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A soprano [soˈpraːno] is a type of classical female singing voice and has the highest vocal range of all voice types. The soprano's vocal range (using scientific pitch notation) is from approximately middle C (C4) = 261  Hz to "high A" (A5) =880 Hz in choral music, or to "soprano C" (C6, two octaves above middle C) =1046 Hz or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which often encompasses the melody. [1] The soprano voice type is generally divided into the coloratura, soubrette, lyric, spinto, and dramatic soprano. [2]

Classical music broad tradition of Western art music

Classical music is art music produced or rooted in the traditions of Western culture, including both liturgical (religious) and secular music. While a more precise term is also used to refer to the period from 1750 to 1820, this article is about the broad span of time from before the 6th century AD to the present day, which includes the Classical period and various other periods. The central norms of this tradition became codified between 1550 and 1900, which is known as the common-practice period. The major time divisions of Western art music are as follows:

Singing act of producing musical sounds with the voice

Singing is the act of producing musical sounds with the voice and augments regular speech by the use of sustained tonality, rhythm, and a variety of vocal techniques. A person who sings is called a singer or vocalist. Singers perform music that can be sung with or without accompaniment by musical instruments. Singing is often done in an ensemble of musicians, such as a choir of singers or a band of instrumentalists. Singers may perform as soloists or accompanied by anything from a single instrument up to a symphony orchestra or big band. Different singing styles include art music such as opera and Chinese opera, Indian music and religious music styles such as gospel, traditional music styles, world music, jazz, blues, gazal and popular music styles such as pop, rock, electronic dance music and filmi.

Human voice sound made by a human being using the vocal folds for talking, singing, laughing, crying, screaming, etc

The human voice consists of sound made by a human being using the vocal tract, such as talking, singing, laughing, crying, screaming, etc. The human voice frequency is specifically a part of human sound production in which the vocal folds are the primary sound source.



The word "soprano" comes from the Italian word sopra (above, over, on top of), [3] as the soprano is the highest pitch human voice, often given to the leading female roles in operas. [4] "Soprano" refers mainly to women, but it can also be applied to men; "sopranist" is the term for a male countertenor able to sing in the soprano vocal range, [5] while a castrato is the term for a castrated male singer, typical of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, [3] and a treble is a boy soprano who has not reached puberty yet and still able to sing in that range. [3]

A sopranist is a male singer who is able to sing in the vocal tessitura of a soprano usually through the use of falsetto vocal production. This voice type is a specific kind of countertenor. In rare cases an adult man may be able to sing in the soprano range using his normal or modal voice and not falsetto due to endocrinological reasons, like Radu Marian, or as a result of a larynx that has not completely developed as in the case of Michael Maniaci.

A countertenor (also contra tenor) is a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of the female contralto or mezzo-soprano voice types, generally extending from around G3 to D5 or E5, although a sopranist (a specific kind of countertenor) may match the soprano's range of around C4 to C6. Countertenors often are baritones or tenors at core, but on rare occasions use this vocal range in performance.

A castrato is a type of classical male singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto. The voice is produced by castration of the singer before puberty, or it occurs in one who, due to an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity.

The term "soprano" is also based on the Latin word superius which, like soprano, referred to the highest pitch vocal range of all human voice types. [3] The word superius was especially used in choral and other multi-part vocal music between the 13th and 16th centuries. [3]

Voice type

Soprano vocal range (C4-C6) notated on the treble staff (left) and on piano keyboard in green with dot marking middle C Soprano voice range on keyboard.svg
Soprano vocal range (C4–C6) notated on the treble staff (left) and on piano keyboard in green with dot marking middle C

The soprano has the highest vocal range of all voice types, with the highest tessitura. A soprano and a mezzo-soprano have a similar range, but their tessituras will lie in different parts of that range. [6]

Vocal range is the measure of the breadth of pitches that a human voice can phonate. Its most common application is within the context of singing, where it is used as a defining characteristic for classifying singing voices into groups known as voice types. It is also a topic of study within linguistics, phonetics, and speech and language pathology, particularly in relation to the study of tonal languages and certain types of vocal disorders, although it has little practical application in terms of speech.

