Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Beginners Guide to Choir Singing

We started our Christmas choir practice today and as I was searching for some songs, I came across this interesting little piece. It's quite funny and pretty much nearly all true! So here is the beginners guide to SATB singing. (HT:Comedycorner)

In any chorus, there are four voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Sometimes these are divided into first and second within each part, prompting endless jokes about first and second basses. There are also various other parts such as baritone, countertenor, contralto, mezzo soprano, etc., but these are mostly used by people who are either soloists, or belong to some excessively hotshot classical a cappella group (this applies especially to countertenors), or are trying to make excuses for not really fitting into any of the regular voice parts, so we will ignore them for now.

Each voice part sings in a different range, and each one has a very different personality. You may ask, "Why should singing different notes make people act differently?", and indeed this is a mysterious question and has not been adequately studied, especially since scientists who study musicians tend to be musicians themselves and have all the peculiar complexes that go with being tenors, french horn players, timpanists, or whatever. However, this is beside the point; the fact remains that the four voice parts can be easily distinguished, and I will now explain how.

THE SOPRANOS are the ones who sing the highest, and because of this they think they rule the world. They have longer hair, fancier jewelry, and swishier skirts than anyone else, and they consider themselves insulted if they are not allowed to go at least to a high F in every movement of any given piece. When they reach the high notes, they hold them for at least half again as long as the composer and/or conductor requires, and then complain that their throats are killing them and that the composer and conductor are sadists. Sopranos have varied attitudes toward the other sections of the chorus, though they consider all of them inferior. Altos are to sopranos rather like second violins to first violins - nice to harmonize with, but not really necessary. All sopranos have a secret feeling that the altos could drop out and the piece would sound essentially the same, and they don't understand why anybody would sing in that range in the first place - it's so boring. Tenors, on the other hand, can be very nice to have around; besides their flirtation possibilities (it is a well-known fact that sopranos never flirt with basses), sopranos like to sing duets with tenors because all the tenors are doing is working very hard to sing in a low-to-medium soprano range, while the sopranos are up there in the stratosphere showing off. To sopranos, basses are the scum of the earth - they sing too damn loud, are useless to tune to because they're down in that low, low range - and there has to be something wrong with anyone who sings in the F clef, anyway.

THE ALTOS are the salt of the earth - in their opinion, at least. Altos are unassuming people, who would wear jeans to concerts if they were allowed to. Altos are in a unique position in the chorus in that they are unable to complain about having to sing either very high or very low, and they know that all the other sections think their parts are pitifully easy. But the altos know otherwise. They know that while the sopranos are screeching away on a high A, they are being forced to sing elaborate passages full of sharps and flats and tricks of rhythm, and nobody is noticing because the sopranos are singing too loud (and the basses usually are too). Altos get a deep, secret pleasure out of conspiring together to tune the sopranos flat. Altos have an innate distrust of tenors, because the tenors sing in almost the same range and think they sound better. They like the basses, and enjoy singing duets with them - the basses just sound like a rumble anyway, and it's the only time the altos can really be heard. Altos' other complaint is that there are always too many of them and so they never get to sing really loud.

THE TENORS are spoiled. That's all there is to it. For one thing, there are never enough of them, and choir directors would rather sell their souls than let a halfway decent tenor quit, while they're always ready to unload a few altos at half price. And then, for some reason, the few tenors there are are always really good - it's one of those annoying facts of life.. So it's no wonder that tenors always get swollen heads - after all, who else can make sopranos swoon? The one thing that can make tenors insecure is the accusation (usually by the basses) that anyone singing that high couldn't possibly be a real man.. In their usual perverse fashion, the tenors never acknowledge this, but just complain louder about the composer being a sadist and making them sing so damn high. Tenors have a love-hate relationship with the conductor, too, because the conductor is always telling them to sing louder because there are so few of them. No conductor in recorded history has ever asked for less tenor in a forte passage. Tenors feel threatened in some way by all the other sections - the sopranos because they can hit those incredibly high notes; the altos because they have no trouble singing the notes the tenors kill themselves for; and the basses because, although they can't sing anything above an E, they sing it loud enough to drown the tenors out. Of course, the tenors would rather die than admit any of this. It is a little-known fact that tenors move their eyebrows more than anyone else while singing.

THE BASSES sing the lowest of anybody. This basically explains everything. They are stolid, dependable people, and have more facial hair than anybody else. The basses feel perpetually unappreciated, but they have a deep conviction that they are actually the most important part (a view endorsed by musicologists, but certainly not by sopranos or tenors), despite the fact that they have the most boring part of anybody and often sing the same note (or in endless fifths) for an entire page. They compensate for this by singing as loudly as they can get away with - most basses are tuba players at heart. Basses are the only section that can regularly complain about how low their part is, and they make horrible faces when trying to hit very low notes. Basses are charitable people, but their charity does not extend so far as tenors, whom they consider effete poseurs. Basses hate tuning the tenors more than almost anything else. Basses like altos - except when they have duets and the altos get the good part. As for the sopranos, they are simply in an alternate universe which the basses don't understand at all. They can't imagine why anybody would ever want to sing that high and sound that bad when they make mistakes. When a bass makes a mistake, the other three parts will cover him, and he can continue on his merry way, knowing that sometime, somehow, he will end up at the root of the chord.


  1. I am a soprano, but I love singing alto... It is actually soothing! But I agree with the fact that sopranos like holding on to high notes a little longer than required.... :)

  2. Very interesting post. Loved reading it! It brought a smile to my face on a rather embarrassing incident that occured to me once.

    Since you are a good friend I am sharing it here, this will give you an idea of my "music knowledge" :)

    Years back for a Benny Hynn crusade our friend who is a Pastor had invited volunteers for the choir. Of course we volunteered as it would only mean a closer seating to the stage.

    When we arrived at the scene we were asked which singers we are, meaning S or A or B or T but me not knowing anything about it, happily answerd "I can sing all the songs"! Israel was far behind so I was put on the spot to answer :(

    The reason they asked us was to know where to place us and based on my answers they decided I am better positioned at the audience and not necessarily in the choir. :))

    Good enough; my seating was still closer to the stage and I must tell you that it was one of the best meetings I have ever attended.
    The power of the Holy Ghost was evidently present in the tent which made me completely forget the incident at the choir seating and I truly enjoyed the meeting.

    On the way home Israel was explaining me the different type of singers - like you have explained it here in a rather interesting way...

  3. I love it!!! So much that I can relate to there, as an alto. I especially cracked up when he made the point about basses' facial hair - related to three basses who have the facial hair market cornered, I can completely agree. The only other point I can make is that I have always thought it would be incredibly cool to be able to sing bass. Which my husband has always countered by asking me if I really wanted to be speaking in a male voice. I loved the bit about altos getting the tricky harmony (I agree!! That's why altos are so much more interesting :D) and about conspiring to get the sopranos flat. Should try that consciously sometime.

  4. Loved every line of it Arpit! Took me to those glorious days:) Singing in the choir has been such a blessing

  5. Hilarious n so true!! Having sung Soprano and more recently Alto at christmas concerts, I can relate to the snug thoughts of both :-)Johann's dad - Ebenezer uncle had amazing patience with all of us!

  6. Really "lighter stuff'! Cracked me up..

    "more jewelry, swishier skirts" - Bianca Castafiore comes to mind :D

  7. Oh Man... Arpit... You almost made me quit Satbarwa and get back to Trivandrum. Really enjoyed your post. I was into choirs quite young and my dad used to sing bass. I used to believe for quite a long time that fat and portly singers sing bass and lean thin fellows sing tenor. The belief ended after my brother ended up singing bass and I sang tenor. Oh yes...I used to cherish my minority status in whichever choir I was in... Was always a highly valued asset to the choirmaster - to the extent that many of them used to enquire quite early enough before Christmas if I was around...

  8. Loved this post Arpit. Reminds of those good old MCC choir days

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