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Alto vs. Contralto — What's the Difference?

Edited by Tayyaba Rehman — By Fiza Rafique — Updated on November 2, 2023
Alto refers to the second highest vocal range in choral music, while Contralto is the lowest female singing voice.
Alto vs. Contralto — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Alto and Contralto

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Key Differences

The term "Alto" is generally applied to choral music and can refer to both male and female voices. In the context of a choir, an alto is typically a vocal part that lies below the soprano and above the tenor. Contralto, on the other hand, refers specifically to the female voice that has the lowest vocal range and is rarer than the alto voice type.
Alto parts in music are often assigned to women who sing in a range that overlaps both the soprano and the tenor, though it can also refer to countertenors, which are male singers with a falsetto range that corresponds to the alto range. A contralto’s voice is distinct for its rich and resonant quality that is both powerful and deep, often described as having a velvety tone.
In an orchestra or band, "alto" may refer to instruments that have a range or part corresponding to the alto voice, such as the alto saxophone. This use of "alto" is not to be confused with the contralto voice, which is exclusive to vocalists. Contraltos often showcase their vocal prowess in solo performances due to their unique and commanding voice.
An alto voice is versatile and can blend well within group performances, singing harmonies that support the melody often carried by sopranos. The contralto voice, being the lowest female voice, often takes on roles that require a depth of emotion and a richness of sound that cannot be provided by higher female voice types.
The word "alto" comes from the Latin word "altus," meaning "high," which may seem counterintuitive given its range, but it reflects its position as the higher male voice part when men sang in falsetto before women were commonly part of choirs. "Contralto," combining the Italian word "contra" (against or opposite) with "alto," indicates a voice that contrasts with the higher altos by being on the opposite end of the female vocal spectrum.
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Comparison Chart

Vocal Range

Second highest voice part in a choir.
Lowest female voice range.

Gender

Can refer to both males and females.
Exclusively female.

Voice Quality

May not be as rich or deep as contralto.
Known for a deep, rich, and resonant tone.

Frequency

More common than contralto.
Rarer than alto voices.

Roles in Music

Often sings harmony in choral pieces.
Typically highlighted in solo performances.

Compare with Definitions

Alto

The second highest part in harmonic music.
In this piece, the alto line is very complex.

Contralto

A voice type characterized by its rich and deep tone.
The contralto soloist was met with a standing ovation.

Alto

A type of saxophone pitched in E flat.
He played an impressive solo on his alto saxophone.

Contralto

A rare female voice, deeper than a typical alto.
Finding a true contralto is quite rare in modern choirs.

Alto

A low female singing voice; a contralto.

Contralto

The lowest female singing voice.
Her contralto voice filled the auditorium with a warm sound.

Alto

A vocal part below soprano and above tenor.
She sings alto in her church choir.

Contralto

A term used in classical vocal music for the lowest female voice.
She was cast in the opera for her strong contralto voice.

Alto

The pitch range of the lowest female voice

Contralto

Used to describe a female singer with a deep vocal range.
The contralto sang with a power that resonated through the concert hall.

Alto

The musical term alto, meaning "high" in Italian (Latin: altus), historically refers to the contrapuntal part higher than the tenor and its associated vocal range. In 4-part voice leading alto is the second highest part, sung in choruses by either low women's or high men's voices.

Contralto

A contralto (Italian pronunciation: [konˈtralto]) is a type of classical female singing voice whose vocal range is the lowest female voice type.The contralto's vocal range is fairly rare; similar to the mezzo-soprano, and almost identical to that of a countertenor, typically between the F below middle C (F3 in scientific pitch notation) to the second F above middle C (F5), although, at the extremes, some voices can reach the D below middle C (D3) or the second B♭ above middle C (B♭5). The contralto voice type is generally divided into the coloratura, lyric, and dramatic contralto.

Alto

A countertenor.

Contralto

The lowest female singing voice
She sang in a high contralto

Alto

The range between soprano and tenor.

Contralto

The lowest female voice or voice part, intermediate in range between soprano and tenor.

Alto

A singer whose voice lies within this range.

Contralto

A woman having a contralto voice.

Alto

An instrument that sounds within this range.

Contralto

(music) The lowest female voice or voice part, falling between tenor and mezzo-soprano. The terms contralto and alto refer to a similar musical pitch, but among singers, the term contralto is reserved for female singers; the equivalent male form is counter-tenor. Originally the contratenor altus was a high countermelody sung against the tenor or main melody.

Alto

A vocal or instrumental part written in this range.

Contralto

The part sung by the highest male or lowest female voices; the alto or counter tenor.

Alto

A musical part or section higher than tenor and lower than soprano, formerly the part that performed a countermelody above the tenor or main melody.

Contralto

Of or pertaining to a contralto, or to the part in music called contralto; as, a contralto voice.

Alto

A person or musical instrument that performs the alto part.

Contralto

A woman singer having a contralto voice

Alto

An alto saxophone

Contralto

The lowest female singing voice

Alto

Formerly the part sung by the highest male, or counter-tenor, voices; now the part sung by the lowest female, or contralto, voices, between in tenor and soprano. In instrumental music it now signifies the tenor.

Contralto

Of or being the lowest female voice

Alto

An alto singer.

Alto

A singer whose voice lies in the alto clef

Alto

The lowest female singing voice

Alto

The highest adult male singing voice

Alto

Of or being the lowest female voice

Alto

Of or being the highest male voice; having a range above that of tenor

Alto

(of a musical instrument) second highest member of a group;
Alto clarinet or recorder

Alto

A singer with a range that lies between soprano and tenor.
The alto waited for her cue to start singing.

Alto

Can also refer to a countertenor.
The countertenor sang the alto part with great finesse.

Common Curiosities

How common is the contralto voice?

It is the rarest of female voice types.

What makes a contralto voice unique?

Its depth and rich timbre set it apart from other female voices.

Is an alto voice the same as a contralto?

No, an alto is a higher range than contralto, which is the lowest for females.

Can a soprano sing alto parts?

A soprano may sing alto parts, but it may not be as comfortable or natural.

Can men be altos?

Yes, countertenors are men who sing in the alto vocal range.

Can an alto singer perform contralto roles?

An alto might sing some contralto roles, but true contralto roles require the depth of a contralto voice.

Is the term 'alto' used for instruments?

Yes, instruments like the alto saxophone are pitched in the alto range.

Do contraltos sing in choirs?

Yes, contraltos are an essential voice in choirs.

Can voice training change an alto to a contralto?

Training usually enhances one's range, but changing voice type is not typical.

Are alto parts challenging to sing?

Alto parts can be as challenging as any other vocal part, depending on the composition.

Do contraltos only perform in classical music?

No, contraltos perform in various music genres.

Is a mezzo-soprano the same as a contralto?

No, a mezzo-soprano is generally higher in range than a contralto.

How can I tell if I’m an alto or a contralto?

A vocal coach can help determine your range through vocal exercises and range testing.

What is the typical range for an alto voice?

It typically spans from G below middle C to the E a tenth above middle C.

Can altos sing tenor parts?

Some altos can cross into the tenor range, especially in choral settings.

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Written by
Fiza Rafique
Fiza Rafique is a skilled content writer at AskDifference.com, where she meticulously refines and enhances written pieces. Drawing from her vast editorial expertise, Fiza ensures clarity, accuracy, and precision in every article. Passionate about language, she continually seeks to elevate the quality of content for readers worldwide.
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to askdifference.com. As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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