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I am writing an a Capella choral work. I need to know if the following ranges are reasonable or not.

S1: Eb4-Ab5 (One S1 is assigned an optional Db6)

S2: Eb5-Gb5

A1: C4-F5

A2: C4-F5

T1: C3-Bb4

T2: C3-Gb4

B1: Ab2-F4

B2: F2-C4

If any of these are extreme, which are? I'm a Bass 1, so I have no idea what is generally accepted.

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I think you mean E♭4 for the soprano II's, right? –  aeismail Apr 19 '12 at 7:56

4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

The ranges you can use depend on who is singing, of course. If you know the choir for whom you are writing your work, use their ranges to the best of your ability.

In many cases, though, you are writing more for a particular type of choir:

  • Writing for a typical church choir? Use conservative ranges, like the ones in @WheatWilliams' answer. (Note that those ranges are given in the context of baroque part-writing practices, not modern choral writing -- but they still work, so use them if you are in doubt, though I would probably limit Tenor 2 to F4 instead of G4.)

  • Writing for collegiate choirs? You can be a little more aggressive. An optional C6 for Soprano 1 is not out of the question in this case, but it must really be optional, as not all sopranos can sing that note. Know that you will not get any diction at all in that range. F5 might be a little high for Alto 2. Your men's ranges are probably fine for an upper-level collegiate choir -- the Tenor 1 singers should know how to use falsetto to reach the B♭4.

You did not specifically mention this, but you will want to ensure that the performing ensemble has both the personnel and the capability of singing eight parts. This, again, eliminates many groups but probably includes your better collegiate choirs. Some amateur groups can handle eight parts, but it certainly is not universal.

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For the section on tenors in a church choir, did you mean F4 and G4 instead of F3 and G3, respectively? –  American Luke Apr 19 '12 at 1:38
    
I am a college student and plan on having a group of my peers perform my piece next year. So, these ranges would be ok for them? The chord with the Db6 has all singers on the same syllable, so I'm not too worried about that. We have a few altos currently here who can do an F5, as we are doing the Beethoven 9th and it calls for that note frequently. If I were to consider publishing this work, would I want to make it for professional/collegiate choirs? –  Ryan McClure Apr 19 '12 at 3:34
    
@Luke Yes. Thank you. I have edited my answer accordingly. –  Andrew Apr 19 '12 at 4:59
    
@RyanMcClure If you know who is performing the piece, use their ranges. If a piece can be performed by one group, it very well may be performable by others. That said, if you are at all unsure of the amount of rehearsal time you will get, keep the ranges (and other elements) more conservative, as it will keep the singers happier. I had this very experience as an undergrad. I wrote a work for SSAATTBB choir that was quite challenging but within the realm of the college choir. I couldn't get enough people willing to perform it. Just a cautionary tale... –  Andrew Apr 19 '12 at 5:03

Well, I can't say for certain how a choir would react to this without seeing the actual arrangement, but:

Db6 for a soprano will not work at all. You can't expect choir sopranos to go above A5. There are very few women in the world who can sing Db6, and they are opera divas. No one could possibly use that in a choral setting.

S2 only gets to sing three different pitches in the entire song? It's much too high and too monotonous. That won't go over well.

Both the Tenor 1 and Tenor 2 ranges are too high. I'm a tenor. Don't ask first tenors in a choir to go above A natural.

Here are conservative ranges from a well-regarded college textbook on music theory. These are appropriate for a non-professional choir.

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Source:

Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne. Tonal Harmony, Third Edition. 1995, McGraw Hill. p. 82.

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Likewise, don't ask Bass 1's to go above F's and Bass 2's to go above D or so (I mean, most Bass 2's probably could, but you won't like the sound). –  Babu Apr 18 '12 at 3:01
    
I don't think the tenor ranges are that extreme—and an occasional B flat in the tenor I part could be quite thrilling in practice. Also, I've known quite a few sopranos at the collegiate level who had the requisite notes to sing a high D flat. So it's not impossible—and the original poster mentioned it was an optional note. –  aeismail Apr 19 '12 at 8:02
    
I think these ranges are still a bit subjective. Your average church choir is made up primarily of mezzo-soprano and alto women, and baritone men; so, what's commonly marked SATB scoring is more often more like SABB. In most church scores, anything above an E5 is optional for sopranos, while altos very rarely venture above C5. E4 (a third below the G4 shown) is common in tenor parts but going much above that is suspect because most of your tenors are actually "lyric baritones". However, I've seen plenty of church bass parts with occasional D4s. –  KeithS Apr 19 '12 at 15:29

I think that the discussion of tessitura is often lost in discussing ranges. If a part is well written, it will be comfortable for a singer of a given voice type to sing. Beethoven's Ninth and the Missa solemnis are thrilling works for the audience, but are murder on the singers, because they have to work so long in ranges of their voice that are uncomfortable. In contrast, Verdi's Requiem—a much louder and brasher work—is less stressful on the voice because Verdi uses the concept of tessitura much more effectively.

Working from memory, books I've seen have suggested the following tessitura ranges:

Soprano: A4-E5

Alto: D4-A4

Tenor: G3-D4

Bass: C3-G3

If parts are centered in those ranges (with slight movements upwards and downwards for first and seconds in those ranges; basses might be spread out a bit further, in my opinion—B2-F3 for bass II's and E3-B3 for bass I's (baritones)), then they should be a good starting point for the moments when you go outside of those ranges (which usually are the most memorable or important!).

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The following are average ranges for your typical amateur church choir music, based on my 20-odd years' experience in choral singing:

  • Soprano: Bb3-E5, with optional notes up to B5 (and you very rarely see much above G5)
  • Alto: G3-C5, primarily staying between C4 and B4 (songs requiring altos to sing higher than C5 generally do so for a specific effect, or because both first and second sopranos are even higher)
  • Tenor: C3-E4, with certain pieces having "occasional" Fs and Gs
  • Bass: F2-C4, with optional notes from C2-E2 and the occasional D4-E4

These are the standards for contemporary Christian choral works, intended for volunteer choirs in English-speaking North America. Older works typically trend a bit higher in each part, and/or "stretch" each part across more of its range. This is primarily because said older works were intended for choristers who spent more time training than the average two-hours-a-week mainline church choir does today, and also because these works run the gamut of regional influences, from British and Italian which typically trend higher, to Slavic, German and Russian which typically trend lower, especially in male voice.

For high-level amateur and professional choral singers, those "optional" notes above become requirements, thus increasing the repertoire the choir is able to sing. Professional groups also start to formally differentiate between a true soprano and a "mezzo-soprano", and likewise between true tenors, baritones, and true basses, which is reflected in the scoring being expanded from four-part harmonies to six, eight or more. The average volunteer choir often doesn't have that luxury; walk into most mainline churches (that don't pay their choir) and you'll find a group of about one to two dozen, about two-thirds women, made up primarily of women you'd class as mezzo-sopranos and men you'd call baritones, with a scattering of true sopranos and basses, and maybe one or two (if you were lucky) guys you'd deem true tenors. In those cases, if you can sing the notes you get the part regardless of your tessitura.

For soloists, you start venturing into "colors" of voice part that have often-subtle but significant differences in range, such as a dramatic soprano versus a coloratura or soubrette, or a lyric tenor versus a dramatic tenor, or a lyric baritone versus a bass-baritone versus a true bass versus a basso profundo ("Russian Bass"). These "colors" typically have a slight change in range compared to each other.

For more evidence of what each voice part should be able to sing, look at the traditional clefs used for each part. The treble clef (a "treble" is technically a preadolescent voice aka a boy or girl soprano, but the range is similar to the average mature female soprano) allows notes from D4 to F5 without leger lines. The "alto clef" (rarely used any more in voice but still seen in instrument scores such as for viola and english horn) centers on Middle C and extends from E3 to A4. That's considered a bit low for an alto tessitura nowadays (it was originally intended for the post-pubescent falsetti "male altos" of all-male choirs), but a true alto should still be able to hit all of that in full voice. The true tenor clef is only a third lower than the alto clef, ranging from C3 to F4 (again it's rarely used anymore for voice but is seen in instrumental parts such as for trombone, baritone horn and bass clarinet); modern tenors sing on the treble clef transposed down an octave. The bass clef ranges from F2 to B3. In all those cases, pretty much anyone who walks in off the street who is comfortable singing any note within any of those clefs would be labelled as being in that voice part (with two exceptions; a woman comfortable singing a tenor range or lower is a contralto, and a man comfortable singing alto or higher may be called a countertenor instead of a male alto).

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