Comparing Vocal Ranges: How High and Low Can Your Voice Go?
AbstractWhat is the highest note you can sing? How about the lowest? Do you think males and females can reach the same notes? How about children and adults? Find out the answers to all these questions in this "note"-worthy science fair project!
Sandra Slutz, PhD, Science Buddies
Compare the vocal ranges of people to determine if puberty and gender affect vocal range.
Have you ever started singing a song, and then realized a little way into the melody that the notes were either too high or too low for you to sing? If so, the song was outside of your vocal range. A person's vocal range is the lowest and highest notes (along with all the notes in between) that a person can comfortably sing.
To understand what might determine a person's vocal range, it is important to first understand what is happening when a person sings. First, the air is expelled (breathed out) from the lungs. It is carried out of the body through a tube called the trachea, which is part of the throat. On its route through the trachea and out of the mouth, the air passes through the larynx, often also called the voice box. The larynx contains folds of tissue, called the vocal cords. The vocal cords vibrate as air passes through them, and this vibration creates sound. If you place your fingers at the base of your throat and sing or talk, you might be able to faintly feel these vibrations.
Diagram showing the flow of air in a persons body during singing. Air is pushed out of the lungs by the diaphram and into the windpipe, and flows over the vocal cords and larynx. Air then travels past the food channel and palate before exiting through the mouth or nasal cavity. When air escapes through a persons mouth, the position of the tongue can change the pitch and direction of sound.
Figure 1. In this diagram you can see the path that air travels during singing. The air is pushed out of the lungs, up through the trachea, over the larynx and vocal chords, and then out through the mouth.
The pitch of the sound a person makes is determined by several factors, including the size and tension of the vocal cords, and how fast they vibrate. By changing some of these factors, people can produce different pitches, which means they can sing a variety of notes. But one thing a person can not control is the length of his or her vocal cords. Vocal cord size is similar in young males and females. As children go through puberty, however, their vocal cords grow longer. By the time they are adults, most females have vocal cords that are between 12.5 millimeters (mm) and 17.5 mm long; adult males usually have longer vocal cords, between 17 mm and 25 mm in length (Titze, 2008).
Do you think the difference in vocal cord length between adults and children, and between people of different genders, might affect the vocal range of each group of people? You can find out the answer in this science fair project by comparing the vocal ranges of four different groups of people: male adults, female adults, male children, and female children. Since puberty is a period of time when a person's vocal range may be changing, you will need to make sure all the people you examine in this science fair project are either done with puberty, or have not entered puberty yet. For this reason, only gather data from children age 9 or younger, and adults age 21 or older. Who has the highest vocal range? How about the lowest? Get ready to take "note" of the answer!
Terms and Concepts
- Vocal range
- Larynx or voice box
- Vocal cords
- Middle C
- What is vocal range?
- How do people produce sounds when they sing?
- Why do musicians need to know their vocal range?
For more information about vocal range, try these websites:
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2008, November 10). Vocal range. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 10, 2008.
- Vocalist.org.uk. (2008). Vocal Range—Finding Your Keys!. Retrieved November 10, 2008.
For more information about Middle C and other notes on the piano, try these websites:
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2008, November 12). Middle C. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 12, 2008.
- Bean, K.R. (n.d.). Where's Middle C, and Why Do I Need to Know? or Finding Your Way Around the Keyboard. Retrieved November 12, 2008.
These resources provide good information about the biology of singing:
- Titze, I.R. (2008). The human instrument. Scientific American, 298 (1):94-101.
- Kidshealth.org. (2007). Your Changing Voice. Retrieved November 12, 2008.
This webpage has a virtual keyboard that you could use to do this science project:
- Play classic piano online. (n.d.). Piano Keyboard Fun for All!. Retrieved November 13, 2014.
For help creating graphs, try this website:
- National Center for Education Statistics, (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved June 25, 2020.
Materials and Equipment
- Piano or keyboard; if you do not have your own, see if your school will let you borrow one for this science fair project. Alternatively, you could use a virtual piano keyboard online with labeled keys.
- 10 adults (age 21 or older), 5 males and 5 females
- 10 children (age 9 or younger), 5 males and 5 females
- Lab notebook
Finding and Naming the Notes on a Piano or Keyboard
To start this science fair project, you will need to be familiar with the names and locations of notes on the piano so that you can both play them, and write down in your lab notebook which ones you are playing.
First, find Middle C on the piano or keyboard.
- If you do not know which key is middle C, you will need to find a friend, family member, or music teacher who can show you or figure it out using this article about Middle C or Figure 2, below.
- In this science fair project, we will refer to Middle C as C4. Middle C is often called C4 because it is the fourth C key on a standard piano. The names of all the other notes will be based around C4.
