I've been listening to a lot of Schubert lieder - it's a form I'm learning more about. Are lieder vocals generally non-gender specific?

It seems that there can be either a male or female vocal on the recordings I've listened to. I would imagine that other forms are specific to sopranos because of the vocal range generally required.

5 Answers 5


That's not really specific to German: single-voiced vocals are typically "unisex", meaning that they are intended to be sung either by males (one octave lower than the treble clef they are written in) or females (at written pitch). Unless their range is comparatively constrained and thus universal (like typical for congregation singing), they tend to be for "low voice" (alto or bass) or "high voice" (soprano or tenor). The character (with regard to how much the singing voice diverges from the speaking voice) tends to end up comparatively similar since female formants tend to be quite higher than male formants, due to a smaller mouth and a different manner of voicing.

As a countertenor I can testify that female singers are more likely to experience problems by a male singer singing at the same pitch as themselves rather than one octave below.

"Lieder" is a rather general term in German, basically covering all sorts of song that have progressing lyrics (like "Weihnachtslieder" for "Christmas carols"). The modern troubadour self-accompanying on guitar with lyrics often critical of society is a "Liedermacher", "song maker". Schubert made somewhat more artful versions (with spelled-out accompaniment for one thing) of what would generally be more of a "folk song" genre.


Some compositions, at least, were gender-specific.

Abstract: My research identifies German Lieder composed specifically for female singers. Female-specific songs were determined through textual analysis of the solo works from four influential composers of this era, Franz Schubert (1786–1828), Robert Schumann (1810–1856), Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), and Hugo Wolf (1860–1903).1 (Andrea M. Apel, 2009, German Lieder Songs for Women)

However, Schubert seems to have been flexible on the matter.

Die schöne Müllerin is performed by a pianist and a solo singer. The vocal part falls in the range of a tenor or soprano voice, but is often sung by other voices, transposed to a lower range, a precedent established by Schubert himself. (Source: Wikipedia)

Winterreise ... [was] originally written for tenor voice but [is] frequently transposed to other vocal ranges, a precedent set by Schubert himself. (Source: Wikipedia)

Though tradition is also a factor.

I spoke with a young clerk who, initially rather dubious about a female infiltrating male dominated territory, in fact was thoroughly enthralled with [Christa Ludwig's performance of Die Winterreise]. (Source: Sjoerdsma, Richard Dale. Journal of Singing; Jacksonville Vol. 64, Iss. 4, [Mar/Apr 2008]: 405-407.)

1Andrea M. Apel, 2009, German Lieder Songs for Women

  • There's a lot more to the association of certain songs with male or female voices than "tradition."
    – phoog
    Oct 4, 2020 at 2:00
  • @phoog My answer reads as a reduction to "tradition"?
    – Aaron
    Oct 4, 2020 at 2:23
  • 2
    No, I was just criticizing the last sentence. But there's more to be said: this answer doesn't explain why some compositions were gender specific, nor why Andrea Apel thinks that textual analysis would be a reasonable way of determining that a song was written specifically for women. That Winterreise was transposed to other ranges does not imply that Schubert thought it appropriate material for a woman to sing. Maybe he thought it appropriate only for baritones and basses.
    – phoog
    Oct 4, 2020 at 3:19
  • @phoog That's very helpful. Appreciated.
    – Aaron
    Oct 4, 2020 at 3:33
  • 2
    I had a closer (but not yet very close) look at that paper. The body speaks of "female-specific songs," without actually (as far as I saw) examining the question implied in the abstract of whether any of them was "composed specifically for female singers" (in terms of the composer's intention). In other words, there's no examination of what any of those composers (or anyone else) might have thought about the songs' being sung by men. Surely she's right that these are traditionally female songs, but her findings don't go into enough depth to say what that meant in practice back then.
    – phoog
    Oct 4, 2020 at 4:07

Yes and no.

