When you name the greatest female pop singers of all time, what names do you usually mention? Don’t be surprised if at least half or more of those singers are designated an official contralto. If you’re not familiar with musical terms, a contralto is basically a singer who stays within the range of a low F below middle C up to the next G above middle C. That’s usually translated in more music theory terms of an F3 to a G5 on the musical scale. And while that sounds low for a female, it can create some of the most satisfying middle-range sounds a woman can ever utter while singing.
While higher ranges have become more of a benchmark in the pop world today, we had far more contralto singer in pop decades ago than we do now. Regardless, you still have some singers today who showcase the appeal of that mid-range timbre without getting too deep and sounding closer to Miley Cyrus territory. But some of the greatest pop and jazz singers that have since died show proof why contraltos should be nurtured more in music today.
There probably isn’t any greater example of a contralto voice in pop than Karen Carpenter. Despite having died over 30 years ago, her 1970s hits with her brother/arranger, Richard, as The Carpenters are the stuff of ’70s legend. Her warm contralto voice is still pure heaven to both old and young alike. Listen to their first big hit “Superstar” and the opening verse to give you a good idea of Karen Carpenter’s lowest range on the contralto scale.
Then again, she never sang in high ranges often, and all their early classics showcase the contralto range in its pure beauty.
Arguably the greatest jazz singer of all time next to Ella Fitzgerald, Vaughn was also a contralto. However, she had such a high range, she could have done opera, and almost did early in her career. That comfortable middle range is showcased in the thousands of recordings she made over four decades. Jazz has never really had a singer like her since she died almost 25 years ago. Most jazz singers (other than maybe contralto Diana Krall) are sopranos today with more showcases on stylistic elements over vocal prowess.
With Cher still touring and singing, many don’t stop and remember that she’s actually a very good contralto. She’s also a singer who’s seemed to improve from her earliest days on up to her more recent dance hits of the last decade. In fact, her contralto range is even more pronounced now due to the voice deepening as the voice ages. She may still be influencing female singers who have contralto ranges to find some inroads into a pop career, despite record execs possibly discouraging it.
Believe it or not, Mariah Carey is a contralto, which you probably wouldn’t have guessed in her early days when she broke glass with her high C’s. Nowadays, she keeps her singing closer to the contralto range without all the vocal fireworks. She’s also capable of going slightly below contralto range as well, though you seldom hear that part of the scale used in the pop music field.
Mariah Carey still influences thousands of female singers, yet those with contralto ranges may not even know it’s her official vocal designation.
Will we see more contralto singers on the horizon that can match the artistry of all the singers above, plus so many more contraltos either since passed away or retired? We’ve probably trained the ears of a new generation to expect high notes rather than realizing the amazing sounds the contralto range can bring to the female voice. While opera still takes on contraltos, they seem to be rare now. And that at least further solidifies the legacy of the legendary singers who made it an art form.