- If you are using this virtual piano keyboard to do this science project, the keys are labeled when you hover over them with your mouse or click on them. You can use Figure 2, below, to help you locate C4 on the virtual keyboard.
There are seven notes—A, B, C, D, E, F, and G—repeated over and over on the piano. See Figure 2, below.
- The white keys on the piano represent these seven notes. The black keys are smaller shifts in pitch (either sharps or flats) and will not be used; you will only use the white keys for this experiment.
- The keys to the right of C4 are higher in pitch. The D to the right of C4 is called D4, the D to the right of C5 is called D5, and so forth.
- The keys to the left of C4 are lower in pitch. The B to the left of C4 is called B3, the B to the left of C3 is called B2, and so forth.
A zoomed image of keys on a piano keyboard highlights the C4 key, also referred to as middle C. 8 keys that play a C note are marked on the keyboard.
Figure 2. The top diagram shows the placement of all of the different C notes on a full-size piano. The bottom diagram shows a close-up with the names of the notes represented by the white keys around Middle C. Middle C is highlighted in yellow in both diagrams.
Determining Vocal Range
Start by playing C4 on the piano or keyboard. Have the volunteer sing the note back to you. If he or she can comfortably sing the note, then it is in his or her vocal range.
- If the volunteer has to strain to reach the note, then it is not in his or her vocal range.
- The volunteer has to actually sound like he or she is singing. If the "singing" sounds like grunting, growling, screeching, or squeaking, then it does not count and the note is not in the volunteer's vocal range.
If the volunteer can sing C4, keep playing increasingly higher-pitched notes (to the right of C4) and have the volunteer sing them back until you reach a note that is no longer comfortable for him or her to sing.
- Remember to only use the white keys for this experiment.
- If the volunteer finds it helpful, he or she can sing "do," "re," "mi," "fa," "sol," "la," "ti," "do," when singing increasingly higher-pitched notes (such as for singing the notes C4, D4, E4, F4, G4, A4, B4, and then C5).
- Make a data table, like Table 1, in your lab notebook. Mark each note that the volunteer can sing with an "X". The highest pitched note that he or she can sing is the top of his or her vocal range. Note: You will probably need to include more notes (higher and/or lower) than the ones shown in the data table below.
|Volunteer||Gender (Male/Female)||Age (Adult/Child)||Notes|
To find the bottom of the volunteer's vocal range, go back to C4. This time, keep playing increasingly lower-pitched notes (to the left of C4), and have him or her sing each note back to you until you come to a note that is no longer comfortable for him or her to sing.
- If the volunteer finds it helpful, they can sing "do," "ti," "la," "sol," "fa," "mi," "re," "do," when singing increasingly lower-pitched notes (such as for singing the notes C4, B3, A3, G3, F3, E3, D3, and then C3).
- Remember to mark each note that the volunteer can sing with an "X" in the data table in your lab notebook.
- The lowest-pitched note that he or she can sing is the bottom of his or her vocal range.
Repeat steps 1–3 of this section for each of the volunteers. In the end, you should have data from a total of 20 people. You can include yourself as one of the volunteers, if you fit into one of the volunteer categories.
You should have data from four categories of people, with five volunteers per category:
- Male adults, age 21 or older
- Female adults, age 21 or older
- Male children, age 9 or younger
- Female children, age 9 or younger
- You should have data from four categories of people, with five volunteers per category:
Analyzing the Data
For each category of volunteers, count how many of them were able to reach each note. Make a new data table, like Table 2, below, in your lab notebook, showing the totals.
- For example, if all five of the male adults you tested were able to sing C4, write "5" under the C4 column in the "Male adults" row.
|Volunteer Category||# of Volunteers Who Can Sing Each Note|
Using the totals in your data table, make bar graphs showing the number of volunteers who can sing each note. Put the notes on the horizontal axis going across (the x-axis) and the number of volunteers on the left axis going up and down (the y-axis). Make one bar graph for each volunteer category, for a total of four graphs.
- If you need help graphing, or would like to use the computer to make your graphs the Create a Graph website might be helpful.
Compare the four graphs.
- How do the vocal ranges of male and female children compare? Are they similar or different?
- How do the vocal ranges of male and female adults compare? Is one higher than the other?
- Look at just the male graphs. Does age affect vocal range for males? Now look at just the female graphs. Does age affect female vocal range?
Ask an Expert
- On average, how many notes are in a person's vocal range? Does gender or puberty affect the magnitude of a person's vocal range? Do trained singers have larger vocal ranges than non-trained singers? Modify the Experimental Procedure to answer these questions.
- How does the human vocal range compare to the musical range of other instruments? Design an experiment to find out.
- Which choral parts (soprano, alto, baritone, etc.) are easiest to fill? Which are hardest to fill? Determine the choral range of each of your participants to find out the answer! Note: More information about choral ranges can be found in this Wikipedia entry about vocal range.
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers: