Arranging for Women’s Voices: Range Limits

GWWWAAAHNRRNUUUHH!

GWWWAAAHNRRNUHH!

Men’s choirs and mixed choirs have something of a built-in advantage to women’s singing groups — a group of baritones with swallowed tones and an affinity for Barry White known as “basses.” They happily crank away at low notes down to an A or a G, and then start groaning like wounded wildebeest as they prove their testicular fortitude on an F or an E. Oh yes, their absence in the ranks of all-female a cappella groups is woefully mourned. Indeed, when arranging vocally for a treble choir or for women’s vocal ensembles, there are quite a few things to consider in order to compensate for this lack.

First off, it’s necessary to accept that the range of singing is much smaller with all women than with all men. After you’ve huffed and puffed and started to settle back into this unfortunate reality, you may begin the process of arranging well for women. We’ll assume the SSAA framework, and look at ways in which this is quite a different (less wilde) beast indeed.

Range Limits

Altos

Your Alto IIs will form the core foundation of your voicings, just as the basses would for other ensembles. However, it’s important to be very conscious of their vocal comfort, capabilities, and health. Do remember that all women essentially have the same vocal range, that of a soprano or mezzo-soprano. The contralto is the third voice type, and are rare indeed — although you might be lucky and nab one during auditions, it’s unlikely that the majority of your second altos will in fact be true contraltos. Consequently, write carefully for a group of straining sopranos, and mind their vocal health — as an arranger, it is your responsibility to protect their voices from consistent loud and low singing which will most likely permanently damage their voices.

That is, let the enrichment of the singer’s voice outweigh your need for some resonant low tones while in college; they’ll be wanting to use their voices for the rest of their lives. Besides, when girls try to sing below their healthy range limit, it can and will negatively affect their timbre and intonation, thus bringing down the entire group’s sound.

When you’re starting, try to keep your altos above the f below middle c. This is a rather solid and comfortable lower limit, and tends not to distort the voice too ridiculously; even the rare opratic contralto’s range doesn’t extend but a third below this. Many groups will try to arrange down ridiculously low, to a d, c or even a B — this is very risky, and usually hurts in the end.

Definitely the prima donnas of the a cappella world.

Definitely the prima donnas of the a cappella world.

Sopranos

Also quite important — the range for sopranos generally shouldn’t be much higher than that for Tenor Is in male groups! By avoiding the higher range, the sound of your women will be compact and powerful, and much more resonant than you could otherwise imagine. Don’t write a Sop I part that goes higher than F unless the situation is fully appropriate — high parts always come out much louder, partly due to the increase in air support one must use to reach higher notes. The highest part is generally the most exposed and therefore most tricky to tune. And of course, for all types of vocal arranging, it’s best to avoid a large space between the highest part and the one immediately below, or the highest line won’t sound or feel supported.

More posts will soon be on the way to delve a bit more deeply into these topics; stay tuned!

YackBack

This article and the others on writing for female a cappella groups are wonderful. I just found them while searching for some help on turning a Rascal Flats song into an a cappella version for my group.
Keep writing more, please!
Regards,
Martha

#1 
Written By Martha on January 8th, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

“Don’t write a Sop I part that goes higher than F unless the situation is fully appropriate”

Good tip

#2 
Written By joseoscar on February 28th, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

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