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In this guide we will look at each of the voice types, solo voices, and types of choirs.
Singing with the human voice is perhaps the most ancient form of music-making, and there are many traditions and customs within the theory of music specific to the voice.
You will need to be familiar with several of these for a good understanding of music theory, in particular with the choral voices rather than the operatic (or solo) voices.
The traditional choir (or chorus) is traditionally made up of four parts:
- Soprano (which also includes the treble voice)
From the first letters of each part, this very standard combination is referred to as SATB for short.
The SATB choir spans a wide pitch range overall, but each part within the choir has a relatively narrow range. The following table shows the maximum range of each part in a typical cathedral choir.
|treble / soprano|
Note that the choral ranges shown above are considerably narrower than specialist solo or operatic voices. The term "SATB" corresponds to different choral parts rather than to precise voices, although "soprano", "alto", "tenor", and "bass" are commonly also used to describe voice classifications. This is a subtle difference but worth knowing.
Within each choral part, therefore, there may be several different specific voice classifications, each describing an individual voice (rather than to describe a given part in a choir).
Some of these voice classifications are:
- Soprano voices: While the soprano part in a choir is usually sung by a mixture of trebles (boys) and female singers, the soprano voice-type refers specifically to the highest female voices. A mezzo-soprano is slightly lower in range than a soprano, but higher than an contralto. The treble is an unbroken male (i.e., boy) voice. In opera, female soprano voices are classified as coloratura, soubrette, lyric and dramatic soprano or mezzo-soprano, among others, each with different timbral characteristics and some differences in range.
- Alto voices: The term "alto" is, strictly speaking, only used for the name of the choral part; the voice which sings the part could be female - a mezzo-soprano or a contralto (the lowest female voice) or male - a counter-tenor (usually a male voice singing in falsetto, though there is some controversy over the term); the word "alto" seldom refers to a solo voice. In opera, there are similar classifications as for soprano voices (coloratura contralto, lyric contralto, dramatic contralto, etc.)
- Tenor voices: The "tenor" part in very early choral music was the part which sang the most fundamental part (or the cantus firmus), and the word "tenor" comes from the Latin "tenere", meaning "to hold". Many different voice types sang the tenor part, and it is only relatively recently (from the 18th century) that tenor referred specifically to the highest adult male voice (not including the counter-tenor voice, which is produced differently). In opera, as for the soprano, there are many types of tenor, classified by timbre and range, such as the lirico-leggero, lyric, and dramatic tenor voices.
- Bass voices: The male voices singing the "bass" part in a choir are often a mix of baritones and bass-baritone voices. A "true" bass voice is actually quite rare, and much lower than might be expected. The baritone is the highest of bass voices, and often in choirs the tenor part will be sung by a mixture of baritones and true tenors. The bass-baritone is a slightly lower baritone, and the bass is the lowest of male voices. Some Slavic music calls for extremely low notes in the bass parts, leading to the informal voice classification of "Russian bass". In opera, as for the other voice-types, there are many types of bass, including the lyric bass, basso buffo, basso profondo, and more.
When writing for the voice, it is obviously important that the music is "singable".
Most importantly, the singer must be able to breathe, and to take fresh breaths between phrases. Given that most music is sung to words, the phrases of the music normally correspond to phrases in the words. Breaths are naturally taken at commas or other breaks in the text, and not in the middle of a sentence.
Therefore, if the text is at all irregular, the music must be able to adapt according to the sense of the text. Consider the first two verses of the well-known Christmas carol "While Shepherds Watched":
1. While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
2. "Fear not", said he (for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind);
"Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind".
In the first verse of this carol, the music is sung with one line of text to each phrase of music (two bars or eight beats). However, in the second verse, a good choir will not take a breath at the ends of the first and third lines, and might take a short breath at the comma after "Fear not". Therefore, the phrases of the music will be different in each verse, to match the sense of the text, as shown below:
When writing vocal music, it is best to keep to stepwise movement (i.e., semitones and tones according to the scale of the key), and to the simplest larger intervals (the perfect 5th, the perfect 4th, and the octave). If not writing stepwise music, it is a good idea to stick to outlining triads that are present in the accompanying harmony.
If there is harmony - particularly if the harmony is other voices, as in a SATB choir - then the writing of each part should sit clearly within the harmony and not go against it, because this will make notes harder to pitch. Passing notes - notes not within the harmony - are much easier to sing when they are located stepwise between two notes that are in the surrounding harmony.
The next example, from Purcell, illustrates many of these points and is a good example of some excellent and very singable writing for the voice (a solo soprano, in this example).
Note that this example uses a slightly different form of note grouping that is often encountered in vocal music, in which notes are beamed according to syllables. This is useful in vocal music because it adds clarity to the word-setting, but is not acceptable notation in instrumental writing.
Music for SATB choirs can be written out in two ways, known as short score and open score.
Short score is usually used for hymns and other music in which all parts are generally moving together, and open score is usually used when each part is moving independently, but they are effectively interchangeable, as we will see below.
Music for SATB written in "short score" is set out on two staves - one with a treble clef, one with a bass clef - with the soprano and alto parts on the upper stave, and the tenor and bass parts on the lower stave. The stems of the soprano and tenor parts always point up, and the stems of the alto and bass parts always point down. This is the case even if, for example, the tenor part goes lower than the bass part.
This example shows part of a chorale by J.S. Bach (from his St Matthew Passion) written in short score:
In open score there are four staves; each part is given one stave. The main difference from short score notation is in the tenor part, which uses a treble clef in open score but shares a bass clef with the bass part in short score. The tenor part is accordingly written one octave higher than it sounds.
Sometimes a special kind of treble clef with a small "8" attached to the tail is used for the tenor part, with the "8" serving as shorthand for an "8va" line underneath all the music, indicating that the music should sound one octave lower than written. Even if this small "8" is not present, however, the tenor part, when written in treble clef in open score, always sounds one octave lower than written.
Here is the Bach chorale from the previous example written in open score, with this special clef for the tenor part:
Do not confuse this special clef, used for the tenor part in choral music, with the tenor clef; that is a quite different clef that is used in instrumental music only!
For more about the tenor clef, please see The C clefs.
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