Composer Create interviews some of our ORA Singers team on writing for their voice types…
Written by Lucy Cox
The soprano is the highest voice part of the choir, often used for melody lines - perhaps because the human ear is more sensitive to the higher frequencies of the notes we sing. There are six of us in ORA Singers, and between us we have a pretty extensive range. However, the lines we find the most comfortable will use notes between a C4 and an A5, sitting roughly in the middle of that range. Composers can push these limits for specific effects, and some of the pieces ORA have performed and recorded do so very successfully. For example, we recently performed Dominick DiOrio’s O Virtus Sapientiae, which requires three solo soprano voices all to go up to a C6. This works so well because it is a climactic point at the heart of the piece, and they each stay on the note only for a moment before cascading down again.
Holding sustained high notes for long periods of time can be exhausting, and sopranos will thank you for saving the top part of their range for specific moments in your piece. Diction also becomes more difficult in the higher part of the soprano range, so if you want to use lots of words, it will be easier for us in our middle register.
We often end up singing notes below a C4, and are quite happy down there, but it’s worth bearing in mind that we are likely to sound quieter than our mezzo soprano and counter tenor colleagues, so it is usually a good idea to hand over to the next voice part down if it’s an important line.
As with all of the voice parts, the soprano sound will naturally increase in volume as it goes up in pitch. If your soprano line is high, it’s useful to consider where the other voice parts are in their range, and whether they might be overpowered. We can sing quietly at high pitches, but it is tiring to do so for a long time. In Macmillan’s Miserere, in the final recapitulation (where the original theme comes back for the last time at the close of the piece), the sopranos have to be really disciplined to keep the volume down for a few extra moments as their line goes up in pitch to the strongest part of their range while the altos are still in a quieter part of their voice. Macmillan has given dynamic markings which keep us in check, which is useful since the emotion of the music makes it difficult to hold back at this point!
Have a listen to the excerpt below to hear the section Lucy is talking about!
Written by Hannah Cooke
Most female altos in a choral setting will feel comfortable singing from an F below middle C up to around a D/E an octave and a bit above that. Some singers will happily go higher than this, but often with less control over dynamic range and tone. Some altos will sing lower than an F, but for many this might not be reliably ‘there’, and performers might end up needing to ‘borrow’ tenors to cover those notes. As with all voice-parts, it can be quite uncomfortable being asked to sing constantly at one or other extreme of your range. If, for example, you are splitting the female voices three ways, it might work better to split the sopranos if it’s generally quite high up than to split the altos.
The alto sound tends to be a warmer, richer sound chorally than the soprano line, and altos are used to filling out the middle of a texture in a choir. An alto melody (within a suitable range) can provide an interesting different texture than keeping the melody in the soprano line. The sound that a lot of altos will produce at the top of their range will be a lot richer and fuller than a typical soprano voice could offer, so bear this in mind when thinking about part division and balance.
Listen below to an example of the rich sound of the alto voice, sung by Hannah Cooke herself!
Counter Tenor (Male Alto)
The counter tenor is the highest male adult singing voice in a standard choir, usually singing the alto line in a conventional vocal consort. The term "contra-tenor" has existed in different guises in choirs for many centuries, but as a solo instrument it only came back into fashion in the second part of the twentieth century.
The counter tenor is a common enough voice both in ensemble circles and also on the operatic stage in it’s own right as a soloist, performing music by Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel and others from years gone by to music by more modern composers such as Britten, Tippett, Glass, Benjamin, Dove, Ades and many others. In ORA Singers there are often two male altos singing alongside two female altos, and usually if the alto section is divided there will be one of each gender on each part to balance the texture. The male alto range is similar to the female alto voice, though females generally have a wider natural range at both ends. Of course ranges differ from singer to singer but the counter tenor voice natural functions best in the octave from middle C upwards!
The counter tenor voice primarily uses what we call ‘falsetto’ - a vocal technique where men use an upper extension to their natural adult singing voice, noticeably pitched higher than their speaking range. In fact, counter tenors are most often naturally baritones (occasionally tenors), and at times use this voice in singing the alto part, when notes go lower than their falsetto range.
When writing vocal parts for the alto line in any choir, like other voices, it is best not to pitch the notes too consistently at either end of the range. As Hannah describes with the female alto voice (above), generally the alto line extremes would be between the F below middle C up to the D or E the octave and 6th/7th above that, but remember that the counter tenor in particular will generally sound best in the C-C octave. There is little point in writing music where a voice part will sound weaker, so the extremities should be used sparingly, if at all!
Many of the most successful commissions that ORA Singers have had, such as Jonathan Dove’s Vadam et circuibo civitatem or John Barber’s Sicut Lilium (both from the forthcoming album Desires) and Roderick Williams Ave Verum Corpus Re-imagined (from Upheld By Stillness), have made use of this octave almost exclusively in the alto line and not strayed too far in either direction away from those notes.
