This is a question that I see quite often among those that are just starting out with their voices. The quick answer to this question is more than likely, you’re not a bass — you’re probably a tenor (or possibly a baritone) that just hasn’t freed up the voice enough to singer higher like you should be able to.
Bass voices are not very common. Examples of bass voices include Barry White, Thurl Ravenscroft (singer of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch“), JD Sumner, and Paul Robeson. You stand a high chance of running across basses in musicals and Disney productions since that voice type is often specifically called for there to fulfill the portrayal of a particular character. You can also sometimes find basses in groups where a bass part is needed for the harmony. Unless you sound like one of the guys I mentioned, you’re not a bass.
What makes someone a bass?
The answer to this question will probably help shed some light on the issue. The determination of whether you’re a bass (or tenor or baritone or any other vocal classification for that matter) relies on a few factors: (1) the timbre of the voice, (2) the weight of the voice, and (3) your comfortable tessitura (range).
The timbre of a bass voice is the deepest out of all the male voices. It has a lot of fullness and color. Timbre comes largely from the length of the vocal tract. Although basses often possess a deeper sound, the vowels should still be just as clear and intelligible as any other voice type — there is no reason for the vowels to sound distorted.
In regards to vocal weight, I refer to how thick the cords are. In general, the thicker the cords are, the more harmonically rich the sound is. Basses tend to have very thick cords. It’s what makes the difference between a tenor like Usher or Tim “Ripper” Owens singing a C3 (C below middle C) and someone like Thurl Ravenscroft or Paul Robeson singing the same note.
The final thing that makes a bass different than the rest is the tessitura, or the comfortable singing range. Although basses tend to have the lowest voices out of all the males, they should still have a bit of an extensive range. It should not be uncommon for basses to regularly handle the range from Eb2 – F4 (and maybe even G4). The difference is that when they go into those upper ranges, they maintain more of the “bass” color in their voices in addition to the thicker sound. Contrastingly, the typical baritone tessitura should be from around G2 – A4, while the tenor tessitura should encompass the range from Bb2 – C5. Keep in mind that these are just generalizations and everyone is different.
OK, so I’m not a bass, but I still have trouble singing above C4. Why?
The most common reason I see males having trouble singing above C4 is from lack of chest voice development. When the chest voice is not incorporated into the voice well, it becomes very hard to get efficient vocal cord closure, which is a fundamental of singing technique. Without efficient closure, EVERYTHING becomes 1,000 times more difficult. When the cord closure is inefficient, you feel like you suddenly have to go into a much lighter coordination somewhere between Bb3 and C#4. There is no need for this to occur, and only happens due to lack of development or fear of engaging the chest voice.
If this is indeed your problem, there are lots of good exercises that will help you. For one thing, just simply doing an exercise at a medium loud volume (a bit louder than how you would normally talk) will help a lot. The chest voice tends to become more active as the dynamics increase. Additionally, you may want to consider doing some staccato exercises on vowels since the staccato action encourages better cord closure and can help activate the chest a bit more. You can use simple five tone scales, octave arpeggios, the Speech Level Singing (SLS) long scale, or any other scale you like for this purpose. Just make sure you use a vowel only and do it staccato. Michael Bryant demonstrates a great example of this type of exercise at 1:30 in Eric Arcenaux’s video on how to sing “Just the Way You Are.”
The vowels AA (as in cat), AH (as in my), and AY (as in pay) will all be beneficial since they tend to encourage the usage of the chest voice. The SLS/Singing Success creaky door exercise is another good one to encourage more efficient cord closure and chest voice development.
These are just some simple tips to help get you on your way. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below. If you need further help with your voice, don’t hesitate to sign up for a lesson.