The Vocal Fach System was developed in Germany at the end of the 19th Century for opera houses to create distinct categories for all the roles in an opera in order to aid auditions and casting.
Fach means classification, specialty, category. Singers were placed in a Fach according to their Voice types and they would only study the characters that belonged in that category. ( laugh sometimes because I think of it like the Indian “Caste” system. Meaning, once you were born into poverty, no matter how many times you come back in reincarnation, you will always be a pauper. Or if you were born into royalty, you would always come back a king. Nonetheless, it is still a very helpful way to understand “voice types.” With that said: Opera houses would keep records of singers according to Fach and they would call them in for auditions according to which roles were available.
All together singers and roles were placed in a Fach according to the following vocalcharacteristics:
- range– the notes your body can produce
- weight– light voices, bright and agile; heavy voices, powerful, rich, and darker
- size– the amount of sound you can produce and your voice’s dramatic effect
- tessitura– part of the range which is most comfortable to sing
- timbre or color– unique voice quality and texture
- transition points– points where you change from chest, to middle, to head register
- vocalregisters – how extended each register is
- speech level– speaking range
- physical characteristics – height and build
- age and experience
The Fach System is still used widely throughout the world (especially in Europe), and although it might seem as a very stringent way of classifying singers, knowing your specific voice type can help you make better decisions when auditioning.
Most composers have particular voice types in mind, some times even specific singers, when working on their operas. Nowadays, directors and conductors try to recreate the feeling of particular characters by choosing singers whose voice power, size, timber, color, and range match the composer’s intentions.
Think about it: would a soprano with a heavy and powerful voice be a good fit for the role of a young girl like Gilda in Rigoletto? And how about a bright and airy tenor for the role of a dramatic character like Canio in Pagliacci?
I wish this book was translated into English. This book by Rudolf Kloiber’s Handbuch der Oper, is the definitive complete manual on voice types, auditioning, and roles. Since it hasn’t been published in English, below please find a very scaled down version of vocal fachs, their categories, their characteristics and their ranges (which I will include as well).
This is a collective table of the main 25 voice types in the Fach system.
The 25 Voice Types
|Soprano Voice Types||Soubrette||Spielsopran||Young, light, bright|
|Lyric Coloratura Soprano||Lyrischer Koloratursopran||High, bright, flexible|
|Dramatic Coloratura Soprano||Dramatischer Koloratursopran||High, dark, flexible|
|Lyric Soprano||Lyrischer Sopran||Warm, legatto, full|
|Character Soprano||Charaktersopran||Bright, metallic, theatrical|
|Spinto /Young Dramatic Soprano||Jugendlich-dramatischer Sopran||Powerful, young, full|
|Dramatic Soprano||Dramatischer Sopran||Powerful, dark, rich|
|Mezzo-Soprano Voice Types||Coloratura Mezzo-Soprano||Coloratura Mezzo-Soprano||Agile, rich, bright|
|Lyric Mezzo-Soprano||Lyrischer Mezzosopran||Strong, flexible, lachrymose|
|Dramatic Mezzo-Soprano||Dramatischer Mezzosopran||Rich, powerful, imposing|
|Contralto Voice Types||Dramatic Alto||Dramatischer Alt||Powerful, full, metallic|
|Low Contralto||Tiefer Alt||Low, full, warm|
|Tenor Voice Types||Countertenor||Contratenor||High, agile, powerful|
|Lyric Tenor||Lyrischer Tenor||Soft, warm, flexible|
|Acting Tenor||Spieltenor||Flexible, theatrical, light|
|Dramatic Tenor||Heldentenor||Full, low, stamina|
|Character Tenor||Charaktertenor||Bright, powerful, theatrical|
|Baritone Voice Types||Lyric Baritone||Lyrischer Bariton||Smooth, flexible, sweet|
|Cavalier Baritone||Kavalierbariton||Brilliant, warm, agile|
|Character Baritone||Charakterbariton||Flexible, powerful, theatrical|
|Dramatic Baritone||Heldenbariton||Powerful, full, imposing|
|Bass Voice Types||Character Bass||Charakterbass||Full, rich, stamina|
|Acting Bass||Spielbass||Flexible, agile, rich|
|Heavy Acting Bass||Schwerer Spielbass||Full, rich, imposing|
|Serious Bass||Seriöser Bass||Mature, rich, powerful
Major Category – Voice Types by Range and Tessitura
If you sing in a choir or take voice lessons, you have probably already been classified as a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto (alto) if you are a woman, and a countertenor, tenor, baritone, or bass if you are a male. But are you really sure you’ve been classified correctly? Test your voice according to the following scales.
Voice Type: Soprano, Range: B3 – G6
Soprano is the highest female voice type. There are many types of sopranos like the coloratura soprano, lyric soprano, the soubrette etc. which differ in vocal agility, vocal weight, timbre, and voice quality; I will talk about them in our livestream. All of the sopranos have in common the ability to sing higher notes with ease.
