I'm learning to sing and teach to children several Abenaki songs. I was careful to be authentic in sourcing them, and am working through a book and audio recordings prepared by a Penobscot elder and singer. So, I can say quite confidently that I will be teaching them actual Abenaki music, not some westernized rendition of it.

As I work through the book and listen to the recordings, I've noticed that each song is notated in a different key and sung by a man with a bass-baritone voice. I'm curious about how these songs are/were sung among Abenaki members. In particular:

  1. Several songs have a rather large range, and the singer must cross over into his head voice for some of the songs. As he is the only singer on the recording, he has clearly chosen a starting pitch that works to his advantage. But assuming that the population of his tribe probably has a wide range of voice types, how would natural tenor or soprano singers navigate these songs?

  2. In a large group setting, how would the starting pitch be chosen without being too high or too low for the half of the singers whose voice type doesn't match the leader?

  3. Assuming that there was some way to be certain all singers could fit the song in their range, how would this starting pitch be remembered or preserved from singing occasion to occasion? (All recordings are with just voice and either drum or rattle.)

If it matters for your answer, the majority of the songs were collected in the late 1890's or early 1900's, around the very first audio recordings were made. This recording was from 2010, by Watie Atkins.

I'd be equally interested in answers about how current cultures which sing without pitched accompaniment chose/remember starting pitches for songs, or for how older cultures managed it.

NB I wouldn't mind simply asking the singer himself, but I learned through some of his acquaintances that he has recently passed away.

  • I'm so intrigued. There are really two questions here: 1) how do such genres select a key that fits everyone's vocal ranges best, and 2) how do genres with no instruments reliably remember and replicate pitches. You're wise to narrow the question to one music-culture, because the first challenge at least faces every genre in which individual songs are not directly linked to a particular key, which is the vast majority of music-cultures—Sacred Harp, barber shop, church hymnody, pop standards. Re the second, I see:... Apr 30, 2022 at 13:55
  • ... "Sacred Harp singers traditionally key songs without a pitch pipe; a singer with a good ear will sound the notes of the first chord, trying to find a vocal range to make the song both interesting and comfortable." from this pdf, without elaborating on how that's done. Apr 30, 2022 at 13:56

1 Answer 1


I can't speak authoritatively about the Abenaki, but I have done shape-note (Sacred Harp) singing in a group and I strongly suspect that Abenaki practice fits into the common communal human experience; think about singing Xmas carols a capella with other people as an analogy.

In the absence of pitched instruments, the lead singer doesn't have to remember the exact pitch. I'm frequently a lead singer in group a capella situations. I choose an opening pitch that fits in my range by singing to myself the lowest and highest note in the song. I then sing the first note. Other people will tell me if it fits in their range. Then we start singing. After a song or two, we all settle into a range.

In a tight-knit community that sings the same songs again and again, everyone will settle into keys that are comfortable for the group as a whole. From session to session, I and the other group members remember pitch from how the memory sings the song in the head and from the way the throat and head feel.

In shape-note singing, the lead singer will sing the notes of the first chord, and then the folks in each of the four parts will sing their notes in the chord at the same time, forming a single glorious chord, if the range is right. Once the right range is found, the song begins.

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