Arranging for Women’s Voices: Range Compensation

Narrow can be quite beautiful, if you know how to manipulate it.

Narrow can be quite beautiful, if you know how to manipulate it.

Last time, we talked about specific range limits for women. Once you’ve accepted these constraints, it’s difficult to see the light between this narrow passage and become inspired! You must muse, what are some powerful and/or effective ways to utilize closed chords (i.e. chords built within an octave)? The advantage to this small amount of work space is that your lines will include small intervals, which are easier to sing. You’ll find that arranging music presents different tugs-of-war; the disadvantage to this small space is that it can feel cramped and unexciting due to narrow ranges. So, you might be asking, how do you battle these two forces in the noble pursuit of bomb-ass arrangements? Everyone will develop their own style, per se, of answering this question just due to individual taste. But, here are some tips to create a more full and robust sound, just to get you started.

Range Compensation in Voicings

Part-writing can be tricky. After dictating the obvious background parts (bass-line, miscellaneous riffs, etc.), you’ll be left with a whole bunch of juicy chords that need to be thrown on the page. Bearing in mind that each voice is an individual horizontal melody and not just a part of the resultant vertical chords, here are some ways to steer clear of part-writing snafus.

  • Use different inversions of chords (i.e. more than just the root note in the lowest voice), paying close attention to voice leading (for example, 7ths and suspensions should resolve down).
  • Use parallel octaves and especially fifths more sparingly. They are great for emphasizing a specific melody line (or even a great bass line if you’re feeling saucy), but don’t overuse this tactic or it won’t be aurally exciting. For women, more contrapuntal lines tend to be a more effective use of your pitch-space
  • Along with the above, allow overlap of the parts: good melodic lines are likely going to cross in the condensed range.

Range Compensation in Dynamic Textures

Women: have you ever noticed that you have a lot more dynamic control in head voice? Classically, women would only sing in this register, and there’s no question why; it’s a sound that has huge potential for expressivity, flexibility, and lightness. However, in the a cappella world, not using chest voice would be a grave mistake, for it cuts off a whole new world in timbre, volume, and range. Because the altos sing oddly low in their physiological range, they may find difficulty in achieving excellent registration and sound production. Big flashy dynamic contrasts are much more difficult to achieve, since the most limber and comfortable tessitura to sing in is markedly higher than the block should be written. So how to overcome this?

Dynamosacks waiting to be milked by a cappellars.

Dynamics waiting to be milked.

The best-case solution to this problem comes in the training, not in the arranging. Train the group to milk their dynamics for all they are worth (and explain why!), even in the less-than-optimal basement register — but always with good and healthy vocal technique! If the arranging takes into account the groups abilities to respond to training, you will have a much easier time at this. A few more things to wrap it up :

  • Be particularly careful to avoid lots of repetition, even if it’s only in a few parts. The listener’s brain can and WILL grow weary of this, make no mistake. Instead, how ’bout this: write the arrangement especially around an interesting rhythm or melody! Try harmonizing a great riff in all or almost all the parts at once.
  • Get creative: you don’t have to always limit yourself to the explicit harmonies the original song uses. Instead, go for more complex implicit harmonies. You have a choir of voices, use them to the fullest — anything that breaks the chain of brain-dulling stupor-inducing repetitive texture.

There are a lot of rules to follow to be sure, but the main thing to take to heart is: don’t be afraid to divert and do new things once you’ve established a basic idea, whether it be harmonic, rhythmic, or motivic. Now get to it!

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