18

I heard this somewhere and was wondering if it's true that women's voices are one octave higher than men's?

  • 4
    How could this be? There are basically two male voices - bass and tenor, and two female - alto and soprano. Given that most voices can range a couple of octaves or more - some three or even four - where would we start? – Tim May 23 '18 at 15:54
  • Highly related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/65999/… – Dom May 24 '18 at 15:49
  • 2
    @Tim: The number range 25-35 is 5 higher than the number range 20-30. Where you start doesn't really matter; the relationship between the two ranges is clear. Also the notion that there are two male and two female voices is not correct - see below. – Lightness Races in Orbit May 24 '18 at 19:10
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit - my beef is the vague question. So a soprano ( female) is one octave above a bass (male). Sorry, the question is vague. – Tim May 24 '18 at 19:38
  • @Tim: Well, the answerers don't seem to have had a problem with it ;) – Lightness Races in Orbit May 25 '18 at 9:47
32

Yes, roughly. The standard ranges are often listed as:

  • Bass: E2-E4
  • Baritone: A2-A4
  • Tenor: C3-C5
  • Contralto: F3-F5
  • Mezzo-soprano: A3-A5
  • Soprano: C4-C6

You can see that the three women's ranges are one octave above the corresponding men's, with one slight exception.

Of course, everyone's voice is unique and few people fit cleanly into these categories. Trained men frequently have a little more than the two octaves listed, and women frequently have at least half an octave more. But in general, you can fairly safely categorize voices as high, middle, or low, and think of women as being one octave above men. A great deal of vocal music is written gender-agnostic, assuming that men and women will simply pick the appropriate octave.

  • 1
    I think your ranges might be a bit wide. (can't imagine a bass singing an E4 or a baritone an A4, a tenor would have to be very talented to sing a C5 without falsetto.) Also, you have Contralto but not Alto. – OldBunny2800 May 23 '18 at 20:58
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    @OldBunny2800 Those are the classical/operatic ranges, and in that context, contralto refers to a human voice type while alto refers to a particular musical line in SATB counterpoint. – Bradd Szonye May 23 '18 at 23:11
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    @NotTelling Not sure if it's the source he's using, but these ranges are as listed (with sources) in Wikipedia. – iamnotmaynard May 24 '18 at 14:19
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    @NotTelling: These aren’t necessarily meant to be “the range of the typical bass”, but rather “the range traditionally considered safe for bass parts”, so effectively more like “the range that you can typically expect all basses to be capable of”. – PLL May 24 '18 at 18:23
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    @foreyez It's not so complicated. The three lowest ones are men (bass, baritone, tenor) and the three highest ones are women (contralto, mezzo-soprano, soprano). – Peter Olson May 24 '18 at 23:14
14

Well, if you compare the ranges of male and female voice types you will see that the female types are one octave higher than the male types. This means that the highest female voice is in general one octave higher than the highest male voice, and the same for the lowest. In classical music this might be a good generalization, because composers often try to explore the singer's range. So the soprano voice can be really one octave higher than the tenor voice, for example.

In popular music I don't believe it's true. You hardly see women singing above F5 or G5, while tenors, like Bruno Mars for example, easily reach A4 or C5. At the same time, you can find women (not only contraltos) singing around F3 and G3, but I can't think of any popular song these days where a male singer reaches one octave lower than this.

In terms of speech I don't believe it is true either. I don't have references for this, but try to talk one octave higher than you do and think of a woman who talks at this pitch (or do the opposite if you are a woman). I bet it will sound too high (or too low). It could only sound OK if you have a very low (or very high) voice, but these are extreme cases, not the average.

So, in terms of voice types it's indeed true, but I don't think that's the case most of the times.

  • 3
    beyondthefourthfloorblog.com/2015/08/23/… suggests that just under an octave is about right for speech too, though interestingly that this might be partly cultural. – topo morto May 23 '18 at 16:15
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    Looking at the graph, I would say the average of male pitch is around 120Hz, and the female one is just below 200Hz, not so close to an octave. Looking at each separate culture, the relations seem to be much closer to an octave though. We can't conclude anything for sure, but I liked the reference. – coconochao May 23 '18 at 16:34
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    You'd be hard put to find a culture anywhere in the world where women and men don't sing together in octaves, without undue straining for anyone. It does seem to be a happy accident of physiology that puts our voices at least very roughly an octave (maybe a seventh) apart, so that we can celebrate the second harmonic together. – Scott Wallace May 24 '18 at 8:13
  • In popular music, even men you wouldn't think of as particularly deep voiced (Billy Joel, George Michael...) often sing down to E2 or C#2 where it is quite rare to find women hitting even A2 or G2 (Think Annie Lennox, Tracy Chapman, Alison Moyet...). – J... May 24 '18 at 12:41
  • @J... I still haven't had time to look this up, but as MattPutnam answered, E2 is the lowest theoretical range. I bet Billy Joel and George Michael don't reach C#2, only bass singers. Maybe you are thinking of Do#2, witch is C#3, no? – coconochao May 29 '18 at 19:44
7

Yes, that's broadly true. A soprano can squeeze out a top C, above the treble clef, a tenor can just about manage the C an octave lower. Basses can approach C below the bass stave (Mahler asks for a Bb!), the deeper female voices have a similar lower limit an octave higher.

This all gets a bit complicated in popular music where some women don't use their head register at all, and men often use their falsetto rather than a full-bodied tenor sound. So if you're publishing song copies for generic male and female voices, it might be sensible to print the female version a 5th or 6th higher than the male.

This is all very general rule-of-thumb stuff though. Choose the right key for the individual singer, not their gender.

0

The answer is definitely yes. Not because of the relative ranges. It's simply an innate characteristic and very easily demonstrated. Play C3 and ask a male to sing it. Then ask a female to audio match his pitch. Her response will be middle C, C4. Q.E.D.!

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