This is the #1 question I get asked by concert audience members and people I meet on the street.
Let's start with choir voice types. In a choir, people sit in sections: sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. You’ll probably recognize the names soprano and alto from choir in school. This is different from an actual voice classification, as there are more of those than there are choir voice types.
There are three voice classifications for women:
- a soprano (the highest)
- a mezzo-soprano (in the middle) and
- a contralto (a/k/a alto).
So think of a mezzo-soprano as being able to sing Alto I or Soprano II and fitting into that place in between.
Sopranos are typically comfortable singing higher pitches and also for longer periods of time. Mezzo-sopranos can also sing high, but not always quite as high and mezzos may find it more challenging than a soprano. Mezzo-sopranos also sing lower than a soprano and for longer periods of time. Contraltos sing even lower than mezzo-sopranos but true contraltos don’t sing nearly as high as mezzo-sopranos and sopranos.
Also, every woman’s voice ‘shifts’ differently between the lower, middle, and upper registers (think of those like the low, middle, and high gears of a car) and some singers experience their voices in two registers, or maybe just one! Just as the clutch is different on every car, each person’s voice 'drives' and ‘shifts’ differently.
Do you remember singing in choir in school and there was always that part of a song that went higher, but it wasn’t comfortable until you sang even higher? That’s the part of our voices where we need to ‘shift’ and that is called a passaggio, an Italian word meaning ‘passage.’ Singers practice a lot so these passaggi (the plural of passaggio) aren’t too obvious for the listener.