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What percent of men are tenors, baritones, and basses, respectively? And similarly, what percent of women are sopranos, mezzos, and altos, respectively? It would be preferable if you could cite a reliable source for any statistics provided.

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Do you want to know proportions of trained singers, or an estimate of the proportions in the general public? – Bradd Szonye May 16 '14 at 19:49
@BraddSzonye: I'd be interested in both (or either). – Tony May 16 '14 at 21:00
My I suggest a title change to "distribution" instead of "proportion"? – Roland Bouman May 17 '14 at 12:09
I'd also like to point out that the OP should also clarify what type of civilization / culture / genre of music they are seeking. – jjmusicnotes May 18 '14 at 6:50
I'm amazed that we cannot find numbers on this, it seems something that someone somewhere would have measured and published. Still, while Googling to find a paper on the subject I did find that the lower male voices have a lower sperm count! – dumbledad Dec 12 '14 at 16:47

I think it will be difficult to answer this question in exactly the way you framed it because these voice types are not something that exist in nature — they are categories conventionally agreed upon to describe a complicated natural phenomenon (or, I'd argue, confluence of phenomena). The best analogy I can think of is asking what percent of people are sprinters vs marathon runners — most people aren't particularly either.

The voice types are most developed in the Fach system in opera, and even that falls apart quickly: many roles can be assigned to different Fachs, many people's voices are hard to classify in a Fach (especially when you add their acting predilections into the mix), and some people can be trained to sing in very different Fachs (e.g. countertenors often also sing, not as high-ish tenors, but as basses). This system is also very different from the way voice parts are assigned in choirs, which itself changes in typology over time. (Choirs have less highly trained voices and generally have to make the people available sing the music at hand.)

My answer, then, is not from statistics, but from my subjective experience as a singer, conductor, and voice teacher:

  • At a professional level, women with excellent extremely high ranges seem much, much more common than those with excellent extremely low ranges. (However, the economics of demand may play a role in terms of how many professionals the market can support: to my perception, the low alto voice part is not used to anything near its potential by either composers or those responsible for programing.)
  • Singing men are generally less thick on the ground at all levels than singing women, but professionals tend to be high-ish baritones most often, then truly high tenors (though again, economics may come into play), and truly low basses least often.
  • Most untrained singers have a small-ish range (maybe a bit more than the interval of a tenth 10th) at a moderate pitch level, with about an octave or so between a typical woman's range and a typical man's.
  • Many of the women who fill (especially amateur) choirs' alto sections may in fact be more soprano-ish than some of the same choir's sopranos, for a variety of reasons:
    1. In the least ambitious choirs, the soprano will often be singing a clear melody while the alto sings harmony, which means the "altos" benefit much more from a modicum of musical training, since they need to read, remember, and maintain an independent line. Shrewd directors with few trained singers may therefore put more of the educated ones on alto, regardless of what they sound like.
    2. Vocal training greatly increases range: a professional soprano would be able to sing far lower, in most cases, than an alto-ish woman with no training or experience. Thus, women with some training would be better at singing both high notes and low notes, and some of those will be wanted in the alto section. This is especially true in church choirs of modest aspirations, where the "sopranos" (aside, perhaps, from a small group to sing descants) are almost exclusively singing the melodies of hymns, which are designed to fall within anyone's range.
    3. Some women (for reasons inscrutable to me) simply insist that they are sopranos.
  • Male singers are harder to come by, and most of the untrained prefer a small, baritone-ish range. The consequences of going too high are audibly disastrous, where as going too low simply becomes inaudible. Many composers and arrangers work with these facts in mind. That said, in the most benighted choirs I have seen, a robust-sounding bass (but not at all low by a trained singer's standard) seems most common, followed by at least a singer or two who get get a high bit out well, and low bases (really any pitch below the bass-clef staff) least common of all.
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I'd give you a second +1 just for the alto appreciation. – Codeswitcher May 17 '14 at 19:10
@LiberalArtist I think your opening analogy is flawed. A persons measurable physical dimensions will predispose someone to being a better sprinter or runner, weather they actually become a runner or sprinter is irrelevant. By the same token, a persons measurable physical dimensions will define their vocal range and predispose their voice type weather they become a singer or not. – Fergus May 19 '14 at 1:34
@Fergus I know next to nothing about running, but I think that's probably true. However, I suspect that the number and complexity of factors involved would make it very difficult to predict a person's potential voice type (range & "quality"/timber), and I've never heard of it being done. It is also common among younger/newer singers to find disagreement among different teachers about what Fach they should be singing, so my point was that I don't think statistical data exist of the kind the OP may have had in mind exist. – LiberalArtist May 22 '14 at 2:58
I don't understand why a researcher couldn't sample a number of people on the Clapham omnibus, establish each person's range of comfortable pitching, and publish the results. That seems too obvious to have been overlooked. Scientists have done it for bird song but not people. – dumbledad Dec 12 '14 at 16:50

The worship team leader at our church is a powerful true tenor which makes it nearly impossible for our untrained congregation to sing well within his range. The alternative is to "harmonize" which is beyond the ability of most. But the music is so loud only God can hear the voices of the regular members anyway.

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