Types of voice: SATB demystified.
Singing in harmony is one of the greatest pleasures for me as a singer. There is something magical about voices combining to form chords and countermelodies. One of the simplest ways to experience this as a relatively inexperienced singer is to learn a ‘canon’ or ‘round’ to sing in a group, so everyone sings the same part but starting at different times so that beautiful chords are created. Early childhood examples you may know are ‘Frere Jacques’ or the grotesque “Three blind mice’.
Once this has been experienced, the thirst for more complex harmony may well follow. This can cause anxiety and confusion when looking for somewhere to sing. There are many choirs teaching ‘by ear’ so that there is no need to learn to read music (including Rallentandos), but there is a huge satisfaction in being able to join a Church Choir, a Chamber Choir or a Festival Chorus and sing the whole range of choral music.
A few years ago I had an intelligent and able student come to me for emergency singing lessons. She had joined a community choir in which the parts were divided into the four voice parts often used in choral singing. These are soprano, alto, tenor and bass. My student asked which part she should sing, and was asked to sing tenor ‘because you have a quite a low voice and we are short of tenors’. Luckily I do not know the musician who advised this.
The voice parts work as follows:
Sopranos: A soprano has a higher voice with a typical range of c4 to c6 when trained.
Altos: A lower, usually female voice with a range from f3 to f5
Tenor: Often a higher male voice, the tenor has a range of around c3 to c5
Bass: A lower male voice ranging from around e2 to e4.
There are other voice types, and variations and sub-divisions between these, but all you need to know is that the voices drop in pitch with sopranos at the top and bass providing the lowest notes.
If you aren’t sure which part you voice will fall into then just give the most likely one a try. You may decide to change later. This is particularly true if you start in a lower voice part. It is fairly common for people to feel comfortable singing in the lower part of their voice, which sounds richer and fuller to them. With a little practice the upper part of the voice can be reached easily. There has been research suggesting that accessing this upper part of the voice helps to lift mood, and it’s also important to span your range for vocal care.
If you are singing a voice part too low for you it is likely that the lowest sounds just won’t happen at all. It’s wise not to push this without qualified instruction.
So my poor student was not singing in the correct range, and was also singing a trickier part, potentially. Sopranos often get the easiest ride, having the tune for the majority of the time, although this can be taken by any voice part. My student could not reach these higher notes, because she was a low alto, and needed support to learn how to begin to follow the written music and to develop her inner hearing so that she could sing against the tune. This could sound like a disadvantage… but how interesting to provide the chords and the texture that make the music so stimulating to listen to. What an intellectual challenge to develop inner hearing and music reading skills!
If you want to join an SATB choir and are feeling a bit nervous, why not book a couple of singing lessons or ask friends to come along for a choral confidence workshop and join together?