A voice type classifies a singing voice by vocal range, vocal weight, tessitura, vocal timbre, vocal transition points (passaggia) like breaks and lifts, and vocal register. Voice classification was developed for European classical music and seldom applies to other kinds of singing; voice classification is in the opera to pair roles with voices. Several different voice classification systems are available to identify voice types, including the German Fach system and the choral music system among many others; no system is universally applied or accepted.

In music, tessitura is the most aesthetically acceptable and comfortable vocal range for a given singer or, less frequently, musical instrument; the range in which a given type of voice presents its best-sounding timbre. This broad definition is often interpreted to refer specifically to the pitch range that most frequently occurs within a given part of a musical piece. Hence, in musical notation, tessitura is the ambitus in which that particular vocal part lies—whether high or low, etc.

The low extreme for sopranos is roughly A3 or B3 (just below middle C). Within opera, the lowest demanded note for sopranos is F3 (from Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten [7] ). Often low notes in higher voices will project less, lack timbre, and tend to "count less" in roles (although some Verdi, Strauss and Wagner roles call for stronger singing below the staff). However, rarely is a soprano simply unable to sing a low note in a song within a soprano role. [6] Low notes can be reached with a lowered position of the larynx.

Richard Strauss German composer and orchestra director

Richard Georg Strauss was a leading German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras. He is known for his operas, which include Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Salome; his Lieder, especially his Four Last Songs; his tone poems, including Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Also sprach Zarathustra, Ein Heldenleben, Symphonia Domestica, and An Alpine Symphony; and other instrumental works such as Metamorphosen and his Oboe Concerto. Strauss was also a prominent conductor in Western Europe and the Americas, enjoying quasi-celebrity status as his compositions became standards of orchestral and operatic repertoire.

<i>Die Frau ohne Schatten</i> opera by Richard Strauss

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Op. 65, is an opera in three acts by Richard Strauss with a libretto by his long-time collaborator, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It was written between 1911 and either 1915 or 1917. When it premiered in Vienna on 10 October 1919, critics and audiences were unenthusiastic. Many cited problems with Hofmannsthal's complicated and heavily symbolic libretto. However, it is now a standard part of the operatic repertoire.

In Western musical notation, the staff (US) or stave (UK) is a set of five horizontal lines and four spaces that each represent a different musical pitch or in the case of a percussion staff, different percussion instruments. Appropriate music symbols, depending on the intended effect, are placed on the staff according to their corresponding pitch or function. Musical notes are placed by pitch, percussion notes are placed by instrument, and rests and other symbols are placed by convention.

The high extreme, at a minimum, for non-coloratura sopranos is "soprano C" (C6 two octaves above middle C), and many roles in the standard repertoire call for C6 or D6. A couple of roles have optional E6s, as well. In the coloratura repertoire several roles call for E6 on up to F6. In rare cases, some coloratura roles go as high as G6 or G6, such as Mozart's concert aria "Popoli di Tessaglia!", or the title role of Jules Massenet's opera Esclarmonde . While not necessarily within the tessitura, a good soprano will be able to sing her top notes full-throated, with timbre and dynamic control. [8]


The word coloratura is originally from Italian, literally meaning "coloring", and derives from the Latin word colorare. When used in English, the term specifically refers to elaborate melody, particularly in vocal music and especially in operatic singing of the 18th and 19th centuries, with runs, trills, wide leaps, or similar virtuoso-like material. Its instrumental equivalent is ornamentation. It is also now widely used to refer to passages of such music, operatic roles in which such music plays a prominent part, and singers of these roles.

"Popoli di Tessaglia! – Io non chiedo, eterni Dei" (K. 316/300b) is a recitative and aria for soprano and orchestra that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote for Aloysia Weber. It is famous for including two occurrences of a G6, i.e. the G above high C, or 1568 Hz by modern concert pitch – according to the Guinness Book of Records, the highest musical note ever scored for the human voice. (However, an A6 is scored in Ignaz Umlauf's Das Irrlicht, also sung by Aloysia Weber.)

