Orchestration Basics – Choir – Voices Types
Classifying the Voice
In most fields, there are stereotypes. Most of which are unfair and fail to address the whole picture. In music, two of the most prevalent are that vocalists are egomaniacs while being poor musicians and drummers are fun but less than intellectual. We're going to hopefully dispel the first one of these stereotypes in this post and the following one.
In this post, we will learn about the four main types of voices (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) that are used in choral music. Additionally, we will touch on additional classifications that are used to describe soloists. We will also listen to examples of famous singers that fall into the various types.
In the next post, we will talk about, as composers, we can view singers as more than just "singers" but as the skilled musicians they are. Specifically, we will discuss how to include them as part of a larger instrumentation with traditional orchestral instruments. In future posts, we will learn more about writing for small vocal groups, choirs, and solo vocalists.
An Extremely Brief History of Singing in Western Music
In the beginning was the voice. Voice is sounding breath, the audible sign of life. – Otto Jespersen
Singing is no doubt one of the oldest musical activities. In fact, sung communication predates spoken language. Danish Linguist Otto Jespersen wrote "Men sang out their feelings long before they were able to speak their thoughts." The earliest ancestors to Western Music were songs. The oldest piece of notated Western music, the Sumerian song Hymn to Creation, is dated before 800 BCE. The piece was notated in cuneiform writing. The oldest complete piece of notated Western music is the Ancient Greek Song of Seikilos from the first century CE that we discussed in the article about musical texture. Even before that, Ancient Egyptian visual art depicts large choruses and orchestras in the New Kingdom (550-712 BCE). In the ninth and tenth centuries in early Christian Europe, singing and music were intrinsically linked. Early notated music was exclusively unaccompanied singing of religious texts by monks. This style of music is known as Gregorian chant.
Our modern Western notation system is developed from the staff method of transcribing these medieval chants in neumes (later developed into musical notes) that was developed in the ninth century. The monks referred to the names of the pitches of the scale by using a melody and text from one of their chants, ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la. Each line of the text begins on the succeeding pitch of the ascending scale. We still use the names of the pitches that these monks gave them when we sing solfège or do, re, mi... scales, known as solemnization. Si or ti was added later, and ut was later changed to do, which may have been borrowed from an Arabic version of solemnization, Durar Mufaṣṣalāt, (درر مفصّلات, in English "separated pearls"). It uses the syllables dāl, rā', mīm, fā', ṣād, lām, and tā'. Other music traditions from around the world have their own solemnization systems.