The female vocal range is higher than that of a male singing voice. In choral music, the female voice is categorized on the basis of the singer’s vocal range and occupies the first two categories of the SATB (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) classification. In classical music, the female voice is divided into three categories.
Each category further subdivides into subcategories. These subcategories are characterized by voice qualities such as vocal range and weight, vocal timbre and tessitura, and passaggio or vocal transition points like vocal breaks and lifts. These voice qualities along with vocal register constitute the main criteria on classifying the female singers.
Some pedagogues include the “head voice,” “middle voice,” and the “chest voice” to the registers; however, the use of such “voice” is confusing and thus is not universally accepted. Musical pedagogues use these voice qualities as well as the vocal registry to determine and classify a person’s voice to a specific category. For female voice, there are three generally accepted categories, namely: soprano, mezzo-soprano, and the contralto.
The soprano is the highest singing voice and has the highest tessitura except for a specific type of soprano called the sopranino. It has the highest vocal range of two octaves that generally spans between the keys C4 and C6. C4 is the middle C key found at the center of a piano keyboard. This is divided into five subcategories according to vocal range, timbre, weight, and voice agility. These five subcategories are the following:
1) Coloratura Soprano
Coloratura Soprano is a type of soprano voice usually found in operas that is identified with agile runs and leaps as well as trills.
Soubrette is a soprano voice subcategory that lies between C4 to D6 that is characterized by lightness with sweet timbre and midrange tessitura distinctive of that frivolous, girlish character that the soubrette portrays.
3) Dramatic Soprano
Dramatic Soprano is characterized by a rich and powerful voice that is full of emotions that can ably cut through or sing over a full orchestra. It has a voice range that extends from A3 to C6.
4) Spinto Soprano
Spinto Soprano is a soprano subcategory with a voice range that spans from C4 to D6 that is depicted by voice clarity and easy handling of high notes. The spinto is characterized by the use of the singer’s “ping” or “squillo” to vocally slice through the orchestra similar to that of a dramatic soprano.
5) Lyric Soprano
Lyric Soprano has a similar vocal range to a soubrette but with full timbre and higher tessitura to differentiate it from soubrette.
The sopranino is a rare singing voice that occupies a higher vocal range than the soprano that lies between E4 to E6 but can be extended to A7. Although not part of classical or theatrical music, sopranino may perform as a regular soprano.
The mezzo-soprano is a singing voice that lies below the soprano but higher than contralto. This vocal category spans from A3—which is the A key below the middle C or C4—to A5. In many cases, the mezzo-soprano can extend down to F3 or up to C6. The mezzo-soprano is characterized by heavier and darker vocal tones than the soprano. Like the soprano, this vocal category is broken down into three subcategories namely: coloratura, lyric, and dramatic mezzo-sopranos.
The contralto is the lowest range of female singing voice found in classical and operatic music. This vocal category is relatively rare among vocal ranges and stretches from F3 up to F5 on the piano keyboard. Some contralto voices can be as low as E3 or as high as B♭5. Considering its various voice qualities and vocal register, this vocal category was further apportioned in the same manner as that of the mezzo-soprano voice category.
Contralto and its choral counterpart, alto, shares the same vocal range that spans from F3 to F5. This is where the association stops. Contralto and alto are not the same categories as classical categories, for the contralto was categorized by considering the vocal registers as well as other voice qualities aside from vocal range.