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When it comes to melodies they may take on many different shapes, timbers, and rhythms based on style and instrument. The range however of a melody however it seems that certain ranges are much, much more common then others.

What are the typical melody ranges for both vocal melodies and instrumental melodies and is there a big difference between them? I know there will be outliers in both cases, but there surly must be some some quantifiable average.

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They usually stay within an octave as far as I've seen. –  American Luke May 29 at 21:53

3 Answers 3

I'd say Luke's (and user10944's) answer of an octave sounds about right for vocal parts. While typical SATB vocal ranges for your standard 4-part harmony are usually listed as about an octave and a half each, many simple melodies stay within about an octave. Depending on the melodic contour, that octave may stretch from dominant to dominant (as in Amazing Grace) or from tonic to tonic (as in Joy To The World). As you say, there are of course outliers. The Star Spangled Banner is my go-to example of a song with a large range that makes it difficult for some to sing -- it's range is an octave + a fifth.

For instruments, I think the answer is going to be rather larger, and also more variable depending on the instrument and the genre. On the one hand, if you're thinking of instrumental parts doubling the vocal lines in a Bach chorale, you're obviously going to stay rather conservative with your range. On the other hand, if you're writing a flashy concerto, you're going to show off as much of the instrument's extended range as possible.

You may also be interested in the term "tessitura" which sort of describes what you're taking about -- the average, comfortable range used either by a voice or instrument, but ignoring the extreme highs and lows.

In music, tessitura (Italian for "texture") is the most musically acceptable and comfortable range for a given singer or, less frequently, musical instrument; the range in which a given type of voice presents its best-sounding texture or timbre.

The term is also used to refer to where a specific part falls (on average) relative to the voice or instrument playing it.

In musical notation, tessitura is used to refer to the compass in which a piece of music lies—whether high or low, etc.—for a particular vocal (or less often instrumental) part. The tessitura of a piece is not decided by the extremes of its range, but rather by which part of the range is most used.

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Most simple melodies are within an octave. The majority of melodies are within an octave and a third, with not uncommon ones within an octave and a fifth.

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For choral singing -- not soloists -- one is expected to have a range of about an octave and a sixth. Sopranos are not expected to go below a middle C or above the A above the treble staff. Altos are expected to be able to go to the G below middle C and sing up the high E. Tenors are expected to be able to sing from the F above middle C down to the low A. Basses are expected to be able to sing from the D above middle C down to the G on the bottom of the bass staff.

You can write choral music outside those ranges, but you have to expect you'll get weird vocal artifacts. For instance if you ask a soprano section to sing much below a middle C, their voices develop a whiney timbre and squeak can't we take this up at third?

Most modern instruments have seriously wider ranges than the human voice, and vocal soloists can be assumed to have other ranges and capacities than choral singers (choral music is necessarily written to the middle of the bell curve, or to specific choruses). On the flip side, there's all sort of historical instruments with a range of a ninth (e.g. crumhorns).

If you're interested in composing/arranging for instruments you don't yourself play, I highly recommend Hiller's Handbook of Instrumentation. It's pricey, but marvelous.

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The range from A2 to F4 seems quite low for a tenor. C3 to C5 is more commonly given as a tenor's range, and the latter is even called "tenor C." Non-soloists are only expected to reach A4 or so, but any decent tenor should be able to sing well above the F4 passagio. (C3 to A4 is exactly an octave and a sixth, so that part of your answer seems spot on.) –  Bradd Szonye May 30 at 7:47

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