In modern editions of Renaissance music, (by composers such as Byrd, Tallis, Victoria and Palestrina), alto lines are often written low in the tessitura, which sometimes produces a muddy texture to these pieces. Because of this ‘muddy texture’, it sometimes makes sense to re-jig the voice parts and place the altos on top of the texture, and the tenors on the typical ‘alto line’ range. This makes the music come alive in a different way as all the singers are then in a more comfortable part of their voice. It is thought this was the way much of this music was actually performed in Renaissance times and it is only the modern convention of an SATB choir that has changed the pitch pieces are performed at.
In ORA Singers there is a flexible approach to this, making adjustments to each piece as suitable. Generally the higher the voice is in its range, the louder it will sound. For example, Alto and Tenor parts are frequently written in a similar range but obviously a tenor at the top of his voice will produce more volume than an alto low in their range. This is important to note when tackling your choral composition in terms of voice distribution and balance.
Written by Matthew Beale
Tenors tend to have a similar range to sopranos but just an octave lower, roughly from a C one octave below middle C to an A one octave above middle C. They can occasionally go beyond this range, but you're taking a risk in sound quality!
You'll often see the tenor line written with a treble clef but with a little figure 8 on the bottom, showing the octave difference to sopranos. You can also write the tenor part in the bass clef, although high notes will involve a lot of ledger lines, which are hard to read. If you are composing for an amateur choir it's best to play safe and keep well within the tenor range, especially at the top.
The tenor part is quite often used to add an interesting middle-line of harmony under a soprano tune, and it is a voice-type that can add an individual range of colour. At the rougher end, tenors are sometimes accused of creating a slightly nasal sound, especially at volume, but they can also make use of what's called 'head voice' to create a soft and warm tone in the higher range. Essentially, tenors can sound abrasive (which has its own uses), floaty or can just add a warm middle to a piece.
A great example of the ‘head voice’ is the middle section of Richard Allain's Coventry Carol. Listen out for the moment when the full choir drops out, and the tenors are left singing Lully, Lulla before being joined again by the Sopranos.
Tenors are quite used to being split into two parts, tenor 1 and tenor 2, which increases your options for harmony. One classic example is William Byrd's Mass for Five Voices, which is scored for soprano, alto, tenor 1, tenor 2 and bass.
As with all voice types, tenors won't thank you for keeping them singing on an E and above for long periods of time but, similarly to sopranos, they're very useful at moments of great climax if you put them on a sudden top G, A or even B!
Written by Richard Bannan
The Bass is the foundation of the sound; the lowest, most sonorous of the four voice types and the root from which the music will blossom or wilt. So much of the choral sound is affected by the quality of the bass: the tuning; the balance between harmony and melody; whether harmonic progressions sound fluid or forced; whether moments of climax, suspension, resolution and cadence succeed or fail. The initial arbiter of this quality is, you, the composer.
Our range is wide - for true basses from E2 to D4, for baritones from G2 to F4, both with occasional extensions. Staying within these parameters is important as at the extremes the singer is forced to chose between musical and vocal integrity, meaning the music passes out of the composers control. This point is especially true when writing for a choir such as ORA Singers, where the Human Resources available will not always be as malleable as a Sibelius midi file. For example, a fortissimo bottom E2 is difficult to sustain without affecting the quality of the vowel, particularly if only one or two singers are covering the note against the full force of the choir. If maintaining a blended sound is important to your music, and as a choral composer it should be, then avoid writing such things.
Similarly, basses lack the dexterity to manoeuvre between registers with the fluidity of sopranos, so writing a florid passage across octaves is not advisable. Lastly, try to avoid writing successive root position chords; use inversions and passing notes to make your bass lines as melodic as possible. Aside from being more interesting to sing, this will ensure your music doesn’t become cumbersome and heavy.
For inspiration, look at the bass line of Byrd’s Ave verum corpus: firstly, the range is only an 8ve and a third, ensuring every note can be sung with maximum comfort and quality; secondly, there is the perfect ratio of chords in root position and inversion to passing notes and ornaments; Byrd ensures his bass line has a melodic function, heightening and reducing tension. Equally rewarding is James Macmillan’s Miserere; the opening divisi is perfectly calibrated to ensure an even balance whilst, melodically, the composer uses similar tools to Byrd to allow both lines to sing. When MacMillan does employ extremes in range or dynamic, however, he is sensitive to the singer; the low lying phrases are utilised in relatively sparse textures, meaning the notes will be heard without strain. This is best typified by the motet’s close, when every voice is taken from the quiet depths to the ecstatic heights of their range; a lesser composer might have filled out some harmony, dividing each part for a thicker texture and using wider spaced chords. This would’ve exposed the singers, and diluted the clarity of the writing.
Often, particularly when writing for the bass voice, less is more…
Listen below for an example of good bass writing: