• Why is it you think that most tunes in hymn books are based on C-C? Even with Gregorian chant this is so. I went to a sing-along and they went down even to A (so I couldn’t sing but I was told that most men and women like lower keys).
    Why is it you think that hymn book base the range on C-C? It does sound high when women sing (but not when men sing). I guess it become lower if the Priest does the chant, eg Sanctus, without a church musician present.
    What are your thoughts on this?
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,646
    The most common untrained "voice" for men from Western/Central European ancestry appears to be baritone (mezzo for women). It's something that may resemble what we might now call a normal distribution, I recall reading in reference sources going back a century, kind of like 20% bass, 60% baritone, 20% tenor. My anecdotal experience is that there's greater than normal presence of tenors among male church keyboardists (true in contempo music, too), with the more classically trained of which sometimes prone to treat baritones as lazy tenors, which can lead to unfortunate results.

    I wonder if the tradition of SATB harmonization in Western music tends to create a cognitive bias that leads to musicians assuming that baritones and mezzos are the exception, rather than the rule, when the opposite is the case. A baritone singing T2 or B1 often remains a baritone.
  • Liam,

    While you may be quite correct about the distribution, I think you miss Henrik's question: why is c-c considered normal range for a melody ? Jeff Ostrowski provides transpositions into several keys (if I recall correctly), but this probably has less to do with singers than with accompanists. (Jeff should chime in here if I'm all wet.)
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,646
    To be more direct: C-C tends to be in the center of the range of baritones and mezzos. It's not the only choice, but it is simple.
  • Most untrained singers should be able to sing an octave range C-C comfortably. True Basses and altos will be comfortable singing several pitches lower, but that may be too low for the true tenors and sopranos. And visa-versa.

    A distinction should be made between the range of a piece (lowest to highest extreme) and the tessitura which is the range in which most of the pitches lie, but there may a couple outlines that extend beyond the average range.

    For a mixed congregation C-C is a good tessitura and B-flat to D is a good range most of the time. Children's voices are slightly higher.

    There are other factors to consider too. Leaping to a higher note is more difficult than approaching it step-wise. When singing without accompaniment, people will generally tend to sing lower, and even tend to go flatter over the course of a hymn. Early mornings the voice will be more comfortable in a lower range compared to later in the day when it is warmed up.

    Singing either habitually too low or too high is unhealthy.
  • Hymn pitch has tended to fall over time. Maybe it's because we do chant, but I think of "the golden octave" as being D-D. I make my Schola sing down to A and up to F, but the extremes are still problematic (they game me a beautiful E yesterday though). I don't really worry about the PiPs; if they can sing at all, they can sing at our pitch.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,763
    Why is it you think that most tunes in hymn books are based on C-C?
    I place the blame on organists who can't play in D-flat. I think it's truer that c'-d'' are the common hymnal limits, though a profondo like myself finds middle c high enough for an 8:00 Mass.

    For female voices c'' is near the upper limit for belting, a technique producing a kind of brilliance by turning the vocal tract inside out into a trumpet-like flare with the back constricted. My wife's pastor is a would-be singer who requires everything transposed to not go above b'.

    My rules of thumb are not below c' for sopranos and not above d'' for altos. But with "I am the Bread of Life" and The Star-Spangled Banner (as with much Byrd & Dufay) there's just no winning.
  • Richard,

    The rules of thumb should, I think, rule out IATBOL and The Star-Spangled Banner for communal use, as sing-alongs. Hymnals aren't designed with trained specialists in mind, but with not-highly-trained capable singers.
  • I checked with the Swedish Catholic hymn book. The Silent night is in the key of Bb.
    I actually asked a fellow musician (who is a bass player). He didnt really like singing able middle C. I my self feel that E above middle C is ok. It seems that my if we are to get People to sing the Silent night it would be even lower than in the hymnals. It seems that we who are more in the tenor quality of our voices really like the range in hymnals.
    One would assume that if most men can sing low and dont like higher notes that a Gregorian schola would sing low notes. Monks, which is a great example, are not really famous for singing low notes.
    What key do you use for Silent night?
  • I always do Silent night in B-flat...apart from the penultimate phrase, the rest of it actually sits fairly low. I have no trouble asking my congregation to sing isolated Ds and E-flats, provided it's not super early in the morning, and provided it's not the first hymn. Unlike the choir which warms up beforehand, the people in the pews don't really hit their stride until partway through the Mass, IME.
  • Silent Night was originally written in D! Either pitch has gotten lower or we have forgotten how to sing, or perhaps a little of both.
  • Forgotten to sing? I found that this is because People dont use singing as a language anymore.
    The same thing is true for dancing as well. I am the young man at the Dance course I attend. And i am 29 which isnt that young!
    What went wrong?
    Thanked by 1Earl_Grey
  • Carol
    Posts: 434
    Proper singing and proper dancing both require effort and discipline. I think that is what has gone wrong.
    Thanked by 1Earl_Grey
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,763
    I myself feel that E above middle C is ok.
    Do you stand near a bass?
  • Liam
    Posts: 3,646
    Amurkans today listen to music. They sing much much less than their ancestors.
    Thanked by 2Carol Earl_Grey
  • Gamba
    Posts: 127
    As a childhood Evangelical, in one of the few congregations that retained low- church Protestant hymnody rather than getting on the P&W wagon, I never cease to be amazed how low so many hymns have been dropped in RC books.

