Soprano: Definition & Range

In this lesson, you’ll learn about the soprano voice type. You’ll read about a soprano’s typical vocal range, as well as how the soprano voice compares to other female voice types.

Introduction: What is a Soprano?

Chances are, even if you don’t listen to classical music very often, you’re still familiar with the sound of the soprano voice. Julie Andrews, who played Maria in the film The Sound of Music, is a great example of a soprano. So is the character of Christine in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera. Pop music has featured sopranos too, including Joni Mitchell.

With their ability to sing notes higher than any other type of voice, sopranos can perform gentle, ethereal music and powerful, dramatic numbers. Consequently, composers and songwriters of many genres have written great music specifically to feature the soprano voice.

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Soprano Claudia Cota sings the role of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera.
Soprano Claudia Cota in The Phantom of the Opera

The term soprano refers to the highest-pitched human voice type, though it can also refer to a singer who possesses that voice type. Both women and children (boys or girls) can be sopranos. Derived from an Italian word meaning meaning ‘above,’ the term ‘soprano’ can also be used to indicate the highest-pitched variety of any instrument, not just voices. For example, saxophones come in many sizes, and the smallest, highest-pitched saxophone is called the soprano saxophone.

The Range of the Soprano Voice

In music, the term range refers to the distance between the lowest and highest notes that a voice or instrument can produce. Women’s singing voices fall into three general categories based on their vocal range. The lowest of these voice types is contralto, the medium-range voice type is mezzo soprano, and the soprano voice type is the highest. In choral music, women’s or children’s voices are often distributed into only two sections, with the lower-range parts marked ‘Alto’ and the higher-range parts marked ‘Soprano.’

Though by definition a soprano has a higher range than a contralto or mezzo soprano, not all individual sopranos have exactly the same range: some can sing slightly higher or lower than others. The average vocal range used by sopranos in choral music spans an octave and a half, from middle C to high A above the treble staff. Sopranos who are trained as soloists often have larger vocal ranges, typically at least two octaves spanning from around middle C to high C above the treble staff.

The colored notes on this piano keyboard show the average range of a trained soprano, spanning from just above middle C up to high C.
A typical soprano range

Varieties of Operatic Sopranos

In opera, adult female sopranos are often featured as leading characters because of the versatility and excitement of their voices. If you’re into sports, you might come to a game to watch your favorite athlete make an amazing score. Opera-lovers come to the opera to see great theater, but also to hear their favorite sopranos wow the audience with dazzling high notes.

Operatic sopranos fall into a wide variety of categories, specializing in different character types and various vocal strengths. A quick tour of some prominent types of operatic sopranos will demonstrate just how versatile the soprano voice can be: great for portraying everything from the girl next door to goddesses, princesses and warriors.

Soprano Kristine Opolais sings the lyric soprano role of Mimi at the Metropolitan Opera
Soprano Kristine Opolais sings the role of Mimi at the Met

For example, a coloratura soprano has an especially high range and a smaller vocal volume, and is skilled at singing very fast and intricate musical passages. The young Shakespearean heroine Juliet in Vincenzo Bellini’s opera The Capulets and the Montagues is played by a coloratura soprano.

A lyric soprano specializes in a warm, beautiful tone and flowing melodic lines. Lyric sopranos play many of the romantic females in opera, like the dreaming, girl-next-door character Mimi in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohéme.

A dramatic soprano has a voice of great power and volume, and she often specializes in music that makes heroic statements. The warrior goddess Brünnhilde in Richard Wagner’s opera The Valkyrie is played by a dramatic soprano.

Lesson Summary

The term soprano refers both to the highest human voice type and to a singer who possesses that variety of voice. Of the three basic female voice types, the soprano voice possesses the highest vocal range. Operatic sopranos are distributed into several subcategories based on their unique vocal characteristics. Three of these subcategories are coloratura soprano, lyric soprano and dramatic soprano.


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