Many Lieder texts are gender-specific (as Aaron’s answer says) in the sense that they clearly indicate the narrator’s gender — most often by addressing a lover whose gender is specified (in a time/tradition where heteronormativity was assumed); sometimes because they specify the narrator’s profession or social role (in a society where roles were typically gender-specific); sometimes simply through grammatical gender (e.g. in French, where most adjectives and some verb forms differ depending on gender).

At the same time, these Lieder may be sung by singers of any gender (as user72296’s answer discusses) — it’s perfectly common for (e.g.) a female singer to sing Die Schöne Müllerin, even though it is narrated from the perspective of a young man. This has been the norm at least since early in the twentieth century; I’m not sure if it goes back further.

(I’m assuming here you’re mainly thinking of Lieder in the classical/romantic tradition of Schubert, Schumann, and so on — the songs usually known as Lieder in English. In German, of course, Lieder covers a much broader range of songs.)

  • "In German, of course, Lieder covers a much broader range of songs": because Lieder is German for songs. I doubt there's anything that could be called song in English that wouldn't be called Lied in German.
    – phoog
    Oct 4, 2020 at 2:03
  • @phoog: my German is pretty basic, so I didn’t want to say anything too definitive. My understanding was that most senses of English song do correspond to Lied, but some correspond to Gesang instead?
    – PLL
    Oct 4, 2020 at 7:38
  • I think the term we are speaking about is das Kunstlied and Solo-Lied for Sologesang. Oct 4, 2020 at 9:34
  • @PLL Gesang has a couple of senses, one of which is synonymous with Lied and the other translates to English singing or to the uncountable sense of song. I was thinking of the countable sense only when I wrote my previous comment, but I decided not to use the indefinite article, which was confusing.
    – phoog
    Oct 4, 2020 at 13:26

Are lieder vocals generally non-gender specific?

As noted elsewhere, generally, yes. But some songs are sung "in character" as a woman or man who portrays or participates in some dramatic action. Different people have different tolerance for hearing a song that exclusively portrays (for example) a young woman's unrequited love for a man as she performs the (supposedly) womanly domestic task of spinning thread (Gretchen am Spinnrade, the text of which comes from an actual stage play).

Of course, a song recital is not a staged dramatic performance, so in fact it can work just fine for songs that portray a specific character to be sung by a voice that the character would never have. You're more likely to find the gender-specific attitude applied to entire song cycles rather than individual songs. For example, Wikipedia lists no recording by a male singer of Frauenliebe und Leben, and only one by a female singer of Winterreise. But in these days of cross-gender casting on the stage, it's fairly likely that a performer crossing these traditional gender lines would find a receptive audience.

There are also dramatic songs that portray multiple characters, both male and female. These songs have always been more readily accepted by singers of both genders (Erlkönig). And still other songs portray no character at all; these may be odes (Widmung, An die Musik) or stories told by a narrator rather than from the perspective of a character (Die Forelle, Heidenröslein). These too have traditionally been sung by singers of any gender.

I would imagine that other forms are specific to sopranos because of the vocal range generally required.

As noted elsewhere, it's quite common to transpose these songs. They've traditionally been published in volumes for high, medium, and low voice. These designations are used to avoid specifying the singer's gender: high voice may be used by either a tenor or a soprano, for example. Thus any song written for a soprano may be sung not only by a tenor but also by a mezzo soprano, contralto, countertenor, baritone, or bass.


I think the term we are speaking about is das Kunstlied and Solo-Lied for Sologesang.

Actually I don‘t understand the question as all songs are usually transposed for all ranges: There are Lied editions for tenor or baritone e.g.

Even from the context of the text it is possible that a boy can sing a love song that is addressing to another boy in our days. What about a counter tenor singing a song written for a girl? Is his gender now the role of his song subject or his individual person?

On the other hand there are Lieder written by Brahms for women voices and french horn and harp that could hardly be song by men choirs because of the registration and orchestral sound.

All other songs can be sung by anybody - independent of its gender. Statistics are surely culture and opinion based.

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