Contemporary worship music in a cappella churches (4)

Part 4:  Tessitura

I have for years been an advocate of high-quality contemporary songs.  With that said, I’ll also confess something of a “mutt” identity: I am a cross between a very late Boomer, a GenXer, and a Postmodernism sympathizer.  You’d think I would be open to most musical styles (I suppose this is true) and would be able to affirm the worth of contemporary and popular singers alongside the seasoned art-singers of the past (not so much). I think there are very few modern-era singers who have anything to offer us aesthetically.

I think the Beatles’ music is grossly overrated, and, though it is certainly not weak, I dislike Barbara Streisand’s voice.  (Now I’ve probably lost half my audience!)  And among modern worship leaders in large, famous, instrumental churches, there are equally few truly good voices.  While Linda Ronstadt in her day and Mariah Carey in hers merited praise, very few are trained to sing without amplification these days, so today’s voices are typically weak and undeveloped, compared to voices of past eras.

Don’t think I am about to build myself up.  My voice itself is mediocre; I certainly can not compete with the singers referred to above, and probably not with most of you who are reading this, either!

My suggestion here is that we be aware of tessitura when transcribing contemporary songs into a cappella settings.  Tessitura simply refers to the pitch range of a melody (or other part), and how long it stays in the same range.  High tessitura for church songs, for example, might have the sopranos staying in the D-to-F range through eight straight measures of music.  It’s not that the sopranos can’t hit the notes, but it is both a musical and a vocal strain to stay in that high range.  Sometimes pop voices have to sing very low, or sometimes they scream too high, but that does not mean we have to do the same if we use their music in our churches.  Often, male pop singers sing in high tenor ranges for a while, and we don’t even notice it, because it’s natural for them.  If their songs are imported into a cappella settings and the key is not lowered, we get that soprano tessitura problem.  Female pop singers are most often altos (or might even be tenors, if they have a history of abusing their vocal folds). And their melodies can be too low for churches, unless the key is raised.

Aside:  the same principles apply to any multi-part congregational arrangements (not only the a cappella variety).  When it’s the melody only that’s being sung, and when instruments carry all the energy, the tessitura isn’t so much of an issue.

For example, a Twila Paris song—which, incidentally, can be expected, by virtue of its authorship, to express well the genuine worship of God—might originally have been sung with a range of low “A” (low in the alto range) to “A” above middle “C.”  For congregational use, that range will not work if there is to be four-part harmony.  Sopranos will sing the song better if it is raised by a third or a fourth, and the other voice parts will not be stretched too far one way or the other, either.

Just some things to think about for arrangers of a cappella music, and for leaders who are trying to figure out why the congregation sounds either strained (high tessitura) or lifeless (low) on some songs.


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