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I have looked at the soprano lines in SATB arrangements and found something that seems a bit strange.

I'm referring to, for example, arrangements of Silent Night in Bb, with the sopranos singing the tune. If I as a tenor had to sing it in Bb it would not work at all. Tenors usually sing it in D. But based on this, sopranos don't want to sing a full octave higher than a tenor would.

This is why I must ask: Do sopranos find is easier to sing Silent Night in Bb than in D?

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    Silent Night has a range of an octave and a fourth. One would assume sopranos would sing the lead melody, using that range, in whatever key. Tenors in satb may well not use such a range, making the question somewhat misleading.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 7:34
  • The soprano I accompany regularly would find the melody uncomfortably low when sung in Bb. Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 10:20
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    What do you mean by "sopranos don't ant to sing an octave higher than a tenor"? I'd assume the typo was 'want' except that soprano and tenor ranges are pretty much exactly an octave apart, so why wouldn't they? Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 18:34
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    O.T. but the original was written in D major, with one version in Eb due to the use of brass instruments. This means a top note of F#. The commonly used version has some changes, adding a high G. This can be challenging for non professional singers (especially when trying to do it softly), which is probably the reason why you get versions in C or Bb. (By the way originally the piece was performed as Tenor/Bass duet, with the composer singing bass and the lyricist singing tenor and playing guitar.)
    – Lazy
    Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 20:43
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    @Tim Where are you taking this from? There are exactly zero known autographs in C, but 4 (+1 by the lyricist) in D. In key D the highest note of the upper voice is an F#, which is not too high for the majority of tenors.
    – Lazy
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 15:17

4 Answers 4

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Probably the main point is that most "SATB arrangements" are from hymnbooks, and these are designed primarily for congregational singing. The pitch of the melody line is determined more by what's suitable for the congregation than by what's suitable for a trained soprano section. Taking Silent Night much higher than Bb will result in top notes which are uncomfortable for many members of the congregation.

If you find an arrangement that is specifically written for a choir rather than for congregational singing, you might find that it's pitched higher. But also of course, in a choral context it's very usual for a director to adapt whatever materials are to hand, especially by choosing a different pitch from the one written. If it suits the choir better, they can sing it up a tone, or whatever.

Silent Night is also a special case in various ways. It has a large range, and is also generally sung quite quietly. When singing quietly rather than loudly, many singers find low notes become relatively easier to achieve convincingly, and high notes become relatively more difficult. This might push one in the direction of a lower pitch, while a more strident tune with a similar span might benefit from being pitched higher.

There's also an issue about solo vs choral singing. For a solo tenor, D major might indeed be a reasonable key for Silent Night. For a tenor section with many singers together, that penultimate line with the top G might be much harder to pull off convincingly. A soloist has lots of leeway in terms of timbre, volume, timing, etc, but for a choral tenor section, achieving a good blend and ensemble in a quiet high passage can be tough unless they are very good.

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  • I can sing G4 even if I sing it quietly. But I am a higher tenor. Lower tenors would perhaps struggle a bit. But what is the technical difference between solo singing and choir singing? Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 9:02
  • Also relevant here is the bass line. Many SATB arrangements of Silent Night have some very low notes in the bass line, and if you take the pitch down too far, you lose most of your basses. Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 9:27
  • Coincidentally, I happened across Silent Night in my (church's) hymnal. It's in the key of B. This is intended for a congregation of untrained singers, not a choir. It was always way too high for me. I'm sure I'd be able to do it if I took singing lessons, but I didn't want to take lessons just to be able to sing along in church. It's amazing to me that other untrained singers have such fantastic (high) ranges. Commented Sep 16, 2023 at 13:56
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In Bb, the range is Bb to Eb. (@harry jansson, I don't see how this would be a problem for a tenor?) The end of the melody is low for sopranos, but it IS meant to be 'silent' :-)

In D, the sopranos will shine out (maybe too much?) on a high G. Likewise, tenors might sound a bit strident, particularly as choral tenors are often baritones who can hit high notes (and, let's be honest, the soprano section often includes lower voices who don't want the bother of learning harmonies :-) And don't even go there if a congregation is involved!

But are we looking at just the melody, or at the SATB parts? The question is a bit confusing.

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  • I was refering to a tenor singing the melody. Then it is too low for me as a tenor. I thought real tenors sang tenor ln choir. Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 19:59
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    @harryjansson 'Real' tenors are about as common as hens' teeth in the amateur choral world :-)
    – Ian Goldby
    Commented Sep 11, 2023 at 7:39
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Having worked with lots of children's choirs, I found that the main melody worked best in key A, with, if I felt like it, a key change to B♭, and with a good choir, again, up to key C. But that was in unison, but I imagine that would be a good range for sopranos - as children have around the same range.

I have this theory that some word sounds are more difficult to sing high, than others. Don't believe it's so in this case.

And - When accompanying choirs, I used to sometimes change key on the fly to accommodate those I heard were 'out of their range' - down or up. (responding to a comment).

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    Please don't assume that all children are sopranos. Many future grown-up altos and baritones are already lower that that at fairly young age. It's hurtful (especially to a child who loves singing) to be expected to sing above your range, where your voice is straining and you can't hold the tone, and then the teacher says you can't sing and are "musically deaf" and she treats you as defective. Been there, done that, took years to heal. Please don't assume.
    – Divizna
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 9:36
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    @Divizna - I certainly don't assume that in particular. Only did it for 30 yrs. Very often changed the key of a piece to accommodate everyone. Once watched a 'choirmaster' ask the singers how they could reach/ sing higher notes... I quelled the answer 'why not just drop the key?'
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 9:36
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    @harryjansson - are you assuming sopranos merely sing pieces an octave above tenors? That's not usually how it gets arranged.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 9:39
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    @Tim I meant it more as a public announcement than aimed at you personally. I felt you were overgeneralising in the statement, and sadly, a lot of teachers do assume and never check! Once we were watching a documentary about Waldemar Matuška (quite a popular singer) with my father and when it said that his schoolteacher told him he couldn't sing, we just both nodded knowingly, not surprised at all. My father's a baritone; when I fell in love with the Beatles as a 12yo girl, part of the appeal was I could sing along at the same pitch, no strain.
    – Divizna
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 12:04
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    Some people say that soprano is an octave above tenor Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 20:01
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As others have pointed out Silent Night is unusual for a congregational hymn as it covers more than an octave. I am a high soprano and find I prefer to sing it in the key of D. However, for most people who do not sing regularly a lower key is probably more comfortable and I guess a key of Bb is a reasonable compromise.

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