Arranging for Co-ed Groups 1: Range + Voicings

Tuning problems can be fixed with a fresh vacuum tube

Tuning problems can be fixed with a fresh vacuum tube

Boys and girls, high and low, with every voice specialized like a well-run machine…ahh.  Hopefully the group you’re arranging for is already balanced in terms of boys and girls, but make sure you know when you’re making a custom arrangement. It would blow if you wrote a SSAATTB part for a group that has no true sopranos. Well, it wouldn’t quite blow, but there goes your Friday night plans so you can re-arrange it before the deadline.

Let’s assume things are fine, and you have a quasi-balanced group. Let’s also assume you’re making a generic arrangement, rather than a custom one (a lot of the same principles will apply, though). How do you balance voice parts, how do you use voice registers to the best of their ability, and how do you keep things fun for the altos?

  • Safe ranges

For a pop group (as many a cappella groups are), here are some rough ranges:

Soprano: Middle C to the D an octave above it.

Alto: Treble G to the F a ninth below it.

Tenor: F above middle C to E in the bass clef.

Bass: A below middle C to the G at the bottom of the bass clef.

In fancy lingo, low to high:

Soprano: c’-d”

Alto: f-g’

Tenor: e-f ‘

Bass: G-a

As you can see, I recommend keeping ranges compressed to a ninth and overlap. While you can certainly write stuff more range-y if you know it’s singable by the group you’re writing for, keeping a tighter range will help tuning (fewer overtones to match up…wait, you want to learn about overtones?) and make a blendier sound. Play it safe, range-wise, before taking a step on the wild side.

  • Voice spacing

A thing to keep in mind with wide ranges is how far apart the voices are. Sure, your sopranos can hit a C in the treble clef and sound great, but they’ll feel a little lonely if the tenors and altos are on the A below middle C. My music theory professor called those “lonely” notes, and you would get points off. Albeit, that was 16th century counterpoint, but there’s a reason why pop music is drawn from tonal harmony…which was drawn from counterpoint. A lot of the information you can pick up in Music Theory 101 WILL pay off when doing arrangements. So, the message here is to visually make sure there aren’t vocal lines that are far from the rest of the group (unless you’re going for a particular effect).

Another range issue is “crossed voices,” which is when a lower voice is singing notes higher than a higher voice. It’s more of a faux-pas than an arranging bane, but your tenors are built to sing better on certain notes, and your sopranos are built to sing better on other notes. Also, you’ll get weird looks if your basses are singing higher than your sopranos…and then their egos will swell and they’ll ask to sing falsetto far more than they should.

With that thought in mind, here’s a great place to describe hand-offs, or composite parts. If you’re limiting your singers to their meaty-ranges, some musical lines may cross that border from meaty to wimpy (scales and runs, for example). When that happens, you can have one voice part pick up at the border and continue on (to America and higher wages, for example). The way to do that effectively is to have both parts double the notes on the hand-off, rather than an instant change. Having a couple mutual notes will help tune the incoming voice part and blend the transition, as well as keep your singers in their meaty ranges (for example, for example).

  • Balancing and voicing

The number of parts and how you distribute them will affect how treble heavy or bass heavy your arrangement will sound. Sounds like a pretty basic observation, but I’ve seen groups that have many girl parts but one “guy” bassline because the original tune just worked out like that. As an arranger, you’ll have to be mindful of gaping range discrepancies and double parts to have a full sound. Or, you might have to redistribute a crammed middle register out to higher and lower ranges. A bassline can still be a “lonely note.”

As you begin to reach the extreme’s of a particular range, curious quirks become more evident. Some girls get screechy on high, some guys get rumbly on low. Knowing when to avoid these things and when to exploit them will add versatility to your arrangements, but keep in mind that it’s better to hand off to a specialized soprano than to make your tenor pull off a butt-clenching B in the treble clef, unless that’s what you want. If it is…perhaps try an all-male group?

Talk about butt-clenching Bs

Talk about a butt-clenching B

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Hi Dan,
With your point about when to push singers to the more striking-sounding (and therefore less blendy) bits of their ranges and when to keep them in their safety zone is often driven by the nature of the material, and thus whether you want to draw attention to the singers or away from the singers onto the song, IYSWIM. Your butt-clenching moment is going to be all about the voice of the performer, whereas handing it off to the middle of someone else’s range lets it recede back into the overall texture. And it’s kind of interesting with a lead+band set-up to figure how much you want the ensemble singers to have individual identities within the music, and how much you want them to have an over-arching corporate identity. If you wanted to blog about that one day, I’d be happy to read :-)

liz x

Written By liz garnett on January 20th, 2009 @ 4:12 am

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