“Opera is when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.” - George Bernard Shaw
Are you a man who loves to sing? Then this is the article for you! If you’re done with singing in the shower, why don’t you consider taking the plunge and becoming an opera singer?
While opera might seem a bit outdated to our younger readers, it remains timeless: while it’s nothing like rap or indie music, it makes use of incredible voices the likes of which are unheard of in a number of other musical genres.
Most male singers will have the tessitura (a naturally-occurring vocal range) of a baritone. Baritones are often thought of as a sign of virility and elegance and have voices with punch.
With all this in mind, let’s have a look at exactly what it is and how you can turn singing baritone from a hobby to a profession by using vocal techniques to master your voice!
So What is Baritone, Anyway?
Musicologists generally define six fundamental vocal categories: three for men and three for women.
From the lowest the to highest, men are either bass, baritone, or tenors. There’s also a vocal range for men even higher known as the countertenor. The baritone is ever-present in Western music since it’s the most common voice range for men. It's on the middle of the scale, after all.
However, a real baritone masters the middle notes while also having an impressive power and volume.
The word, which came into popular parlance during the Age of Enlightenment, might seem some quite odd. However, that’s because it comes from the Greek βαρύτονος (baritonos) which means “heavy tone”.
Contemporary operas don’t tend to make baritones the stars of the show even though they do their fair share of the work and would be sorely missed if they weren't in it at all.
Most men belong to the baritone range, including some tenors (especially heroic tenors and spinto tenors). Baritones tend to be quite young and have spent a large amount of time working on hitting higher notes in their chest voice.
The range of a typical baritone is between A2 (the second A below middle C) to A4 (the A above middle C). Of course, this is a general range and there are, just like with tenors, different permutations and requirements for baritones depending the pieces being performed. While French operas tended to avoid using baritones too much, Italian operas were the baritone’s bread and butter.
Additionally, Bach and Handel used this voice range in order to balance out the falsettos which were typically found in religious and chamber music.
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The Different Mid-Range Male Tessituras
As we said earlier, while operas have tended to favour tenors since 19th century, the baritones were never completely forgotten. The power of their voice is often used for emotional effect.
While musicologists will argue on the specifics, there are generally five main types of baritone. From the highest to the lowest, they include:
The baritenor, which is also considered the lowest range of tenors.
The Baryton-Martin (also known as the light baritone) generally sings in a range from C3 to the B above middle C (C3 to B4) and is often found in French pieces. In fact, the role is named after Jean-Blaise Martin who popularised the role.
The lyric baritone has a tessitura between the A below C3 and the G above middle C (A2 to G4). Traditionally, this type of baritone will play comic roles.
The dramatic baritone has a darker timbre with a range between the G half an octave below low C to the G above middle C (G2 to G4) and are often employed in the works of Giuseppe Verdi.
The bass-baritone, much like the baritenor, can be classified with another vocal range. Their range generally is considered to be between F below low C to the F♯ above middle C (F2 to F♯4).
Sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to specialise within the baritone range if you’re looking for certain roles. However, we should mention that certain composers like to distort the traditional role of the baritone either towards a higher or lower range. This is a lot of work for those who want to take on the starring roles.
To read about singing at a lower pitch, click here.
How Can You Tell If You’re a Baritone or Not?
The human voice is something that we’re born with. Music lovers will know that nobody is capable of having a complete vocal range. Everyone has a physiological limit to their voice, both a lower limit and an upper limit.
Before you start considering your vocal range, you should make sure you can sing in tune. This often involves taking singing lessons and ensuring that every note you make is perfect when you sing. While it isn’t always obvious to keep a tuning fork on hand, these are the kind of things you have to work on if you dream of becoming a famous singer.
Keep in mind that there’s no age limit when it comes to being famous, Susan Boyle was in her late 40s when she had her life-changing audition.
Let’s be frank, an opera singer doesn’t get to choose their voice. A singer's voice is innate, nurtured through their early life before drastically changing during adolescence, and can only be extended by a handful of semitones.
This means that it's very rare for a baritone to become a countertenor and a tenor to become a bass. In short, the baritone masters the mid-range first and foremost and can later extend their range to specialise. Your voice might be mixed, too.
You can test this by plugging a microphone into your computer and downloading a tuner for free online, and you can see which notes you’re capable of producing comfortably.
Training as a Baritone
A good singer by definition needs to be well rounded. A well-rounded knowledge of music theory is essential for anyone wanting to work on their voice without too much difficulty.
In addition to working on your voice, you should also look into learning to play instruments like the clarinet, cello, oboe, saxophone, double bass, trumpet, trombone, French horn, concert flute, electric guitar, accordion, harmonica, or any other wind instrument that you find in an orchestra.
After that, you’re ready to work on your voice and look towards becoming a soloist.
It’s a good idea to practise playing several instruments of different types in order to broaden your understanding of music.
You should do all this with a metronome (an essential tool for any musician) to make sure that not only are you in key, but that you’re also in time. A broad knowledge of music can be applied to a variety of different styles and can always act as a back up to your plans of becoming a singer since it’s always a good idea to have a Plan B when it comes to the arts.
Additionally, you should look into working with a good vocal coach with either qualifications from a respectable music school or with years of experience. After all, practice makes perfect!
It should be noted that all of this will come at a cost. If you’re exceptional, however, there is the opportunity to attend respectable music schools through scholarships. For everyone else, you should look into private voice lessons in order to improve your voice.
Famous Baritones throughout the History of Music
So many roles are supported by amazing baritones. There are a number of places where performances featuring baritones take place and so many pieces that make use of this vocal range.
With L’Orfeo by Monteverdi, Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy, L'enfant et les sortilèges by Ravel, The Marriage of Figaro or Così fan tutte by Mozart (not forgetting The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni), Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti, Faust by Charles Gounod, La bohème by Giacomo Puccini, Carmen by Bizet, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, you’re spoilt for choice when looking for operas with baritones in them.
This doesn’t mean you can’t explore other pieces from composers like Offenbach, Britten, Schubert, Rachmaninov, Massenet, Brahms, Gluck, Haydn, Beethoven, Bellini, Rameau, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, and Vivaldi.
You’ll also start to notice that so many rock singers (both living and deceased) are baritone singers. While their voices are all different, this is quite common amongst baritones. Some of the specialised baritones can singer higher or lower than their voice type would suggest.
Some of the best baritone singers include contemporary legends like Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, and Jimi Hendrix.
And if you want to learn to sing up high, read our blog on using your head voice!