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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.

  • 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 think that the OP is asking the statistics around the world. – Player1 Aug 2 '18 at 15:46
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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.
  • @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
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Well, this is truly fascinating and I am intrigued by all the points of view presented. I am a somewhat trained and professional singer (not well trained compared with Pavorotti, for example) and am involved with Barbershop singers. They come to us usually with no training and I was hoping, as the original questioner was, to find out if there is a range into which most male voices fall. Since there does not seem to be a consensus on that, I postulate the following based on my 50 yr exposure to various types of singers: soloists and choristers, barbershoppers and lounge lizard, children and adults, male and female:

Most untrained, dormant (they hardly ever sing) male voices around age 30 will fall into a sort of "Baritonish" range of approximately the D below middle to ab out middle C - a bit less than an octave. This they can sing with some degree of comfort - straining some around A below middle C and possibly scratching some on the low E and D. Voices that go higher or lower than this I'm guessing become fewer and fewer the higher and lower we go. The range expands with the amount of healthy singing a person does. Some can sing in a wide range with unhealthy singing - one exposed to cigarettes and whiskey etc., for example, and with no breath support or proper relaxing of the vocal mechanism and resonators. These will often sing with some degree of raspiness and still have quite a range, but they are usually limited in range and can make pleasant sounds in some genres of music if they have some sort of energy that goes with the singing.

I believe energy and motivation have a lot to do with a singers' range along with breathing healthily and relaxing the vocal apparatus.

I have heard some 90 yr old men sing with a nice clear voice and wide range because they've been singing forever. I've also heard former trained singers who've lost it. This seems to be because they stopped singing and making the effort.

Thanks for the interesting discussion.

Tom

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