Timbre and the Indeterminate Voice

Something that struck me recently was how intensely voice teachers must deal with timbre on a daily basis. Our instruments, more than any others, demand close attention to what sounds are being produced and how.  Unlike a viola or trombone, our resonance chambers are constantly shifting, for better or for worse. Learning how to navigate our own voices is made doubly difficult by the fact that we hear ourselves differently than everyone else.

Timbre is particularly important when dealing with the voices of young singers. Teachers, coaches, and audition panels listen not only for the weaknesses and strengths of the underdeveloped voice, but also for hints of what is to come. What fach (voice category) will this voice eventually fit into? Is the singer singing appropriate rep? How will they sound in 5 years? 10? To the educated ear, these hypotheses are based not on guesswork, but on an audial repository of many voices, and what they have gone on to become.

For me, this tricky field of vocal speculation is particularly interesting because my voice, like many, doesn’t fit neatly into a category. My teachers throughout the years have disagreed as to whether my voice fits better the characteristics of a soprano or of a mezzo. Every time it seems as though things are settled, someone pops up with a countering opinion.

It’s cool. I’m young. I have time to work these things out. But what’s really interesting from a timbral perspective is hearing why people hold the opinions they do. A teacher I studied with recently offered great insight into her thought process on the tricky “mezzo vs. soprano” debate.  While common knowledge on this subject suggests that soprano voices are universally higher, and mezzos have the low notes, that is simply too cut and dry. The most telling sign is actually tessitura, in what part of the voice the singer “sits” most comfortably. Sopranos are most likely to be comfortable having the majority of their notes be relatively high, while mezzos feel most at home in the middle part of their voices. But for me, this explanation still leaves much to be desired. I wanted to know what “sound” people were looking for. What, in timbre, could explain the difference between these voices?

The answer I got was very interesting. A big clue is the way the voice navigates the passaggio (Italian for passage, used to describe the place in the voice where the musculature switches, causing a break. Singers are taught to make this change as smoothly as possible).  Mezzos tend to thin out through the passage, loosing the lower overtones in their sound, whereas sopranos will have a roundness of sound that increases as they comfortably climb the scale. Mezzos may need more effort to ascend, while sopranos will sit with great ease above the passaggio. This, of course, is only one timbral clue among many. But for voices that have both high and low notes, and many overtones in their voice, it’s a helpful and interesting revelation. Given the large number of fachs that even soprano and mezzo voices are broken into, it is also a gross oversimplification. But it does help people like me understand why teachers say what they do about our voices.  And it can help me make educated choices for the future, in terms of repertoire.

I love having concrete things to pick out as I listen to great singers, and this new knowledge made listening to recordings of various sopranos and mezzos very educational.

Here are a few recordings for your enjoyment! It’s really interesting to contrast singers of other fachs singing these same arts songs, or for the arias, other singers of the same voice type.  Have fun!

A Rachmaninoff Romance (Op. 38, No. 5) sung by soprano, Elisabeth Söderström



Susan Graham, mezzo, singing “A Chloris” by Renaldo Hahn


Soprano, Carol Vaness, as Donn’ Elvira from Don Giovanni by Mozart. A very interesting voice—powerful soprano who absolutely has low notes.



Dorabella’s Aria from Cosi fan tutte by Mozart, sung by mezzo Elina Garanca