A typical soprano can vocalize B3 to C6, though a soprano coloratura can sing a lot higher than that reaching F6, G6 etc.
Voice Type: Mezzo-Soprano, Range: G3 – A5
Mezzo-Soprano is the second highest female voice type. In a choir, a mezzo-soprano will usually sing along the sopranos and not the altos and will be given the title of Soprano II. When the sopranos split in half, she will sing the lower melody as her timbre is darker and tessitura lower than the sopranos.
Though in opera mezzo-sopranos most often hold supporting roles and trouser roles, i.e. male roles, there are notable exceptions like those of Carmen and Rosina in The Barber of Seville, where the prima donna is a mezzo-soprano. A typical mezzo-soprano can vocalize from G3 to A5, though some can sing as high as typical soprano.
Voice Type: Contralto, Range: E3 – F5
Contralto is the lowest female voice type. In a choir, contralto’s are commonly know as altos and sing the supporting melody to the sopranos. This doesn’t mean that contraltos are not as important. On the contrary, because true altos are hard to find, a true alto has greater chances of a solo carrier than a soprano.
A contralto is expected to be able to vocalize from E3 to F5, however, the lower her tessitura, the more valuable she is.
Voice Type: Countertenor, Range: G3 – C6
Countertenor is the rarest of all voice types. A countertenor is a male singer who can sing as high as a soprano or mezzo-soprano utilizing natural head resonance. As I said before, countertenors are extremely hard to come along and their ability to sing as high as C6 is admired by religious music connoisseurs.
Though extremely unique, countertenor is not an operatic voice type, as historically, it was the castrati (male singers castrated before puberty) who would be chosen for the female operatic roles – it was not proper for women to sing in the opera. Instead, countertenors were popular in religious choirs, where women were also not allowed to participate.
The castratti are out of the scope of this post, but for those who are interested to learn more about them, I would like to recommend the movie Farinelli, a literary twist on the life of Farinelli, the most famous castrato of all times.
Voice Type: Tenor, Range: C3 – B4
Tenor is the highest male voice type you will find in a typical choir. Though it is the voice type with the smallest range, it barely covers 2 octaves from C3 to B4, tenors are the most sought after choir singers for two major reasons. The first reason is that there aren’t as many men singing in choirs to begin with. The second reason is that most men, singers or not, fall under the baritone voice type.
In the opera, the primo uomo is most often a tenor, and you will know he is a tenor because of the ringing quality in his voice. A true tenor has a high tessitura, above the middle C4, and uses a blend of head resonance and falsetto, as opposed to falsetto alone.
Many a baritone will try to use this technique to classify as tenor and some will be successful; you’ll know who they are because of their red faces when trying to sing the high notes in the tenor melodic line.
Voice Type: Baritone, Range: G2 – G4
Baritone is the most common male voice type. Though common, baritone is not at all ordinary. On the contrary, the weight and power of his voice, give the baritone a very masculine feel, something that in the opera has been used in roles of generals and, most notably, noblemen. Don Giovanni, Figaro, Rigoletto, and Nabucco are all baritones.
In a choir, a baritone will never learn about the particulars of his voice, since he will have to sing either with the tenors or the basses. Most baritones with a high tessitura choose to sing with the tenors, and respectively, the ones with a lower tessitura sing with the basses. Their range is anywhere between a G2 and a G4 but can extend in either way.
If you sing tenor and can’t reach the higher notes with ease, or sing bass and can’t reach the lower notes naturally, you’re most probably a baritone and you shouldn’t worry about it, we’ll discuss this in the live stream.
Voice Type: Bass, Range: D2 – E4
Bass is the lowest male voice type, and thus a bass sings the lowest notes humanly possible. I tend to think of the deep bass notes as comparable to those of a violoncello, though some charismatic basses can hit notes lower than those of a cello. A bass will be asked to sing anywhere between a D2 and an E4. A cello’s lowest note is a C2.
Just with every extreme, it’s really hard to find true basses and it’s almost impossible in the younger ages where the male bodies are still developing.
Though in a choir basses might have rather monotone melodic lines, in the opera they have a great range of roles to choose from. Basses are used as the villains and other dark characters, the funny buffos and in comic-relief roles, the dramatic princes, the noble fathers of heroines, elderly priests and more.
Now that you have learnt all about the major categories in voice types, I’m sure you’ll want to know how to distinguish between the secondary categories. Do you know the difference between a lyric soprano and a dramatic soprano or a leggero tenor and a spinto tenor? How can you tell which one you are? We will be discussing this in our Youtube Live Stream!
See you soon!
Watch this 30 second before and after video of a student who took the course for only one year:
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