What is vocal tessitura? This comes up a lot, especially in the workshops and voice intensives I run. Wikipedia defines vocal tessitura as:
“… the most aesthetically acceptable and comfortable vocal range for a given singer”
This is 90% of the story, but the nuances go deeper than this. Let me explain.
How does vocal tessitura differ from just vocal range?
When we talk about vocal range we typically only consider it’s extremes. E.g. I can sing from this low note, to this high note. This alone fails to describe the quality of those notes or the notes in between, how connected that range is, how comfortable it is for the singer to sing in any one location within that range, and how long can the singer linger in the range in question. Tessitura takes account of all of these factors as well. How comfortable are you in certain regions of your voice, and where should we place songs so that:
a) the melody of a song is in the best spot in your voice; and
b) the opportunity to style and riff/ornament above that melody is still open to you (while still remaining comfortable).
It’s not just about top notes and bottom notes – it’s about your ability in-between
YouTube is littered with videos of “Freddie Mercurys Vocal Range” or “Whitney Houston’s Vocal Range”. These videos typically piece together clips of every note on the keyboard that they ever sang, even if it’s only a high squeak or a low squawk. To say this is their true vocal range is very generous and simply not representative of their true tessitura. This does not show where they would choose to sing to give their best quality and singing experience. It is only a record of notes they have hammered out on one song or another.
What is my own tessitura?
To understand your own tessitura, you must not only know your range, but the comfortable zones within that range. Where are the sweet spots that you can sing in (almost) forever? You also need to know what those different areas in your voice are useable for (e.g. where does the melody belong in your voice, where does the style portion sit, etc). For example, many men can sing/yell an A4, but that doesn’t mean they can comfortably sing most of Bono’s songs, which live between D4-A4. Most just don’t have the technique to spend all their time up there.
Similarly, many female singers can sing all the notes in most of Michael Buble’s songs in their original keys, but that doesn’t mean they want to stick their voice in a place where it feels like it’s scraping along the ground. It’s just generally too low. They can hit the notes, but it isn’t optimising the song for their voice.
NOTE: Through specialist training you can change your tessitura. I started out singing baritone, and worked my way up to be comfortable as a high tenor. Many of my clients experience a similar thing, especially if their starting tessitura is very different to the material they want to sing. It just takes training.
Songs can also be considered to have a tessitura
Consider if we were to go through the melody and count how many times each note occurs, then display this as a graph. We’d end up with very different shape curves depending on the song. Some would have most of the range clustered low then one or two higher notes, others may have most of the range clustered high and the odd low notes, some might have clusters down low and clusters up high, etc.
Different voices (even with full training) will have different fully developed tessituras, and what their voices do well/less well. The more range and control you have, the more songs will be available to you, but that still doesn’t mean that you will be able to sing all songs equally well. The tessitura signature of different songs will match better to your voice than others. That’s why it is important to understand your own tessitura, and match it appropriately to both the right songs, and putting those songs in a key that maximises the match between your voice and the song.
Know your voice
Hope that helps you understand the idea of vocal tessitura a bit better. There really is no other way than to really get to grips with your voice as an instrument and understand where melodies and ornamentations belong, and install your voice into appropriate songs as such.