One of the first things I read about singing that I knew to be false was an old book in my school library that stated in no uncertain terms that “the vocal range is fixed and cannot be extended”. While it is true that there are physical limits to what your body and voice can do (I personally will never be able to sing with the full range of an operatic soprano, or fly unaided like Superman), the chances are that you are nowhere near reaching those limits unless you’ve already spent a lifetime training your voice to maximum efficiency. As with any physical training, until you’ve set a goal and gone for it your don’t know for sure what you can accomplish.
Having said that, there is one piece of mythbusting I need to address before continuing:
No-one has an 8-octave range.
Most famously applied to Mariah Carey by a person who I can only assume was a wonderfully audacious publicist, the 8 Octave range is something you’ll often hear about in publicity to describe singers with wide range and technical ability (or who wish to be known as such). This should be taken with as much salt as pro-wrestlers billed as being over eight feet tall or supermodels claiming to have never been flattered by photo enhancement.
To be clear on what an eight octave range actually sounds like, find a piano (a full size acoustic one, not an electric keyboard). Go to the far left hand side and play the lowest note. Now slide your finger across the keys to the very highest note. If you still believe that Mariah Carey or anyone else can sing every single one of those notes in a usable fashion, good luck to you.
My usable range is about three and a half octaves (specifically E2 to B5). I have arrived at this through years of practice and do not expect to expand it any further in either direction, at least not significantly.
Generally I would advise beginners to find a comfortable range of about one and a half octaves (depending on the individual), expanding past 2 octaves as their voice develops and approaching the 3+ octave mark at an advanced level. If that doesn’t sound like much, this is roughly the same as you would expect to get from any other lead instrument (saxophone, trumpet, etc) and really is plenty to express pretty much anything you want. Here’s a clip of Bobby McFerrin to prove it:
In classical terms, the four main vocal ranges found in choirs are bass (low male, approx. E2-E4), tenor (high male, C3-A4/C5), alto (low female, F3-F5) and soprano (high female, C4-A5/C6), but it is important to realise that the purpose of these designations is to provide composers and arrangers with ranges of notes they can confidently expect singers to manage and in no way represent hard limits of what the voice is capable of.
As you sing through your vocal range you will experience three distinct registers in your voice as your vocal tract sets itself to cope with different pitches. These are traditionally named the chest voice (low), head voice (high regular) and falsetto (Mickey Mouse). Chest and head voice are so named due to those being the body parts where the resonance is felt, although the sound is actually being produced by the same vocal cords in all registers (in other words, the chest voice does not actually come from the chest).
Both male and female voices have falsetto registers, but it is more noticeable in male voices partly due to the softer sound compared to the normal male voice (I’ll be discussing ways to toughen and colour falsetto notes in future articles) and also because males are more likely to need to enter the falsetto register to get the higher notes called for in pop and rock music, at least until they are able to develop a stronger head voice. For a long time as a young self taught singer (before I took formal lessons) I found I had a range of notes I simply couldn’t get in between the top of my head voice (which at the time was weak) and the bottom of my falsetto range. Over time I found I was able to expand both registers until they met and eventually overlapped, so do not despair if you find yourself similarly unable to get certain notes. Practice, strengthen your technique and it will come.
So much for the theory, here’s the practice. The exercise I’m about to describe here is a fundamental practice technique and one of the best warm-up exercises there is, to the point where you can even use it to quickly warm up your voice if called upon to sing at short notice with no time for a proper warm-up. Through this exercise you can explore your full range, find and work on gear change points, practice pitching certain notes and much more.
First, say the word “Sing”, but instead of finishing off the ‘g’ consonant hold on to the sound between the ‘n’ and the ‘g’, “ng”. You should find yourself humming a tone with your mouth slightly open and your tongue flattened out across your mouth lightly touching your upper teeth. Now begin to raise and lower the pitch of that sound so you sound like an old fashioned police siren (hence the name).
Try sliding the pitch up as high as you can and as low as you can. If you hit a gear change point, you may find you stop the sound briefly as your vocal tract sets itself into the next register, with practice you can smooth out the transitions so one register will fade into the next without losing the tone.
To work on tricky vocal lines, play the higher and lower notes on a keyboard and practice sirening between them, getting used to the physical feeling of how your body sings both notes and the pitches in between. Then siren between all the notes in the line to work on pitching them. Finally, take out the glissando (slide) to pitch the notes without sirening.
In the next article in this series, I’ll be discussing basic ways you can change the tone of your voice.