Life's a Pitch
How genetics affects your vocal range
Are you a size 8 or 13 when it comes to footwear? Do your feet create narrow little deer prints or do you leave triple-E, bear-sized craters in your path? Whatever your answers, there's no sense in complaining. Your shoe size was determined the day you were conceived.
Voices also come in a variety of sizes. Just like your foot, the size of your larynx was determined by a genetic code. And like every other musical instrument, size determines range. If you have a small larynx, then your voice will be high-pitched. That's why male and female children alike can sing into the stratosphere.
As we age, the genetic code begins to unfold. Some people experience tremendous growth spurts during their teens. If you wind up with a super-sized larynx, your voice will be able to produce pitches much lower than the average bear can bellow.
Most of us, though, grow to average proportions and wind up with average vocal ranges. Don't fret. Just as your shoe size does not determine where you will go in life, an ordinary larynx does not mean an ordinary voice.
Awards are not handed out for singing glass-shattering high notes just as no song has ever become popular simply because it contained some birdcalls. Yet, we singers tend to fixate on range as if it's the reason we're not winning awards and selling piles of CDs.
True, there is an emotional lift when a melody soars upward, but the pitches should always be proportionate to the instrument. Sing at the height of your voice's potential and your audience will assume your abilities are limitless. Sing beyond your boundaries and you merely call attention to your limitations.
This does not mean you are stuck with the measly dozen or so pitches you sing well these days; rarely does a singer access his or her full genetic range without some training. It does mean, though, that before you worry about expanding, it helps to embrace what you have.
Membranes In Motion
Vocal range is a lot like the range of motion of your limbs. Can you drop down into a split without warming up? After warming up? For most, the elasticity necessary for a move like that requires a long program of stretching.
The same is true for your voice. The vocal folds are membranes (a little smaller then your eyelids) that close over the windpipe. When air streams through the tiny opening they create, their edges vibrate. The vibration is nothing more than a microscopic wiggle.
Look closely at a guitar string after it's played and you'll see them same thing. The speed of the wiggle, or vibration, is called the frequency. We refer to frequencies, or pitches, by their beats per second. The pitch, for instance, that an orchestra uses when tuning is A-440, meaning the frequency wiggles 440 times in one second (the larger the number, the higher the pitch). To sing high, your vocal folds have got to vibrate fast.
Tuning Your Muscle
The action required to sing different notes is very much like tuning a guitar. Muscles surrounding the larynx pull or release the folds to create high and low pitches. The amount of movement required for your entire range is microscopic. I suggest you reread that previous line about a thousand times until it is embedded in your subconscious.
The root of all vocal problems is that we perceive the activities involved with singing as big events. They are not. We ball our fists and load up enough air pressure to create an aneurysm just to get through the chorus of a song. The automatic reaction to such force is resistance: the body braces for the assault. Rigid muscles surrounding the larynx deny flexibility and lock up the vocal folds. No flexibility, no range-it's that simple.
Pump Up the Volume Gradually
The key to singing high notes is volume. Reducing the volume of your voice removes the burden of excess air pressure so your folds can become more elastic. Just as it takes a little stretching every day to get your legs into a split, vocalizing daily at a low volume will allow you to visit higher notes without stress.
It's best to sing scales rather than songs at first; the memory of a song's performance will lead you to pushing. Allow your higher notes to venture into falsetto or head voice. It's okay if the transition cracks or skips out; this is just a symptom of your imbalanced ways. Don't worry that the light voice you vocalize with is not up to performance standards.
Only after you are completely comfortable with producing a note at a low volume should you attempt to raise the output. Increasing the volume in very small increments will allow you to monitor muscle independence. If facial or neck muscles join in to support a note, you've added too much air pressure.
Choose Your Pitch
Once you've established a controllable range for yourself, the question always arises as to what category best describes your voice. The idea of labeling yourself tends to be an unnecessary source of anxiety for beginning vocalists.
Centuries ago, when western music was evolving, a system emerged to classify singers by range. This allowed composers to specify the type of voice for a particular part and get a result as consistent as with a violin, cello or bass.
The highest female voice is called soprano, followed by the middle range of a mezzo-soprano and the lowest for women, a contralto.
A male who has a high voice is called a tenor, a guy with an average range is classified as a baritone and those who can sing super low are basses. If you are familiar with music notation, the normal span of these voices is one octave above and below the notes B, G, and E for the females and A, F and D for the males. Experienced singers routinely sing beyond these limits.
The operatic world goes into further detail by adding character descriptions to a singer's label. If you have a powerful voice, then you are classified as dramatic or robust. Sing with a light tonal quality and you will be dubbed a lyric-soprano, tenor, baritone, etc. If the descriptive add-ons don't quite capture you, there are combinations of categories, like bass/baritone, that can stretch the boundaries even further. In the end, everyone gets a tag.
Don't Call Me Names
Labels have a funny effect on people; the profile always seems to limit. Yet, some singers are empowered when informed they are a soprano or tenor. They forget the classification is based on genetics, not how well they sing.
Others become discouraged when told their vocal ranges are average, also forgetting that middle does not mean mediocre. What's important to note is that these classical voice categories, formed so many years ago, have no significance in popular music.
With few exceptions, the admired singers of today are mostly baritones and mezzo-sopranos (middle range singers) that push their voices into tenor and soprano ranges. The sound of their high notes is appreciated by their fans but not acceptable by classical standards.
Remember the categories were formed so composers could control the quality of how their music was performed. So often in pop music, the composer is the singer. Those who don't perform their own songs have the luxury of changing the key until the fit is as comfortable as an old shoe.
While it is necessary for pop singers to know and challenge their ranges, it's not necessary to label their voices. Popular music is all about personality-simply hitting the notes is not enough. So, don't stress over whether your range is two or three octaves, or whether you're a coloratura, heroic tenor or basso buffo. The potential is there for every singer to receive a standing ovation. And that, my friend, is no ordinary feat.