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Alto

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Encyclopedia
Alto is a musical term, derived from the Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 word altus, meaning "high" in Italian
Italian
Italian may refer to:* anything of, from, or related to the country of Italy* Italian people, an ethnic group* Italian language, a Romance language* Italian or Italian-A, alternative names for the Ping-Pong virus, an extinct computer virus*Italian cuisine...

, that has several possible interpretations.

When designating instruments, "alto" frequently refers to a member of an instrumental family that has the second highest range, below that of the treble
Boy soprano
A boy soprano is a young male singer with an unchanged voice in the soprano range. Although a treble, or choirboy, may also be considered to be a boy soprano, the more colloquial term boy soprano is generally only used for boys who sing, perform, or record as soloists, and who may not necessarily...

 or soprano
Soprano
A soprano is a voice type with a vocal range from approximately middle C to "high A" in choral music, or to "soprano C" or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which usually encompasses the melody...

. Hence, for example, the term "alto saxophone
Saxophone
The saxophone is a conical-bore transposing musical instrument that is a member of the woodwind family. Saxophones are usually made of brass and played with a single-reed mouthpiece similar to that of the clarinet. The saxophone was invented by the Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in 1846...

". In other "families", such as the trombone
Trombone
The trombone is a musical instrument in the brass family. Like all brass instruments, sound is produced when the player’s vibrating lips cause the air column inside the instrument to vibrate...

, there is no soprano, the alto having been the highest, although it is absent from the standard modern symphony orchestra.

In choral music, "alto" describes the second highest voice part in a four-part chorus
SATB
In music, SATB is an initialism for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, defining the voices required by a chorus or choir to perform a particular musical work...

. As well as being the modern Italian word for "high", in the present context it is an Italian abbreviation derived from the Latin phrase contratenor altus, used in medieval polyphony, usually to describe the highest of three parts, the line of which was in counterpoint
Counterpoint
In music, counterpoint is the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm and are harmonically interdependent . It has been most commonly identified in classical music, developing strongly during the Renaissance and in much of the common practice period,...

 (in other words, against = contra) with the tenor (which "held" the main melody; this word itself originates in the Latin verb tenere, meaning "to hold").

The alto range in choral music is approximately from G3 (the G below middle C) to F5 (the F in the second octave above middle C). In common usage, alto is used to describe the voice type
Voice type
A voice type is a particular kind of human singing voice perceived as having certain identifying qualities or characteristics. Voice classification is the process by which human voices are evaluated and are thereby designated into voice types...

 that typically sings this part, though this is not strictly correct: alto, like the other three standard modern choral voice classifications (soprano
Soprano
A soprano is a voice type with a vocal range from approximately middle C to "high A" in choral music, or to "soprano C" or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which usually encompasses the melody...

, tenor
Tenor
The tenor is a type of male singing voice and is the highest male voice within the modal register. The typical tenor voice lies between C3, the C one octave below middle C, to the A above middle C in choral music, and up to high C in solo work. The low extreme for tenors is roughly B2...

 and bass
Bass (voice type)
A bass is a type of male singing voice and possesses the lowest vocal range of all voice types. According to The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, a bass is typically classified as having a range extending from around the second E below middle C to the E above middle C...

) was originally intended to describe a part within a homophonic or polyphonic texture, rather than an individual voice type; neither are the terms alto and contralto
Contralto
Contralto is the deepest female classical singing voice, with the lowest tessitura, falling between tenor and mezzo-soprano. It typically ranges between the F below middle C to the second G above middle C , although at the extremes some voices can reach the E below middle C or the second B above...

 interchangeable or synonymous, though they are often treated as such. Although some women who sing alto in a choir are contraltos, many would be more accurately called mezzo-soprano
Mezzo-soprano
A mezzo-soprano is a type of classical female singing voice whose range lies between the soprano and the contralto singing voices, usually extending from the A below middle C to the A two octaves above...

s (a voice of somewhat higher range and different timbre
Timbre
In music, timbre is the quality of a musical note or sound or tone that distinguishes different types of sound production, such as voices and musical instruments, such as string instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments. The physical characteristics of sound that determine the...

), and many men countertenor
Countertenor
A countertenor is a male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of a contralto, mezzo-soprano, or a soprano, usually through use of falsetto, or far more rarely than normal, modal voice. A pre-pubescent male who has this ability is called a treble...

s (this latter term is a source of considerable controversy, some authorities preferring the usage of the term "male alto" for those countertenors who use a predominantly falsetto
Falsetto
Falsetto is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave. It is produced by the vibration of the ligamentous edges of the vocal folds, in whole or in part...

 voice production). The contralto voice is a matter of vocal timbre and tessitura
Tessitura
In music, the term tessitura generally describes the most musically acceptable and comfortable range for a given singer or, less frequently, musical instrument; the range in which a given type of voice presents its best-sounding texture or timbre...

 as well as range, and a classically-trained solo contralto would usually have a range greater than that of a normal choral alto part in both the upper and lower ranges. However, the vocal tessitura of a classically trained contralto would still make these singers more comfortable singing in the lower part of the voice. A choral non-solo contralto may also have a low range down to D3 (thus perhaps finding it easier to sing the choral tenor part), but some would have difficulty singing above E5. In a choral context mezzo-sopranos and contraltos might sing the alto part, together with countertenors, thus having three vocal timbres (and two means of vocal production) singing the same notes.

Alto is rarely used to describe a solo voice, though there is a multitude of terms in common usage in various languages and in different cultures for solo singers in this range. Examples include contralto, countertenor, haute-contre
Haute-contre
The haute-contre is a rare type of high tenor voice, predominant in French Baroque and Classical opera until the latter part of the eighteenth century.-History:...

, and tenor altino among others.

The term "alto" is also used to designate a specific kind of musical clef. See alto clef.

See also

  • Fach
    Fach
    The German Fach system is a method of classifying singers, primarily opera singers, according to the range, weight, and color of their voices...

    , the German system for classifying voices
  • Voice classification in non-classical music
    Voice classification in non-classical music
    There is currently no authoritative system of voice classification in non-classical music. The problem lies in the fact that classical terms are used to describe not merely various vocal ranges, but specific vocal timbres each unique to those respective ranges, and produced by the classical...