Jules Massenet French composer

Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet was a French composer of the Romantic era best known for his operas, of which he wrote more than thirty. The two most frequently staged are Manon (1884) and Werther (1892). He also composed oratorios, ballets, orchestral works, incidental music, piano pieces, songs and other music.

In opera, the tessitura, vocal weight, and timbre of voices, and the roles they sing, are commonly categorized into voice types, often called fächer (sg. fach , from German Fach or Stimmfach, "vocal category"). [8] A singer's tessitura is where the voice has the best timbre, easy volume, and most comfort.

Subtypes and roles in opera

Within the soprano voice type category are five generally recognized subcategories: coloratura soprano, soubrette, lyric soprano, spinto soprano, and dramatic soprano.


The coloratura soprano may be a lyric coloratura or a dramatic coloratura. The lyric coloratura soprano is a very agile light voice with a high upper extension capable of fast vocal coloratura. Light coloraturas have a range of approximately middle C (C4) to "high F" ( in alt ) (F6) with some coloratura sopranos being able to sing somewhat lower or higher, [9] e.g. an interpolated A6 in the Doll Aria, "Les oiseaux dans la charmille", from The Tales of Hoffmann , e.g. by Rachele Gilmore in a 2009 performance, and a written A6 by Audrey Luna in 2017 in The Exterminating Angel , both at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. [10]

The dramatic coloratura soprano is a coloratura soprano with great flexibility in high-lying velocity passages, yet with great sustaining power comparable to that of a full spinto or dramatic soprano. Dramatic coloraturas have a range of approximately "low B" (B3) to "high F" (F6) with some coloratura sopranos being able to sing somewhat higher or lower. [8]


In classical music and opera, a soubrette soprano refers to both a voice type and a particular type of opera role. A soubrette voice is light with a bright, sweet timbre, a tessitura in the mid-range, and with no extensive coloratura. The soubrette voice is not a weak voice, for it must carry over an orchestra without a microphone like all voices in opera. The voice, however, has a lighter vocal weight than other soprano voices with a brighter timbre. Many young singers start out as soubrettes, but, as they grow older and the voice matures more physically, they may be reclassified as another voice type, usually either a light lyric soprano, a lyric coloratura soprano, or a coloratura mezzo-soprano. Rarely does a singer remain a soubrette throughout her entire career. [1] A soubrette's range extends approximately from middle C (C4) to "high D" (D6). [11] The tessitura of the soubrette tends to lie a bit lower than the lyric soprano and spinto soprano. [6]


The lyric soprano is a warm voice with a bright, full timbre, which can be heard over a big orchestra. It generally has a higher tessitura than a soubrette and usually plays ingénues and other sympathetic characters in opera. Lyric sopranos have a range from approximately below middle C (C4) to "high D" (D6). [8]

The lyric soprano may be a light lyric soprano or a full lyric soprano. [6] The light lyric soprano has a bigger voice than a soubrette but still possesses a youthful quality. [6] The full lyric soprano has a more mature sound than a light-lyric soprano and can be heard over a bigger orchestra. [6]


Also lirico-spinto, Italian for "pushed lyric", the spinto soprano has the brightness and height of a lyric soprano, but can be "pushed" to dramatic climaxes without strain, and may have a somewhat darker timbre. Spinto sopranos have a range from approximately from B (B3) to "high D" (D6). [8]


A dramatic soprano (or soprano robusto) has a powerful, rich, emotive voice that can sing over a full orchestra. Usually (but not always) this voice has a lower tessitura than other sopranos, and a darker timbre. Dramatic sopranos have a range from approximately A (A3) to "high C" (C6). [8]

Some dramatic sopranos, known as Wagnerian sopranos, have a very big voice that can assert itself over an exceptionally large orchestra (over eighty pieces). These voices are substantial and very powerful and ideally even throughout the registers. [6]

Other types

Two other types of soprano are the Dugazon and the Falcon , which are intermediate voice types between the soprano and the mezzo-soprano: a Dugazon is a darker-colored soubrette, a Falcon a darker-colored soprano drammatico. [8]

