In this lesson, you’ll learn about the rarest and lowest variety of women’s singing voices: the contralto.
You’ll learn about how the contralto voice compares to other female voice types, and you’ll also get an introduction to some famous contraltos.
What is a Contralto?
When Judy Garland sings ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ in the classic film Wizard of Oz, her deep, soulful voice brings special poignancy to her performance as she longs for a land where dreams come true. Judy Garland is a wonderful example of a contralto.
Contralto is a term that indicates the lowest type of female singing voice, or a singer who possesses that voice type. Though the contralto voice is the rarest woman’s voice type, talented contraltos have come to prominence in both classical and popular styles; for example, contemporary artists like Adele and Lady Gaga have both been described as contraltos.
The Range of Contralto Voice
In music, the term ‘range’ refers to the distance between the lowest and the highest notes a voice or instrument can produce. Women’s singing voices are divided into three general categories based on their ranges.
The highest female singing voice is the soprano; the medium-range singing voice is called mezzo soprano; and the lowest is the contralto. The specific range of the average contralto voice depends on whether we’re talking about choral music or the voices of highly trained soloists.In choral music, women’s voices are often divided into only two categories, with the higher parts labeled ‘Soprano’ and the lower parts labeled ‘Alto’. The term ‘alto’ sounds like it’s short for ‘contralto’, and some musicians freely interchange them. But often there’s a specific difference between the two words: ‘alto’ usually refers to lower female voices in choral music, and ‘contralto’ is a more technical term reserved for professionally trained soloists with an especially low range and dark tone color.
The average choral alto uses a vocal range from A below middle C to C above middle C. A professionally trained contralto possesses a larger range of at least two octaves, from F below middle C to F on top of the treble staff. Many professional contraltos can also sing several notes below and above this vocal range.This keyboard illustrates an average contralto range in dark green. The light green notes indicate the wider range of some contralto soloists. Middle C is highlighted in yellow.
This is a beautiful, sensual vocal range for a woman’s voice, but it happens to be nearly identical to a very high range for a man’s voice. When an adult male singer possesses the same vocal range as a contralto, we call him a countertenor. Although countertenors and contraltos can often sing the exact same pieces of music, only women are called contraltos, and only men are called countertenors. Art Garfunkel is a famous countertenor in the world of pop music.
Very few singers have voices deep and dark enough to be considered true contraltos, so if you’d like to hear one, YouTube will probably not overwhelm you with suggestions.
To listen to a beautiful contralto voice, you couldn’t do better than to look up recordings by Marian Anderson or Kathleen Ferrier, two of the greatest contraltos since the invention of sound recording. Both were classically trained singers with lovely contralto ranges, and both made an indelible mark upon their generations.Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) was a British contralto with a deep, powerful voice, known for her ability to move audiences to tears. During the Second World War, she helped express the experience of everyday people struggling on the home front through her beloved performances. She also inspired the prominent English composer Benjamin Britten to write an opera for her before her tragic early death at the age of 41.Marian Anderson (1897-1993) is known for being the first African-American artist to sing with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In 1939, she was invited to sing a concert in Washington, D.
C., but when she tried to book a concert hall big enough to hold her audience, she was not allowed to perform because of her color. Undeterred, Anderson presented a daring, historic outdoor recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, attracting thousands of listeners.
Singing ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee,’ as well as operatic arias and spirituals, Anderson’s singing made a powerful musical statement about equality.
The term contralto refers to the lowest-pitched variety of female voice. Of the three categories of women’s singing voices, which are soprano, mezzo soprano, and contralto, the contralto is the rarest, in addition to possessing the lowest vocal range. A contralto’s range is similar to that of the countertenor, a high male voice.
Two of the most famous contraltos since the advent of recording technology are Kathleen Ferrier and Marian Anderson.