Vocal Music: Alto & Contralto

The musical term alto, meaning “high” in Italian (Latin: altus), refers to the second highest part of a contrapuntal musical texture and is also applied to its associated vocal range, especially in choral music. More rarely it describes the highest male solo voice type (usually designated countertenor), and it is also the root word of contralto, the lowest standard female voice type. When designating instruments, “alto” likewise can refer either to the corresponding vocal range (alto flute and alto trombone, respectively the lowest and highest common instruments of their families) or to musical role (alto recorder and alto clarinet).

A contralto is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type, with the lowest tessitura. The contralto’s vocal range falls between tenor and mezzo-soprano; typically between the F below middle C (F3 in scientific pitch notation) to the second F above middle C (F5), although at the extremes some voices can reach the E below middle C (E3) or the second B above middle C (B5)

Coloratura contralto

Coloratura contraltos—who have light, agile voices ranging very high for the classification and atypically extensive coloratura and high sustaining notes—specialize in florid passages and leaps. Given its deviations from the classification’s norms, this voice type is quite rare.

Lyric contralto

A lyric contralto voice is lighter than a dramatic contralto but not capable of the ornamentation and leaps of a coloratura contralto. This class of contralto, lighter in timbre than the others, is the most common today and usually ranges from the E below middle C (E3) to the second G above middle C (G5).

Dramatic contralto

The dramatic contralto is the deepest, darkest, and heaviest contralto voice, usually having a heavier tone and more power than the others. Singers in this class, like the coloratura contraltos, are rare. They typically sing in a range from the E below middle C (E3) to the second E above middle C (E5).

Ewa Podleś:

“Voce di donna o d’angelo” from La Gioconda (A. Ponchielli)

Recorded live at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2005

Nathalie Stutzmann:

“Ombra Mai Fu” – Handel

Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto & conductor · Orfeo 55 / Recorded at Les Victoires de la Musique Classique, Bordeaux, 25 February 2013.

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