In choral music

In SATB four-part mixed chorus, the soprano is the highest vocal range, above the alto, tenor, and bass. Within classical solo singing, however, a person is classified through the identification of several vocal traits, including range, vocal timbre, vocal weight, vocal tessitura, vocal resonance, and vocal transition points (lifts or "passaggio") within the singer's voice.[ citation needed ]

These different traits are used to identify different sub-types within the voice, sometimes referred to as fächer (sg. fach , from German Fach or Stimmfach, "vocal category"). Within opera, particular roles are written with specific kinds of soprano voices in mind, causing certain roles to be associated with certain kinds of voices. [12]

See also

Related Research Articles

The musical term alto, meaning "high" in Italian, refers to the second highest part of a contrapuntal musical texture and is also applied to its associated vocal range, especially in choral music. It is also the root word of contralto, the lowest standard female voice type. When designating instruments, "alto" likewise can refer either to the corresponding vocal range or to musical role. The term "alto" is also used to designate a specific kind of musical clef; see alto clef.

Tenor is a male voice type in classical music whose vocal range lies between the countertenor and baritone. The tenor's vocal range extends up to C5. The low extreme for tenors is roughly A2 (two As below middle C). At the highest extreme, some tenors can sing up to the second F above middle C (F5). The tenor voice type is generally divided into the leggero tenor, lyric tenor, spinto tenor, dramatic tenor, heldentenor, and tenor buffo or spieltenor.

A contralto is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type.

A mezzo-soprano or mezzo (, ; Italian: [ˈmɛddzo soˈpraːno] meaning "half soprano") is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range lies between the soprano and the contralto voice types. The mezzo-soprano's vocal range usually extends from the A below middle C to the A two octaves above (i.e. A3–A5 in scientific pitch notation, where middle C = C4; 220–880 Hz). In the lower and upper extremes, some mezzo-sopranos may extend down to the F below middle C (F3, 175 Hz) and as high as "high C" (C6, 1047 Hz). The mezzo-soprano voice type is generally divided into the coloratura, lyric, and dramatic mezzo-soprano.

The German Fachsystem is a method of classifying singers, primarily opera singers, according to the range, weight, and color of their voices. It is used worldwide, but primarily in Europe, especially in German-speaking countries and by repertory opera houses.

Spinto is a vocal term used to characterize a soprano or tenor voice of a weight between lyric and dramatic that is capable of handling large musical climaxes in opera at moderate intervals.

A soubrette is a type of operatic soprano voice fach, often cast as a female stock character in opera and theatre. The term arrived in English from Provençal via French, and means "conceited" or "coy". A soubrette is also defined as a young woman regarded as flirtatious or frivolous.

A coloratura soprano is a type of operatic soprano voice that specializes in music that is distinguished by agile runs, leaps and trills.

Tenore di grazia, also called leggero tenor, is a lightweight, flexible tenor voice type. The tenor roles written in the early 19th-century Italian operas are invariably leggero tenor roles, especially those by Rossini such as Lindoro in L'italiana in Algeri, Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola, and Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia; and those by Bellini such as Gualtiero in Il pirata, Elvino in La sonnambula and Arturo in I puritani. Many Donizetti roles, such as Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore and Ernesto in Don Pasquale, Tonio in La fille du régiment, are also tenore di grazia roles. One of the most famous leggero tenors of that period was Giovanni Battista Rubini, for whom Bellini wrote nearly all his operas.

O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn aria from The Magic Flute

"O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn" is the first aria performed by the Queen of the Night in Mozart's singspiel The Magic Flute . It is not as well known as the Queen's second aria, "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen", though no less demanding; the aria requires a soprano coloratura with extremely high tessitura and great vocal flexibility.

A spinto soprano is a type of operatic soprano voice that has the limpidity and easy high notes of a lyric soprano, yet can be "pushed" on to achieve dramatic climaxes without strain. This type of voice may possess a somewhat darker timbre, too, than the average lyric soprano. It generally uses squillo to "slice" through the sound of a full orchestra, rather than singing over the orchestra like a true dramatic soprano.

