The Five Octave Range Myth

Uhm, did I miss something in my college music theory class? If I read one more time that pop star #1 or voice teacher #2 has a five-octave range, I’m gonna start holding protest rallies in front of the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

If you’re a singer, don’t buy into it. It’s a publicist’s claim for more ink in the Calendar section, not a claim rooted in music reality.

First, claiming five octaves doesn’t mean one is a “better” singer.

“Circus freak” comes to mind, but not better.

There have been hundreds of female belters in pop, jazz and Broadway recordings who did groundbreaking work within an 11 or 12-note range. Think (old school) Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee… I never heard anything about those gals having a 40-note/five octave range! My female belters work from a low F (in the traditional alto range) up to a high Ab (about a 16 or 17-note range or two-plus octaves) which is more than plenty for a true pop/Broadway belt song. Elphaba in “Wicked” belts about a two-octave range. Perhaps Stephen Schwartz didn’t know what to do with the other three octaves? For us guys, even Luciano Pavarotti in his prime probably had a 20-note range (about two and a half octaves). Sure, I didn’t count his falsetto which could have given him maybe another octave — maybe — but I guess that, like Stephen Schwartz, Verdi and Puccini didn’t know what to do with those two extra octaves either.

Really, composers simply don’t write five octave songs.

Burt Bacharach wrote some range-y tunes (“Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” comes to mind), but a five-octave song would have been professional suicide (and think of poor Dionne Warwick!).

No one person could sing the material — and if one person could, probably only dogs and whales would want to hear it anyway…..

Imagine your favorite karaoke bar then…

The most popular melodies of all time have well under a two-octave range. That’s because the public, the untrained singers out there, likes to sing along, too.

The best dancers don’t have the biggest feet, nor do the greatest singers have the highest or lowest voices.

In singing performance, it definitely helps to have a solid, flexible range with some excitement or “heat” in the voice complemented, more importantly, by knowing what to do with a lyric — how to interpret a song.

But great singers don’t need to “brag” about their range because, frankly, that’s not what made them great singers in the first place.

By the way, from the very bottom to the very top, a four-part choir sings in about a five-octave range.

Material Choices and Common Sense

How many of us have heard the old chestnut, “Don’t sing a song from the show for your audition!” or “Don’t ever sing a composer’s song for the composer in an audition!”?

Let’s take a look at these urban-legend-schools-of-musical-theatre-thought for a moment, shall we?

1. “Don’t Sing A Song From The Show”

Hooboy, this makes no sense whatsoever. Since, reasonably, we don’t know the songs from a new show that has yet to open, we must be talking about revivals; stuff that has been done to death already.

A year or so ago, I saw a listing for “Fiddler On The Roof” on the Equity website where they specifically requested that artists not sing a song from the show for the audition. It was one of those theatre groups that traditionally hires two or four Equity artists for their community musical out in the boonies. I’ll keep the organization’s identity private so as not to embarrass them (*cough, cough* Performance Riverside…). But if it’s a revival…who cares if someone auditions with a song from the show?

Really, how does one cast a legendary role like Tevye by listening to a bunch of old duffers sing “Some Enchanted Evening”?

Thirty-two bars of “If I Were A Rich Man” aren’t good enough?

Should Golde bring in something from Madame Butterfly, perhaps?

Maybe Yente can do something from Rent…that would be really good.

And, beyond that, if, after you have sung your audition with material from another show and you’re asked to stay and read, do they also give you sides from another musical?

“Since we don’t want to hear songs from Fiddler – as we are casting Fiddler – please read this script from Hello Dolly as it has nothing to do with Fiddler either…”

Bottom Line: If you have the character’s song in your back pocket and you’re right for the part in age, range, looks and talent…just sing it. At callbacks, everybody will be singing the same songs anyway!

2. “Don’t Sing A Composer’s Song For The Composer”

Uh huh. And safe to assume here that Stephen Sondheim would rather hear an Andrew Lloyd Webber tune from Phantom instead of something from his own insanely deep catalog of Pulitzer Prize-winning material.

If you have the chops and the courage to show off those chops, then do something the composer wrote. Why play it safe like everyone else? It’s an act of risk and artistic respect and you’ll be remembered for doing it.

Regardless, if you get in their new show, you’re going to end up singing their material anyway…. Show ‘em you can do their stuff now.

Congrats, Andy Dubick!

Not a bad gig for an eighth grader…

Andy just got word that he will be appearing with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York during the holidays. Dude begins rehearsals the first week of October.

I’ve known Andy since he was in fifth grade and started training him when he was in sixth.

Great “kid singer.” Great kid.

He also recently appeared as a kid (makes sense) in Musical Theatre Guild’s “Drood” at the Alex and the Thousand Oaks Big Ass Performance Thing-Whatever.

Again, congrats, Andy!! Have an amazing time in NY and don’t forget, you owe me a signed poster!


My voice students and friends now sing on Broadway and in Broadway Road Companies, Animation, Industrials, Theme Parks, Recordings, etc.

This blog is open to all who want to continue working as singers and those who want to get started as working singers. We can meet here as often as you like.

Bottom line, being a working singer is a hustle.

If you want to be a working singer, then you need to sing…constantly. Everywhere and anywhere they’ll have you until the demand for you is so high that you have to start turning the free gigs down and only taking the highest paying ones. Hey, we only have so many hours in a week….!

Feel free to comment, challenge, etc. Just keep it honest and direct. Having a sense of humor helps too!

See you soon!