What is a Contralto?
A Contralto is a Treble-Clef singer that sits above the Tenor voice type and below an Alto. The term Alto classically includes both Contraltos and Mezzo-Sopranos. So often Contraltos are labeled as lower voiced altos and are actually very similar to, if not slightly lower in range than many lower-voiced Mezzo-Sopranos.
Contralto gets its name from the Latin contra meaning counter-to, and altus, which means high. A Contralto can be a very low female singer or an exceptionally high male singer, which is often called a countertenor in certain situations. They are essentially the same thing when it comes to vocal range!
A Contralto has a range from C3 to F5. Note that for Treble-Clef singers, unlike for the lower voice types (Tenor, Baritone, and Bass), head voice is included in this range.
Range: The first way to determine if you are a Contralto is to see if you can sing comfortably in the middle of this range from F3 to C5.This is often referred to as your tessitura. Your voice should have the best and most natural sound quality here and so tessitura is a word that specifically excludes the very extreme edge of your range on either side!
There are extremes in any category, but in my opinion this is largely due to the difficulty in categorizing voice-types and range. It's mentioned that some contralto singers can sing up to Bb5, but this seems open to interpretation as voice types are all on a spectrum and voice type is identified by more than just range alone. For example, some Tenors, especially Countertenors can sing around Bb5 or even C6 as well in rare circumstances.
Tone: A Contralto typically has a deep, dark, and weighted sound compared to other Altos and Mezzo-Sopranos. This is a very similar relationship when comparing a Contrabass to a higher Bass or Baritone. They will also have a very opposite timbre to a light and bright Soprano. Contraltos even tend to have a darker, heavier tone than other higher-voiced Altos.
Passaggio: The other way to determine if you are a Contralto is to find where your “break range” also known as your passaggio is. This is where your voice cracks or with proper training transitions smoothly from chest voice to head voice. A Contralto is typically going to be transitioning out of chest voice into head voice through their passaggio around G4 to A4. In this way, Contaltos tend to sing more in chest voice than in head voice. Also their head voice, much like a Bass is very dark and very rich in timbre when in balance with their chest voice tone.
What are the subcategories?
Coloratura: This is the lightest and most agile Contralto who specializes in lots of ornamentations that can change the “color” of the sound more readily.
Lyric: This Contralto has a lighter tone, but will sit into notes more than a coloratura.
Dramatic: This is the deepest, darkest, and heaviest sounding Contralto
While some Contraltos in Opera play more feminine roles, most Contraltos roles are villains, or “trouser roles,” imitating male characters. It's important to note that many Operas are filled with anachronisms like this, and it's my opinion that this type of voice-type casting is problematic and ultimately musically limiting. Nevertheless, this is the history and so expect this to be the case when it comes to famous Operas.
What's the difference between a Contralto and a Countertenor?
A Contralto is essentially the equivalent term to Countertenor when it comes to range. It's not even that far from a typical Tenor range, singing as low as around C3. This is very similar to how a Countertenor can sometimes sing up to the range of a mezzo-soprano.
The range is almost the same, but the tone quality of a Contralto compared to a Countertenor may be quite different! A Countertenor will usually sound like they are in head voice more often, and so the tone in the middle of this range can sound more reedy or thinner than the dark and full tone from a Contralto in the same spot. A Contralto is more likely using a more chest voice type of resonance in the same spot. The tricky thing about middle-voiced singers like that of a Countertenor or a Contralto is that each voice-type can imitate the other fairly well, especially with vocal training.
Who are some famous Contraltos?
Some famous Classical contraltos are Schumann-Heink, Louise Homer, Kerstin Thorberg, Marian Anderson, Clarame Turner, and Lili Chookasain.
Some famous contemporary Contralto singers are Cher, Tracy Chapman, Stevie Nicks, Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, Etta James, and Toni Braxton.
The Contralto range is considered a more rare voice type, so there are generally less obvious famous examples of this voice-type to pick from. However this may be due to the ambiguity I’ve described with being in the middle; that the voice-types in this range are somewhat arbitrarily separated by gender.
Exercises to Focus On
Get comfortable with that lower register! Many contraltos don’t allow their voice to drop low enough when finding their comfortable range. This can mean there is a considerable amount of tension from trying to imitate higher-voiced singers even in day to day speech.
Contraltos can sing plenty high enough for the most common belty pop range we hear on the radio, but it's more likely that they are going to make a much bigger booming sound and will need a strong and deep connection to their breath support through steady vocal conditioning from the very bottom up first. Take your time!
Contraltos often sing more in chest voice, so there is a propensity to belt or megaphone the sound too much. This can cause lots of tongue and jaw tension, so Contraltos should focus on finding some head voice mix to find a more balanced tone in general. Practicing a rich and back placed head voice, without the tongue pulling back, will help keep their voice in better alignment.
Many Contraltos feel forced into trying to sing music for higher-voice types. I encourage all singers to explore songs in different keys to see what range feels most natural. Finding the effortless part of your range is the key to ultimately expanding into the higher part of your voice.
Contraltos in my opinion are defined more by the tone quality and specific tendencies for registration rather than range or gender by that. Knowing if you are a Contralto or not can help you find where in your range you should start to train your voice and how to develop the sound to find more balance and comfort.