin Timberlake) are a new form of countertenor.

Range-wise, tenors feel comfortable belting very high. The coveted tenor high C, or C5 (the fifth C from the bottom of the piano), is the crown jewel of arias like “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. (If you haven’t heard this before, go get a box of tissues, and watch the video below.) For a baritone, an A4 is very high, and most baritones have to switch to falsetto around an F or G. Basses can belt up to an E4, but most have to switch over at a C4 or D4.

On the other end of the scale, basses and baritones have the advantage. Tenors can’t usually sing below a B2. Baritones can often sing down to an F2, while basses sometimes enjoy the coveted low D2 or even C2. For an idea of what this sounds like, listen to the video below for a great reel of baritones and basses singing various low notes. (Skip to the end for the really crazy low notes.)

Despite the beautiful spectrum of the male vocal range, the last great popular baritone singers were arguably Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. The Beatles were tenors, and after them, tenors ruled. From Elton John to Michael Jackson, Freddy Mercury, Prince, the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, tenors have dominated pop music for more than 60 years.

And Now… The Baritone & Bass Pop Singer Survival Guide

So, where does this leave baritones and basses? If you have a bass or baritone singing range and enjoy pop music, you are probably familiar with the horrible sensation of straining to reach impossibly high notes. This is because the music on the radio nowadays is just not written for your voice.

Does this mean that you can’t learn how to sing pop? Absolutely not! Here are my five survival tips for basses and baritones who want to sing pop.

1. Sing Pop Songs in Your Key

Mercifully, songs can be moved to whatever key the singer chooses. Have a voice teacher help you measure your range and choose comfortable keys for your pieces. Many websites that sell sheet music let you easily change the key of a piece before purchase, so you can even get sheet music in the appropriate range.

Going to a karaoke night? Some karaoke machines let you change the keys of background tracks, so remember your ideal keys for a few pieces and make the appropriate adjustments. You will be surprised how much better you sound when you are not trying to sing music that is way too high for your voice.

2. Change Ornaments to Fit Your Voice

A big part of being a singer is coming up with your own ornaments in different pieces. Copying the original artist note-for-note and riff-for-riff is not exactly creative, and for you, it is probably uncomfortable (or even impossible), as well. Change things around to fit your style and your instrument. Instead of going for the high note at the end, for instance, what if you went down an octave?

3. Explore the Few, Proud Low Pop Singers

Although they are few and far between, there has been a handful of baritone popular music singers since the 1960s. Eric Clapton, Iggy Pop, Billy Idol, Bob Marley, Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), and Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) are a few outliers. You will likely be able to sing these singers’ songs in the original keys! Hallelujah!

Here are some specific songs to add to your singing repertoire:

  • “White Wedding” (Billy Idol)
  • “Layla” (Eric Clapton)
  • “Jeremy” (Pearl Jam)
  • “Lithium” (Nirvana)
  • “Hound Dog” (Elvis)
  • “My Way” (Frank Sinatra)
  • “Steal My Body Home” (Beck)

4. Branch Out

Popular music draws inspiration from a plethora of genres, including blues, metal, country, musical theater, and even opera. As it turns out, tenor dictatorship does not spread to these other genres. Baritone singers like B.B. King, Tim McGraw, and Chris Young all have large baritone discographies. Musical theater roles like Javert (“Les Misérables”), Tom Collins (“Rent”), and Sweeney Todd (“Sweeney Todd”) showcase low voices, as do a huge array of art songs and operatic roles.

5. Write Your Own Music

If you get frustrated by the lack of pop music for low voice, try writing your own bass or baritone pop music! Work with your voice teacher to get an idea of where your voice sits best, and write in a way that flatters your vocal abilities. I, for one, think it is high time we had a baritone or bass pop singer, so if you make it to the big time, I would be thrilled!

Readers, what baritone pop songs do you have in your repertoire? Leave a comment below and let us know! Want even more song recommendations? Click here for even more songs to sing!

Elaina RPost Author: Elaina R.
Elaina R. teaches opera voice and singing in Ann Arbor, MI, as well as through online lessons. She is currently working on a Master of Music at the University of Michigan, and she has a B.M. from the University of Southern California. Learn more about Elaina here!

