Voice Parts and Ranges

Phrenology Head

Anatomy Matters.

To begin, take the time to read the Wikipedia article on vocal ranges. It’s a good introduction to what is going on — especially if you’re not terribly well-versed in the ways of the dark arts of vocalism. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Welcome back. Hopefully you’ve learned a bit about where the voices fall; do pay attention to the very helpful diagram in the article.  Then, hunker down and think about who you’ll actually be writing for: amateur college singers.  This means that even if they DO fit comfortably into one of these ranges (they won’t), they’ll probably not have a full command of their voice anyway — and it should be a major goal of your group to improve everybody’s vocal capabilities.  Along the way, though, an arranger should do his or her best to help the learning singers develop, and take particular care to hover around comfortable tessituras (ie the range where most of the singing occurs).  For the most part, this means to avoid breaks in the voice and stick to comfy-cozy confident pitches.

So then, the question of what “voice ranges” to use as guidelines is completely ridiculous, since it emphasizes the outer reaches of a person’s vocal capacity.  What is much better to consider is the sweet spot in the middle, and the “danger zones” where the vocal breaks occur.  We’ll only address outer limits when talking about the outer voice parts.

Where The Voices Work Best (Collegiate Amateurs in Choirs)

Estonians singing, no wildebeest in sight.

Estonians singing, no wildebeest in sight.

Ladies

Women’s voices are all very much the same, save a stray true contralto.  For the most part, your ladies will all be able to sing the notes in most all female voice parts; part assignments will be made based largely on vocal quality.  And quality is comfort.  Alack, in the a cappella world, women in the block will tend to be stuck singing in chest voice or low mix the entire time.  The range for the choral blocks of amateur women’s collegiate a cappella groups is best kept within F3 – Bb4 to be on the safe side, making sure the chord’s skeleton is built within this range before writing any higher parts.

Soprano I: Your sopranos will be the ones who are most comfortable singing in high, soaring descants and beautiful solos — and the only ones who’ll get a chance to use their true head voices.  However, when they’re singing in the block, you’ll usually end up writing them in their upper chest voice and into their lower mix.  Handle with care!

The most useful and comfortable tessitura for your Soprano Is will be to keep them perched just atop the lower break, within a third of G4 (G above middle C).  If you write higher parts than a Bb4 or so, your ladies will cross their second passaggio, and might start sounding shrill if they’re not the strongest singers.  Generally, keep your Soprano Is tucked underneath this limit and slowly work them higher.  Ultimately, they should be able to make an E5 atop a chord sound beautiful, as long as the arrangement is well written.

On that note, if you’re writing this high, take care to fill the chord up completely underneath — that is, fill in the lower voices with tight intervals, and the block will be able to shine.  In these cases, splitting the top part might be helpful to keep your upper voices from being overpowering.

Soprano II: These will be your more daring and talented sopranos, who have a particularly high break or an ability to negotiate it particularly well.  They’ll tend to be parked within the range of C4-F4, just below (or within) their lower passaggios.  Be kind to them and make your voice assignments very carefully, since it’s just not a terribly comfortable place for anybody to sing.

Altos I & II: Both will be able to use nearly exclusively their chest registers, largely avoiding their breaks.  Most of this region is fair game (and only stretches a sixth or so anyway), so we’ll just make a note of how the Alto IIs will be struggling along: True contraltos are rare, and you’ll most likely be dealing with women whose lower voices begin to strain and change quality around a G3 (just below middle C), and peter out completely by a D3 below that.  However strong the temptation might be, resist the urge to write your Alto II parts in the basement — it’s just not healthy or helpful for your singers.  Practically speaking, your Alto IIs will be spending a considerable amount of time from F3 to A3 (just below middle C).

Words fail me.

Words fail me.

Dudes

Men are a bit dicier, and there are usually more striking differences between the voices.  Guys, remember when you had what is essentially a female voice when you were tykes?  Then a strange surge of hormonal craziness came along and you dramatically bottomed out, nose-diving into lower registers without warning.  Also, body hair.  Regardless, everybody’s voice will morph differently, and men’s voice parts tend not to be nearly as interchangeable as womens’.  This said, if you are singing collegiate a cappella, you will undoubtedly have only baritones.

Countertenors: Anybody with particularly strong head voices can be used as countertenors, with a strength around an A4 (a major sixth above middle C).  These might be baritones or tenors, either of which will be singing in the best part of their upper register.  If you write a line here, try to keep it above the break at F4.  If you want to write descant parts higher than A4 — a very effective technique for skilled soloists — please do, but be extra careful having more than one singer on a note above F4 or so, to say nothing of A4 or higher.

Tenors: True tenors have dazzling high notes and cannot generally sing below a C3 (an octave below middle C).  You’ll pick your baritenors because of their excellent (adequate?) command of their head voice and ability to negotiate their break well.  Their ideal tessitura will be within a major second of middle C.  However, you will probably force them to sing right on their break around F4.  You jerk.

