Changing an Alto into a Soprano

Last week I talked about tessitura, and aimed this at the discussion of changing a baritone into a tenor.

While the process in general is pretty similar for changing an alto into a soprano, it struck me that there are definite differences between the male and female instruments that are worth talking about.

In particular, many women who join choirs, or want to sign in a band/music group, often end up singing as a nominal bass, or believe themselves to be an alto. There are still further women who believe they have no bottom end to their voice and sing in a soprano range, but it is often very thin and wispy.

Let’s talk about three chief differences between training the male and female instruments, and why this makes such a difference in how it feels to be a male or female singer.

1. The Bottom End

We’ve talked about chest voice extensively. Briefly, it is the lowest register of any voice. In normal healthy voices, it is typically the range that most people speak in. As such, when you imagine a friend’s voice in your head, the quality you are likely hearing is their chest voice.

Everyone’s chest voice is unique in timbre, and evolves as they mature in age. I’ve talked about that extensively here and here.

More bottom end…
Male voices tend to not just sit lower, but sound thicker and fuller. This presents what we consider to be a more masculine quality (surprise, surprise). Women’s voices tend to sit higher and have a lighter brighter quality, and tend to have what we consider a more feminine quality. Both male and female voices contain these richer lower frequencies, and brighter higher frequencies. But the balance is generally tipped a little more towards the brighter and lighter side of that balance for female voices, and tipped more towards the darker and thicker side for male voices.

Male voices also tend to have around 1.5-2.5 octaves of range in their chest voice, while women tend to have around 1-1.5 octaves. Some men and women have more or less than the average, but they are the outliers that orbit around this general trend.

For men, what makes singing in a tenor range difficult is learning to navigate their way out of chest voice – all 2.5+ octaves of it in some cases – up into the higher registers, but without ever losing the rich quality that their own chest voice possesses. The more chest voice there is (volume and range), the more challenging this becomes. Like trying to escape the gravity of a big planet.

…Versus Less bottom end
Lighter voices on the other hand, have comparatively little chest voice to escape from, so ascending to higher notes can feel much easier. The flipside is that such voices have their own personal battle to develop fullness and power in their voice, due to said lightness.

This is why women with slightly more bottom end can find it hard to make it to the higher ranges with ease, and so sing like a tenor, or even a bass in some cases. It is also why women with very little chest voice sometimes abandon their chest voice altogether in order to ascend to higher notes. They then make the notes, but at the expense of any depth or quality in the voice.

Many female clients have said (when they first start working on their voice) that they feel like they sound very girly and less like a woman when they open their mouth to sing. Which leads us to the second point…

2. “You make me feel like a natural woman

There are overlaps in the distribution of male voices vs female voices, e.g. fuller and deeper female voices, and lighter and brighter male voices. But in both cases, one is a woman singing, and one is a male singing. Each should sound like what they are.

When it comes to training a male voice, most men are already aiming for a masculine sound. Sometimes they overdo it, sometimes they aren’t capable of maintaining the depth, but it is a more overt thing to hear when a male voice isn’t “manly” enough. I am not suggesting there is ONE male sound that all men should strive toward, simply that when a man sounds lighter than he should be, it comes across as a more obvious deviation than it would be for women.

On the other hand, the female voice is a little bit more squirrelly to pin down.

We want women to sound like women
…but the lightness inherent in many female voices can too easily lend to women donning a faux opera voice to ascend to higher notes. Those lighter sounds may sound more feminine but it certainly does not sound natural. For singers older than 30 as well, this lighter sound often does not adequately reflect how they feel as women either, which is a complaint I often encounter from those looking to improve their voices.

With heavier female voices, or those who are singing more aggressive music, the tendency is then to sit even harder and heavier into their chest voice. As such, their approach and sound becomes far more like that of a male singer. While this avoids the lighter end of the spectrum, this leaves women singing and sounding like men. It becomes over-masculinised, and rarely sounds as good as it otherwise could.

Neither are optimal solutions. We want men to sound like men, and women to sound like women. We want it to be a natural sound, one that is clearly feminine but womanly in character.

3. The first and second bridge

This one is a little bit more technical, but you don’t need to absorb the minutia.

When men leave chest voice to ascend into their head voice, they do so at the first bridge, at E4 (E above middle C). This can be more challenging for men than women, as explained by the reasons above. Their second bridge is at the A4 above that. That’s only 5 semitones difference, and there’s only really one note in the middle that sits clearly away from the first and the second bridge.

When women leave chest voice, they do so at their first bridge, which is at A4 (same as the male first bridge). However, their second bridge is at E5 above that. That’s 7 semitones difference, and there’s 3 notes in the middle that sit clearly away from the first and second bridge.

Getting women out of chest voice is relatively easy. Getting them up to knocking on the door of their second bridge is relatively forthcoming also. But because there’s (comparatively) so much range between their first and second bridge, it can often make it very hard for women’s voices to accept the transition into the second bridge. They get to linger and enjoy a transition-free area above their first bridge, so learning to dive back into transitioning again above that range is physiologically hard.

In contrast, men have it relatively hard for accessing their second bridge. A lot has to change very very quickly, which is initially quite difficult to swallow. However, because first bridge doesn’t unlock the same kind of transition-free range for men as it does for women, male singers have no choice but to accept the rapid need for change over a narrow range.

In some regards, being given a “make it 100% or fail completely” ultimatum by your voice makes it easier for men to accept such changes. But for women, a relative low barrier to entry into their first bridge, plus extra free range immediately after, often underprepares female singers for the nature of the transition at the second bridge. As such, things can developmentally slow down for some women around their second bridge.

Closing: Men’s and women’s voices are different

Way to state the obvious there Mark! But the chief reason I want to point this out is this: although we all have to observe the same transitions in the voice, and solve the same problems, a couple of subtle parameter changes make the process very different feeling for male vs female singers.

If you’re a woman who feels like they aren’t getting the best out of their voice, feel free to book yourself in via our booking form, and we can help you out with that.

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