    For example, I recall singing Crown Him with Many Crowns in E and E-flat, depending on which of our two hymnals were in use. Now I see it in C all over the place. This is only fifteen years ago.

    Many, but not all, sang the hymns in four parts, so this probably made for more comfortable singing, but there were also quite a few ordinary people who happily shouted out top Es and Fs on a regular basis when singing the melody.

    I think it’s really an issue of the culture of the church community. My father, a cradle Catholic with no musical training, whose first evangelical experience was with contemporary music, jumped in headfirst into hymnsinging when we joined that congregation, and somehow discerned how to sing the bass part to several hundred hymns by the end of our first year. Everyone around him, his brothers and sisters, sang, so he learned by joining them. But then again, we sang hymns at home every night, at gatherings with church friends, at family reunions, etc. and thus had plenty occasion to practice.

    And yet without paid musicians of any sort, without a choir or cantor or any sort of leadership save volunteer pianists and “organists”, I grew up in a community that loved to sing, from the children to the nonagenarians.

    But the whole thing was inextricably bound up with the narrative of personal conversion and being “saved” from the absolutely evil world, as in the 40th Psalm:

    “He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.
    And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord.”

    And also Isaiah: “Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.”

    As in postreformation Germany, as in Red Russia, as in the Civil Rights movement, as in the Church in the developing world: it seems to me that the strongest singing comes from zealous hearts, completely at peace with their beliefs, and full of joy that they have seen the light, whatever that may be.

    And thus it is when we sing one of the old preconciliar vernacular songs in my parish at Benediction or at some chaplet: those who remember them and the solid ground their faith once had sing them with tremendous joy and make a mighty sound. When the Boomer congregation at the Saturday mass of convenience are asked to sing some perfectly fine Protestant hymn, there’s radio silence, commensurate with the weakness of the said responses and the large number who bolt after communion.

    It seems that (leaving aside issues of bad repertory or poor leadership or an intruding cantor) those who own their faith, who recognize they have something personal for which to praise God, are naturally delighted to sing, no matter the notated pitch; and those who are uncertain or uncatechized are unlikely to want to make a sound.

    Dropping the pitch of hymns without a connection to an individual’s life probably won’t coerce them to participate.
  • .
    Thanked by 1mmeladirectress
  • Do you stand near a bass?

    What is that supposed to mean? I dont get it!
  • [What I understood]


    Basses don't consider the e-flat above middle C to be an acceptable part of their range.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,763
    Just a joke; it's the neighbors of basses that might have the problem. For a trained and warmed-up bass even F# can be made acceptable. I'm reminded of a transposer mishap in my youth in which I hit what turned out to be an A-b near the end of Minuit Chrétiens and noticed the rest of the choir drop à genoux, clutching their ears.
  • jefe
    Posts: 168
    I too have heard the 'composite standard range' of untrained church singers drop a step or two over time. I'm thinking it's just laziness and a lack of stretching the range up in any structured way, as do the Brits. Luckily, I have the ability to take the singers i have (all with some training and ability to read) and write specifically for them. Our men's Compline groups have some naturally high (and young) counter tenors of which I take full advantage. (wait a minute! That doesn't sound right.) Also, I encourage some of our baritones to experiment (mostly in the privacy of their own boudoir) with falsetto on very high chants. Some of those barliatones have enough control now and are singing 1st alto in our men's groups and sounding better than they did singing baritone. Beats me. We have several basses that have at least a low C and do not complain about singing up to F. Having that Basso range covered adds measurably to some very low settings of chant for our Lenten Compline series. AFA the women's Compline group, I have 3 perfectly matched, vibrato free, lightweight sopranos that are as the name of the group (Voces Angelorum) implies, are simply heavenly and I don't let any bigger voices anywhere near their camp. They literally set the tone for the whole group. They are as close to boy sopranos as I can find AND can sing soft in the high register. On the other end, and I don't know why, but we have a row of women who can sing the tenor part on SSAT works with a lot of tone, down to low C, B, and one gal, low A. One woman alto/tenor, even after taking a lot of private lessons, had a vocal block about singing higher than C. To her, anything above that was a misprint. Some purists may not like the femme tenor tone as being too chesty, but if it fades a bit below low D, I chalk it up to that 'mystical' transparent sound we go for at Compline: almost like sonic negligee. Having basses sing along with tenors on high chant; and altos, when possible, get up there with the mezzos on chant pushes them by design. If they can't, at least they are savvy enough to look like they are singing and not be in the way.