Watch your tone!

The twin challenges of pitch and range

We’ve all been there, I’m sure. A particular hymn starts so well and then, at some point, the melody soars and the congregation – not so much!

Average rangeSo what’s the problem? Well, song choice or, more specifically, tune choice, is probably the primary factor. Not all hymns are written for congregational singing but rather for performance by a choir, band or soloist. This is particularly true of contemporary music.

Even some music written specifically for corporate worship can be pitched too high. As much as I like to view the congregation as a choir, there comes a point where that model breaks down because the reality is that the average assembly is of mixed-ability with a fairly limited range (typically A3 – D5). Consequently, our music choices need to reflect this.

When the pitch is too high…
The congregation will reach for the note with varying degrees of success. Some may, indeed, succeed but untrained singers tend to add volume and, as they force their voices, the resulting sound is generally harsh and screeching. Not exactly a joyful noise! (And not good for their voices!)

Others may reach for the note and not succeed. Once again the resulting sound will be harsh and screeching; it will also be flat. Others may not even try to reach the note and so simply stop singing. This is my preferred option because I find it uncomfortable to sing at the top extreme of my range. If enough people stop singing, the effect is a loss of volume and a tendency for the singing to become thready.

When the pitch is too low…
While this is a less common problem, it also undermines quality. Although the result is generally less harsh than too high a register, the effect tends to result in a loss of power and difficulty in sustaining the notes.

The sound is usually quiet, weak and probably sharp. Some people, especially women who can’t sing that low, will stop singing. (Once again, that’s what I do!)

In both cases, whenever people stop singing for a note or two, they rarely come back in on time and sometimes not in tune either so the following phrases are of very poor quality. It can take a phrase or two before the assembly ‘catches up’ with the music. Each time we come to the same place on the music, more people tend to stop singing.

The easiest way to deal with a challenge of pitch is, of course, to transpose to a more suitable key. You’ll probably find that you have to transpose downwards rather than upwards more often than not.

When the range is too wide…
Contemporary songs are frequently written to accommodate the vocal range of the writer/performer and, all too frequently, this puts the melody well outside the range of your average congregant. For example, Amazing Grace (with the added refrain of My Chains Are Gone) by Chris Tomlin has a range of C3 – F5, which is unachievable for many people. A range that’s too wide results in a very unpleasant combination of a pitch that is both too high and too low. Not a good sound!

Where the range is too wide you may wish perhaps to either omit a refrain – if that’s where the problem lies – or, if there’s really no reasonable way around the problem, choose another tune or even another song.

A younger age-group and larger numbers will generally favour a wider compass. In practice, I’ve found that a range from A3 to D5 is optimum (although E♭5 is occasionally acceptable on the higher end). Even with this range in mind, I generally try to select music that’s comfortably within these limits. This, of course, may vary across different congregations so we need to be aware of the optimum range for our own assembly.

But it’s not just about pitch and range…
It’s important to note that we can’t just consider these two elements in isolation. There are two other factors that we need to take into account.

• Tessitura : This is the range within which most notes of a vocal part fall. As far as congregational singing goes, this generally refers to the melody. It’s better not to have the assembly sing for any length of time at either extreme of their vocal range – especially not the top end. They’ll usually do better if all the notes are comfortably within their natural compass.

• Interval : If the melody includes a large interval – a 5th or greater – where the target note is at either extreme of your working range, many untrained or inexperienced singers will miss it. This type of note – sometimes humorously referred to as the ‘money note’ – is more often than not the highest note of the melody. It’s frequently significant with respect to the dynamics of the melody in that it often represents an emphasis or crescendo of some description. Missing this note in particular really stands out – and not in a good way!

This is an excerpt from a hymn we sang regularly in church in France. (Si je n’ai pas la charité – If I don’t have love). It’s based on 1 Corinthians 13 and set to the beautiful tune, Londonderry Air. At one point, the melody jumps from G4 to E5 – an interval of a 6th – where the top note was outside our comfortable range.

Interval

If the music wasn’t transposed downwards (I usually applied -2 semitones) we missed it every time and it spoiled a lovely hymn we generally sang well.

There are, in fact, implications for a couple of low notes within this melody but they’re reached by a series of steps and they’re not strongly significant with respect to the musical dynamics. Also, people cope a little better with a note that’s too low rather than one which is too high.

Conclusion

As musicians, we really have to pay a great deal of attention to pitch and range. These choices should be transparent to the congregation. They simply get to sing music that suits their range and expertise. If that’s not the case, quality is seriously compromised and so also is confidence. People are fully aware when they’re not singing well and it’s our responsibility as musicians to bring out the best in them. That’s why tune selection and pitch awareness are so very important.