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Photo by Yuichi Sakuraba

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39 replies
  1. Joe
    Joe says:

    Elaina, the high note in Nessun Dorma– and in many tenor arias– is B4. Surprised you wouldn’t know that! Look to Che Gelida or Di quella pira for the high C. Just a half step higher, but it’s a biggie…

    Reply
    • Anders Barfod
      Anders Barfod says:

      Nessun dorma is supposed to be sung by a dramatic tenor not a lyrical tenor,, hence the high B4. C5 is in the dramatic tenors next register.. (4 register) Also the pitch should be at A4= 438Hz the highest..This is the upper limit for the dramatic heavy voices in the tradition of Verdi, Puccini etc. Today when orchesters are hovering at 443Hz for A4 these classic Verdi songs are performed by lyrical tenors and not the dramatic tenor (half a note lower passaggio) which were inteded for that piece and were written for the then present European standard at A4=435Hz. When pitch is raised from 435Hz to 443Hz the passaggio is shifted to high and the dramatic tenor can’t get the correct sound on a lot of notes (too much wovel modification and early register shift)..

      Reply
  2. Alain
    Alain says:

    Not all the members of One Direction are Tenors. Liam Payne is a Light Baritone and he is my favorite singer from One Direction. Elton John is a Baritone. Also in the Beatles John Lennon was a Baritone too. NSYNK and BACKSTREETBOYS had a baritone. Elvis Presley also was known as a Bass instead.
    Plus Being a baritone doesnt mean you cannot hit notes, there is still years of practice which makes you better. Also you can expand your range even if you are a Bass. Plus Falsetto helps a lot when being a Baritone. I am a Light Baritone and I can hit high notes with falsetto. They do not sound as good as Tenors but that does the Job.

    Reply
    • Alex
      Alex says:

      With his voice colour and tessitura, John Lennon was definitely a tenor.
      Liam Payne is a tenor, too, and not even a particulary low one. He just doesn’t explore his upper range.
      If you are a baritone, that doesn’t mean you cannot hit notes, it’s just not the same notes as those a tenor can hit. Same goes for a bass: you can hit notes, they are just lower, but a trained singer’s voice will usually have a range of two octaves. The question is: where are the limits of those two octaves and where does the singer feel most comfortable.

      Reply
  3. Christian Young
    Christian Young says:

    Sooo what happens when you can do the C or higher, actually around a G # 5, and easily (not on same day mind you it’s either really high or really low) so this converted C2?
    I try to follow acts like Pentatonix and the fun is to hit every note they can, and while i cannot do whistle notes I have yet to have a high note put out that I could not hit, but Avi hits lows I cannot touch….. I was thinking about getting a vocal teacher, I have a goal that I can falsetto sing just like a female, and for the most part I am doing ok with that goal (kinda wrecks the voice…. for a week or two) and have even been successful at soundling like a young (think Frozen early songs) child’s voice. Anyone know of a way that I can force my vocal chords to do both the massive low notes AND high notes in a single session? The best way I can describe singing high like that for any length, the vocal chords compress so much you start switching to something that sounds like a horse throat cough. If you concentrate really hard you might still hit the note, but that’s like tourture on the throat, so I tend not to let it go that far. After that huge upper is blow, the standard tenor to baritone range is still good (like radio wise songs I hear) but I cannot do anything lower than just some standard baritone notes. My throat feels like it has almost modes, and I have not bothered to try and find the note it switches at, but I cannot go to the extremes (for me) of my range on either side without losing the other side for the day, or a few days.

    When I was a younger turd, I wanted to be a bass. I could hit all the notes that the “popular” bases at the time could hit, but it was hard and I could not do it very loud. My vocal teacher (school choir) tested my range a few times back then and I could easily hit the highs so he made me tenor, counter tenor, but I would actually enjoy pissing off the girls by hitting the alto and saprano notes. I would completely piss them off by hitting Sara Brightman’s highest note in the phantom while they could not, but I was pretty lucky looking back, everyone thought that was cool and not weird. It’s been awhile since I hit THOSE notes, but I am sure if I decided to push myself, and a proper warm up I could do it again. Anyways… back to my comment…. the low notes have always intrigued me. There was the tenors woo the ladies but the basses take them home, my thoughts, why not both?

    So I am in the Pittsburgh area, anyone know a vocal teacher crazy enough to help me increase my range to hit those low notes Avi or Foust can, while continuing to increase that top range? Feel free to contact me at the email left, boboki@boboki.com.

    Reply
    • Suzy S.
      Suzy S. says:

      Hey Christian, thanks for you comment! Have you browsed our voice teachers in Pittsburgh? Here’s the link: /pittsburgh/singing-lessons. You can send a message to the teacher you choose before you book, to make sure he/she can help with your specific goals. If you need help booking or have additional questions, feel free to give us a call at (800) 537-4404. Good luck!

      Reply
  4. A baritone
    A baritone says:

    Correction: a lot of high voiced pop male singers are indeed lyric Baritone who are clever enough to mix their high chest voice and falsetto to sound high. Most notably is Sam Smith.

    Reply
  5. Paul
    Paul says:

    Yeah, “Nessun Dorma” is a B, not a C. I’ve heard “Che gelida manina” performed in C seemingly as often as I’ve heard it in the original D flat, and when it is in C, it “only” reaches a B. “Di quella pira” is a great example of a song that always seems to feature that great high C, but if you’re talking about the high tenor C, you have to mention “Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête!” from La fille, which hits it nine times.

    Reply
    • Patrick
      Patrick says:

      I had to scroll for this too far. Nessun dorma is a B4. And yes I also wanted to mention “Ah! mes amis…” from Fille du regiment. THOSE are high Cs 🙂

      Reply
  6. Joe
    Joe says:

    kurt cobain sings really high… smells like teen spirit’s refrain is g# to a#, right under high c… and it sticks there…he’s not a baritone…though he made use of his baritonal register…

    eddie vedder also sang a lot of high notes…

    these guys can seriously belt!

    Reply
  7. Basso Profundo
    Basso Profundo says:

    Although this focuses mostly on lyrical baritone, it is nice to get some recognition. Most people over look a bass voice in any group or solo performance (besides German opera of course).

    Reply
  8. Vega, the low baritone.
    Vega, the low baritone. says:

    I think you shouldn’t do just that. Singing in your confortable range is OK, but you should definitely expand your vocal range, just because it is indeed possible. Mastering the mix voice and blending the chest and head register is something that baritones must do in order to be able to sing in any key. Besides, it makes you feel like a god, cause you could sing like a tenor, but you can sing all those bass notes that tenors can’t, like D2 or C2. There are few baritones that can sing from D5 and on, like Chris Cornell, Axl Rose, Ville Valo and others.

    Reply
  9. Allison
    Allison says:

    Does anyone know exactly what kind of baritone David Bowie was? A lyrical baritone? Would be grateful for the answer.

    Reply
    • Alex
      Alex says:

      Dramatic / Heldentenor he was. He just smoked and drank waaay too much and ruined it early on, so for those in pop / rock music who are not familiar with real baritone voices (since most of you don’t listen to classical music) Bowie may very well sound like a baritone.

      Reply
  10. jojo
    jojo says:

    I’d rather do pop or rock but, since you mentioned a few country artists, don’t forget Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line”.

    Reply
  11. Bill
    Bill says:

    Brook Benton is one of the greatest bass/baritones to ever grace the airwaves…from the 50s to the 70s: It’s Just A Matter of Time, Hotel Happiness, Think Twice, Rainy Night in Georgia, Kiddio, So Many Ways, Thank You Pretty Baby, Boll Weevil Song, The Same One, The Ties That Bind, Hurtin’ Inside, Endlessly, (Baby) You’ve Got What It Takes (w/Dinah Washington), A Rockin’ Good Way (w/Dinah Washington). Benton charted 49 times on Billboard’s Hot 100.

    Reply
  12. Brianda
    Brianda says:

    It’s a good article, but well it’s just that not all members of One Direction are tenors. There are two baritones out of the four remaining members. Harry Styles, whose range is F2-C#5-B5(D6) (you may say it’s a little tenorish but you can see how shouty he gets in the upper fourth octave and how relaxed his lows sound). Liam Payne, well, he’s a wonder. His range is C2-A4-C6 if I’m not wrong, his lows are very consistent and strong and he has a very well developed falsetto, while Styles’ is head voice.

    Reply
  13. Michael Rizzo
    Michael Rizzo says:

    To me Freddie Mercury is so amazing, yes he was a tenor, lol I try to get there but unfortunately it doesn’t work, Lol.

    Reply
    • Hawabongaz
      Hawabongaz says:

      Freddie Mercury was a baritone who learned by himself how to sing as a tenor.When he sang , he could sing as if he was a tenor or as if he was a truly a baritone.For example he could hit an A4 with the characteristics of a tenor and sometimes he hit an A4 with the characteristics of a baritone.Sinze 1984 he developped a very resonant head voice(with rich timbre and power allowing him to sing in a countertenor range.

      Reply
  14. A Baritone
    A Baritone says:

    All baritones can develop a 4 octave range and learn to belt in the tenor range and beyond. Consider David Coverdale of Whitesnake for example, or Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. The timbre will be different but it is possible…

    Reply
  15. Ken Fordyce
    Ken Fordyce says:

    Hi Elaina, You hit the nail on the head! I am a confirmed Bari trying to sing rock songs all my life. Frustrated? You bet! I am a great guitarist, teacher, studio owner. People don’t trash my vocals. They also don’t jump up and down like they do to my guitaring. I love your survival guide and have over the years tried all of your suggestions which are fabulous. I don’t like changing keys, I did for Jet Airliner and it worked out OK but a lot of the songs I like require open string sounds to be authentic. Subsequently original keys are vital. My intonation over the years has greatly improved as has my ability to find and sing harmonies. I’m great at blending on background parts. I think my next pursuit should be to strengthen my falsetto and transition into so I can get volume into notes above F4. Any tips? Best and thank you, Ken

    Reply
  16. Sercan
    Sercan says:

    first of all if you say how to survive as a baritone? Please dont talk or discuss about music or singing. Because you confusing people mind. Being a baritone is not curse. And actually you dont know who is baritone or tenor . You said every member of Onedirection is tenor. İt’s not true. And also if problem is hitting high notes. Baritone can do it. İts about just training and breathe control.

    Reply
  17. a confused guy
    a confused guy says:

    hey i dont know if i am a baritone, a baritenor or just a dramatic tenor because i got a dark timbre proper of a baritone, my zona di passagio is on c4-f4, well i think i am a martin baritone.And Liam payne from One direction is a baritone

    Reply
  18. Anders Barfod
    Anders Barfod says:

    One thing that is overlooked is pitch…
    Heavy voices like bass and bass-baritone do not really work well when singing up at the second passaggio when A4 is tuned to 440Hz. There is few beast or freak or nature like Tom Jones,, but a slightly lower pitch for A4 helps those heavy voices at the second passaggio. Former European pitch was 435Hz or 20 cents lower.. This is really a much better pitch for heavy voices in both opera and rock/pop,, if that voice wants to go high… Being just south of 435Hz is really golden.. At A4= 432Hz (-31.8 cents) the heavy voice do not need to perform any early register shift which means the passaggio notes gets a much connected sound..

    Reply
  19. Ioanna
    Ioanna says:

    My young adult son is a baritone and bass singer. He can sing higher and has broad range however isn’t comfortablr nor confident in the higher range. Every time he checks out productions most male parts require tenor, this is so frustrating and restricting for parts he likes! My question is why is tenor more desired over baritone? Does anyone know. My son can sing classical, ballad and rock. He can also make himself sound like CatStevens, Usaf, who, take note has a deep voice along with Tom Jones who
    Have been fantastic star performers. And not bloody tenors! Russel Crowe gave all baritones a bad name with his awful attempt out of a saturation of tenors in les mis!

    Reply
  20. Chris
    Chris says:

    Harry Styles, former member of One Direction is most definitely a lyric baritone. Just listen to him speak if you have any doubts – that’s the sound of a natural baritone voice right there. Not that there is anything wrong with being a baritone, but he sings way out of his natural range (far too high). As do most male pop singers of today, IMO. (Harry could actually have a really nice voice if he would only sing in the tessitura most suited to his natural voice, i.e. higher baritone range (and if he had better singing ability).

    Most males have some kind of a natural baritone voice, that’s a fact, ergo most pop singers are actually baritones who sing high (and thinly) because that’s the current fashion. Personally, I’d much rather listen to an authentic, non-strained natural baritone voice, such as e.g. Elvis Presley’s, than another one of those dime-a-dozen straining fake-tenor pop voices.
    Anyone who’s unsure what a real natural tenor voice in a popular music singer sounds like, listen to Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Sting, Freddy Mercury, Ozzy Osbourne, Paul McCartney, Bruno Mars, David Phelps. If you’ve got a tenor voice like that, great, if not, that’s great too. There are many many excellent baritone popular singers that you can emulate: Elvis Presley, Chris Isaak, Chris Cornell, Jimmy Hendrix, John Lennon, the list goes on and on.

    Reply
  21. Cobbiant
    Cobbiant says:

    I found that i feel more comfortable singing mezzo soprano music. Girls like demi, lady gaga, sia, beyonce and others, offer us Baritones ways to sing. Its true that sometimes some notes are high to sing but you can learn to dodge those notes beautifuly

    Reply
  22. Oblivious Baritone
    Oblivious Baritone says:

    Hi,
    My advice is to develop your headvoice and get out there a compete with the so-called tenors. A lot of so-called tenors are really high baritones that stay in their head voice. This can get you up to B-natural with a lot of pop songs. They can easily connect to their falsetto up high as well. I think the only real tenor out there these days is Pat Monahan from Train — and his proof is that he sings up high all the time with no problem

    Reply
  23. Alex
    Alex says:

    “Eric Clapton, Iggy Pop, Billy Idol, Bob Marley, Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), and Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) are a few outliers.”

    Clapton, Idol, Marley and Cobain are definitely tenors, although Idol sings lengthy parts of his songs in a low tenor tessitura that is also comfortable for a baritone, but then again those parts hitting constantly on F3#… that’s where a baritone would get in trouble.

    Reply

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