A dramatic soprano is a type of operatic soprano with a powerful, rich, emotive voice that can sing over, or cut through, a full orchestra. Thicker vocal folds in dramatic voices usually (but not always) mean less agility than lighter voices but a sustained, fuller sound. Usually this voice has a lower tessitura than other sopranos, and a darker timbre. They are often used for heroic, often long-suffering, tragic women of opera. Dramatic sopranos have a range from approximately low A (A3) to "high C" (C6). Some dramatic sopranos, known as Wagnerian sopranos, have an exceptionally big voice that can assert itself over a large orchestra (of more than 80 or even 100 pieces). These voices are substantial, often denser in tone, extremely powerful and, ideally, evenly balanced throughout the vocal registers. Wagnerian sopranos usually play mythic heroines. Successful Wagnerian sopranos are rare and often Wagnerian roles are performed by Italianate dramatic sopranos.

There is no authoritative system of voice classification in non-classical music as classical terms are used to describe not merely various vocal ranges, but specific vocal timbres unique to each range. These timbres are produced by classical training techniques with which most popular singers are not intimately familiar, and which even those that are do not universally employ.

A lyric soprano is a type of operatic soprano voice that has a warm quality with a bright, full timbre that can be heard over an orchestra. The lyric soprano voice generally has a higher tessitura than a soubrette and usually plays ingenues and other sympathetic characters in opera. Lyric sopranos have a range from approximately middle C (C4) to "high D" (D6). This is the most common female singing voice. There is a tendency to divide lyric sopranos into two groups: light and full.

Soprano sfogato is a contralto or mezzo-soprano who is capable—by sheer industry or natural talent—of extending her upper range and being able to encompass the coloratura soprano tessitura. An upwardly extended "natural" soprano is sometimes called soprano assoluto.

A bass ( BAYSS) is a type of classical male singing voice and has the lowest vocal range of all voice types. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, a bass is typically classified as having a vocal range extending from around the second E below middle C to the E above middle C (i.e., E2–E4). Its tessitura, or comfortable range, is normally defined by the outermost lines of the bass clef. Categories of bass voices vary according to national style and classification system. Italians favour subdividing basses into the basso cantante (singing bass), basso buffo ("funny" bass), or the dramatic basso profondo (low bass). The American system identifies the bass-baritone, comic bass, lyric bass, and dramatic bass. The German fach system offers further distinctions: Spielbass (Bassbuffo), Schwerer Spielbass (Schwerer Bassbuffo), Charakterbass (Bassbariton), and Seriöser Bass. These classification systems can overlap. Rare is the performer who embodies a single fach without also touching repertoire from another category.


  1. 1 2 Stark, James (2003). Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press. ISBN   978-0-8020-8614-3.
  2. Aronson, Arnold Elvin; Bless, Diane M. (2009). Clinical Voice Disorders (4th ed.). New York, NY: Thieme Medical Publishers. p. 278. ISBN   978-1-58890-662-5 . Retrieved 1 November 2014.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 "Soprano", Encyclopædia Britannica
  4. "The Opera 101" . Retrieved 21 April 2016.
  5. McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Genovex Music Group. ISBN   978-1-56593-940-0.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Boldrey, Richard (1994). Guide to Operatic Roles and Arias. Caldwell Publishing Company. ISBN   978-1-877761-64-5.
  7. Die Frau ohne Schatten vocal score, Dover vocal scores 2003, act 1, scene 2, 5th bar of figure 102, ISBN   0-486-43127-4
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Coffin, Berton (1960). Coloratura, Lyric and Dramatic Soprano, Vol. 1. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. ISBN   978-0-8108-0188-2.
  9. McKinney, James (1994). The Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults. Genovex Music Group. ISBN   978-1-56593-940-0.
  10. "At the Met Opera, a Note So High, It's Never Been Sung Before" by Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times , 7 November 2017
  11. Music Dictionary Vm–Vz: Voice (s.), Voices (pl.) – coloratura-soubrette or soprano lirico leggiero, Dolmetsch
  12. Appelman, D. Ralph (1986). The Science of Vocal Pedagogy: Theory and Application. Indiana University Press. ISBN   978-0-253-20378-6.

Further reading