Baritones: Every male in your group will be a baritone.  If you don’t control them, they will try to be basses by using poor technique, swallowing their tone, and grunting like wildebeest.  A few of them will have uncannily excellent falsettos; you might want to turn them into countertenors who will sing high atop the block.  But the most comfortable tessitura for them will be squarely in chest voice, within a major third of a G3 (G below middle C, top space in the bass clef staff).

Basses: You will not have any basses in your group.

Bassitones: True basses will be able to comfortably sing down to an E2 (one leger line below the bass staff) with strong resonance because they won’t bottom out until a B1 or C1 below that.  Your bassitones, on the other hand, will be comfortable only down to about a bottom-space A2 before they start to break down, their ideal tessitura is probably within a major third of C3 (middle of bass staff).  However, you will probably write them down to a G2 or F2 with regularity, and force them to sing lower than they ought.  Some of them will be excited to try to grunt this out, but please be wary of vocal fatigue — be kind and gentle with your bassitones and avoid permanently damaging their voices, since one day they might want to actually sing baritone.  Nota bene: For the love of all that is holy, avoid the temptation to write Es and Ds until you really truly know your singers’ voices.

Singers As They Function in a Collegiate A Cappella Group

All-Male

Darwin's Folly

Darwin's Folly

You will most likely drink a lot of beer and bourbon, and giggle at each others’ farts.

You’ll be lucky to have voices which all sound more or less alike (male), and your arrangements should take particular advantage of strongly sung homophonic sections.  If your bassline is independent and distinguished through syllables or melody, it can wander above the baritone part briefly without too much trouble, but for the most part, you’ll want to keep voice-crossing to a minimum.  This will result in a bassline that jumps around then entire bass staff, a baritone part that usually sings near the top of it, and tightly-stacked tenors just above.  Unless you know of certain singers who are spot-on with pitch and quality, it’s wise to keep your tenors underneath a G4 (G above middle C).  As always, the higher you score, the fewer people should be singing: build a pyramid!

All-Female

You will most likely drink a lot of Franzia and giggle at each others’ farts.

Women’s voices are tremendously more flexible within the higher registers, and an all-female a cappella group functions more or less like an all-male group with the lowest octave removed.  Until you truly know your singers’ capabilities, be extra-careful to keep your altos within a normal physiological range: do not write them lower than a G or an F below middle C unless you’re absolutely certain they can handle it — and even then, don’t overdo it.  Stack your voices as tightly as you can and avoid wide intervals; try your hardest to keep your Soprano I part tucked underneath an A4.  Since women are better singers than men, you’ll probably have lots of opportunities to add soaring descant parts to your arrangement — these can go quite high indeed.

Home, home on the range.

Home, home on the range.

Mixed Voices

You will most likely drink just as much as the other groups, but with more latent sexual tension.

You’ll be blessed with the best of both worlds: bassitones which can hop happily around the bass staff and sopranos who can soar high and clear above a block.  However, since you’ll have two different genders singing at once, you’ll be constantly thinking about the best way to ensure your men and women get along — the independent bassline texture might leave your tenors  with nobody to effectively harmonize with.  As far as range concerns go, keep your basses above a G2 if you can, until you truly know your singers’ voices.  For the most part, your tenors will be distinguished from your altos by a difference in voice quality, and so they can in fact inhabit the same range while sounding quite distinct.  Just like for the all-female groups, you should try to limit your Soprano I part to notes below A4 when they’re singing in the block.

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YackBack

This is funny, I like the website, but I don’t get the jokes(?) about not having basses or true tenors in a men’s group. We have 2 true basses who can sing a C1, and a true tenor. I know not all a cappella groups do it, but beat boxing should be mentioned in some capacity.

#1 
Written By Miles on April 4th, 2009 @ 1:21 am

You’re very lucky to get one bass- cloning explains away the other one. The tenor must’ve been a prototype or something.

At the collegiate level, you probably have a couple of groups to duel with for the best singers, as well as singers who aren’t interested in a cappella. For less-lucky groups, true basses and tenors are a rarity, and with multiple groups and other singing pursuits…sometimes, they just don’t exist.

Also, here’s an article on vocal percussion: http://www.smartermusic.us/a-cappella-arranging/advanced-explorations/arrangers-toolbox-4-vocal-percussion/

#2 
Written By Dan Newman on June 1st, 2009 @ 11:36 pm

Just wanted to say that I feel very lucky to have stumbled upon your website! This has been the most informative place for a beginner like me. LOVE the humor! Right upo my alley! Thanks again!

Scott

#3 
Written By Scott Dollyhite on December 17th, 2009 @ 8:02 am

God bless you guys.

#4 
Written By SIYANDA NGQOKOTO on March 21st, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

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