I had an email over the weekend from Leah, who had been interested in my arrangement of Michael Bublé’s Everything, in which she pointed out:
It's kind of hard for us to try it without knowing what ranges the song will have in a women's key. Can you give me an idea of that? thanks!
And I thought – I bet she’s not the only person in the world who would look at ranges for an arrangement in the other gender's key and ask that question. So, rather than just sending her a quick email, I thought I’d take a bit longer and write a whole blog post in the hope it will be helpful for other people too.
Now, the general rule of thumb is that close-harmony arrangements for women sit about a 4th or a 5th higher than those for men. David Wright tends to say a tritone (i.e. the interval between a 4th and a 5th ), and suggests that if that transposition doesn’t work, the arrangement won’t transfer between the genders. But, as I discussed a while back, I prefer a perfect interval if possible, to keep the song in a related key.
Now there are two things that are worth noting here. The first is that people from a classical music background will be surprised that it is only half an octave’s difference, rather that the whole octave they would assume from a standing start. But there’s a whole register on the top of the men’s range and the bottom of the women’s range that mixed voice music doesn’t use and single-sex close-harmony does. (I’ve commented on this at more length in Chapter 5 of my first book.)
The other thing is that not all arrangements work for both male and female ensembles. This is independent from the question of the song’s implied gender, and relates to how the voicings work. Women’s arrangements tend to keep the bass tighter into the chord, whereas men’s are more likely to see the bass ranging down away from the rest of the group (what the early barbershoppers called ‘church bass’).
Men like to express this difference as women having ‘smaller ranges’ than men, in a mild version of the ‘there-there-little-lady’ response. Actually, the issue for women is where the lead and tenor lines sit. There’s a good big chunk of range at the top of women’s voices that close-harmony styles hardly use at all, since the bright, straight style of vocal production and tightly-voiced chords get overly intense as you move up into the archetypal soprano range. Women have plenty of range, but keep it for other styles of singing.
So, for practical purposes, the way you look at a set of ranges and decide if it will sit on an ensemble of your own gender – and indeed the specific ensemble you sing in - is this:
- Take the range for the lead line and transpose it up around 4th or 5th so that it sits on a range that is good for your lead.
- Transpose the bass range up by the same interval, and see how it looks for your bass’s voice. Women need to look out for the lower end in particular, and men for the upper end. If it fits fine, you’re sorted. If it’s too stretchy, go back to stage 1 and juggle a bit. Can you move both parts up or down a smidgen to accommodate the bass without getting out of the lead’s best range? If you can, you’re sorted. If not, then you need to open a dialogue with the arranger about if it’s possible to revoice to solve this - it won’t be a straight transposition, but may still work.
- Have a glance at tenor and baritone. These parts tend to be less rangy than lead and bass, so are likely to prove less of an obstacle for transposing. And there’s no point worrying about them until after seeing how the lead/bass duet works. But they may not sit in the ideal tessitura once transposed – men’s tenor parts can sit a little high for women, and vice versa. But arrangers are very used to switching bits of bari and tenor line during transposition to sort out tessitura issues, so this isn’t a show-stopper if it’s been looking hopeful so far.
So, in the example Leah asked about, the ranges are:
Tenor: D4 – C#5
Lead: B2 – F#4
Bari: F#3 – G#5
Bass: G2 – C#4
So, transposing the lead up a 5th gives F#3 – C#5, which works fine for many female leads; others may prefer it up a minor 6th to G3 – D5. This gives a bass range of (up a 5th ) D3 – G#4, which is again okay for many, though others may likewise prefer it a further semitone up if they don’t have a clear bottom D. So, the basic duet works – they’re quite rangy parts, so need flexible voices, but that’s true for the guys too. This is what happens when you take on music sung by singers of Bublé’s calibre of course!
Glancing at the tenor and bari parts, we get A4-G#5 and C#4-D#5, which both look pretty high. So at this point you need to look/listen to the inspection material to see whether it’s up there all the time, or whether it just pops up there briefly. I’ve attached the inspection copy here so you can walk through this example with me. You’ll see I don’t send out the whole arrangement for inspection, but you get a good chunk of start and end, and there’s only one moment where the tenor and bari go up into the top 3rd of the range, and it’s clearly a climactic moment . If you've asked me for the inspection material, you'll also have a midi file so you can hear that the moment isn't repeated.
So, the blood pressure eases again – you wouldn’t want to have female tenor and bari up at G#5/D#5 all the time, but having the odd featured moment is exciting if they have the range, or re-voice-able if they’d prefer not to go up there at all. The answer stays the same as it was for the lead/bass duet: the arrangement will work in the women’s key, but it is reasonably demanding on range. And as I remarked when I first put ranges into my catalogue, range is a pretty good proxy for level of difficulty.
I’ve written this in answer to a question about my own arrangements, but I think it is pretty safe to generalise the process to other people’s arrangements too. It’s the kind of process I go through when people ask me about suitability of arrangements for barbershop contest – they’re usually worried about style criteria, but I’ll keep an eye on the suitability of the chart to the performing group too when giving advice.
|everything D major inspection copy.pdf||41.04 KB|