Musical Ensembles: The Choir

[This is part of the Ensembles for All Series]

Ah yes, Choirs. Chances are at some point in your life you have sung with some sort of choir, most likely a school choir. They can create beautiful (or chilling) harmonies, with three, four, or even more different parts at the same time. Its not easy, but that is not what we are concerned with. We are curious as to how they are structured. Much of my musical experience has come from this type of ensemble, so it is what you could call my area of expertise.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir

There is no really wrong way to structure a choir. In fact, it greatly depends on what you are given in terms of voices. If you have a choir made up completely of men, then you probably wont have sopranos (Chanticleer is a notable exception). A choir made up completely of young boys probably wont have tenors (although some young voices can dip into that range) baritones and bases.

I should say now that choir is actually a blanked term more then anything. Choir is technically a term only used for vocal ensembles that sing for a church. However, when I say choir in this post, I am referring to any type of larger voice ensemble.

The Voice Ranges

Naturally, different people have different singing ability. Generally they can be labeled as one of the following.

  • Soprano Usually made up of women, young girls, or young boys. Generally sing from about C4 to C6 (see An Explanation of Scientific Pitch Notation)
  • Contralto (Alto) Again usually made up of women, young girls, or boys with unchanged voices. Have a range of about F3 to F5.
  • Tenor The highest male voice in a choir. Has a range of about C3 to C5.
  • Bass The lowest voice in the choir. Made up completely of men. People that sing this usually have a range of E2 to E4.

Sometimes other voices, such as Baritone or Mezzo-Soprano are added, but these are generally the four subdivisions. However each voice may be subdivided further. Much of the three part music for higher voices is written SSA (soprano, soprano, alto) or SAA (soprano, alto, alto). In this instances, there is a chance that one Soprano part will be higher then the other. In this case, the people that sing the higher soprano part are considered first sopranos.

By far the most well known format is the SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) format. This the most often used format for choirs with both male and female vocalists. Some of the best known choirs use this format.

Now naturally it would make sense to assume that all singers that sing one part would stand together. Although this is true in many cases, it is not always so. Sometimes the members are staggered, which can look nicer. Its harder to sing that way, as the individuals singers dont have as much support, but then no part is coming from only one place.

I hope this gave you a good idea of kind of how a chorus is structure. Remember, that is what this series is aiming for. Just the nuts and bolts. None of the fancy stuff (although there may be time for this later).

Some well-known choirs:

  • Vienna Boys Choir (All boys with unchanged voices, sopranos and altos.
  • Chanticleer (All men, however some of the men sing soprano and alto parts.)
  • Mormon Tabernacle Choir (Men and Women. Soprano, alto, tenor and bass)
  • Choir of New College, Oxford (Men and boys with unchanged voices, Soprano, alto, tenor, bass)

[This is part of the Ensembles for All Series]