Something more technical today: this is a post about how to write a hymn that real people can sing – at least one important aspect of writing, anyway, which is RANGE. I’m not sure what concept most people have in their minds about what a composer does. A hymn doesn’t exactly come wafting down from the heavens onto the page (although there is often a moment of inspiration that starts things off). It’s fine to have a melody in mind, but if you want people to actually sing it, it must conform to some ‘rules’. In music, rules aren’t arbitrary, decreed by some committee somewhere, but are deduced by analysing many examples of successful music to see if there are things they share in common.
When I was working on the Orson Scott Card hymns, I used the LDS hymn book as my style guide for the scores. There are lots of little details you never think about until you have to create a score yourself. I learned, for example, that unlike choral scores, hymns don’t use extension lines for words that are sung on two or more notes (the single exception being in Praise to the Man: “fight him in vain____”); multiple-note syllables are slurred, however (unless they involve just two eighth notes that are beamed together); and if two notes on the same staff are a second apart (meaning between two adjacent letter names, like E-F) they always use separate stems, up and down, not a single stem like in piano music.
But I also was curious about the vocal ranges. One of the challenges of the composer is to combine the artistic sense of melodic and harmonic beauty with some very practical restrictions. If your beautiful melody goes up to a high G, most people will either drop out or make a horrible off-tune screeching sound. If it goes down to middle C or lower, you’d better not want it to be powerful or loud. If your tenors are singing above the staff the whole time, even though it’s not in an extreme range they will soon tire and be in some discomfort (this is obviously not a deal breaker, though: witness 64 On This Day of Joy and Gladness which doesn’t make tenors glad or joyful…)
So this is another layer of complexity the composer has to deal with: a tune must be pleasing, the harmony engaging and each part must stay within a restricted range. With hymns, the range is even tighter than most choral music, since it’s meant to be sung by people who aren’t trained singers. But I asked myself: what are the normal ranges for the four parts in our hymns? What’s the highest note the tenors sing? the lowest note the basses sing? the widest range of a single melody? I had guesses, but I wanted to know.
So I decided to do a detailed analysis of vocal range in the hymn book. I would go through every hymn and document the highest and lowest note in each part. Now, you could do this with musical note names, but that would be unwieldly in the end. Numbers are much more malleable as data for making graphs and such. Anyone familiar with MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface, the standard computer format for music software) knows that every note has a number. Middle C is number 60, a semitone higher is 61, the C in the middle of the treble staff is 72 and C in the bass staff is 48, etc. Here’s my analysis for the first hymn in the book, The Morning Breaks:
Sop Lo – 64 / Sop Hi – 77 / Sop Range 13
Alto Lo – 60 / Alto Hi – 69 / Alto Range 9
Ten Lo – 48 / Ten Hi – 64 / Ten Range 16
Bass Lo – 43 / Bass Hi – 55 / Bass Range 12
Time – 3/4 Key – C
Over a period of several months, I multitasked during Sacrament meeting and analysed all of the congregational hymns (excluding the men’s and women’s sections, since they are special cases), a total of 311 hymns. Here is a summary of my findings.
Soprano is special because it is not only a women’s vocal type, but is the melody which, in a hymn, should be comfortable for everyone to sing: man or woman, high or low voiced. The lowest soprano note is 56, or a low A-flat, which appears in two hymns, 118 Ye Simple Souls Who Stray and 340 Oh say, can you see? The highest note is 78, or high F-sharp in 120 Lean on My Ample Arm. Over half the hymns keep the melody between D(62) and D(76), with over a third of the hymns keeping to an octave range. The two hymns with the widest range happen to be the same two with the lowest notes, although Ye Simple Souls Who Stray is easily the widest range at 21, 3 semitones short of two octaves! The American National anthem is widely known as a difficult tune to sing because of it’s wide range – 18 or an octave plus a fifth: not recommended for a song you want to be sung by regular folk. The hymn with the smallest range is 159 Now the Day is Over with a range of just a 4th, a beautiful hymn with a miraculously narrow range – just try writing a good melody that spans only 5 semitones! Interestingly, the composer makes up for this with a very active bass line that spans a minor 10th or 15 semitones – not the widest bass range, but wider than average.
The lowest alto note is 55, or a low G, which appears in six hymns (80, 130, 139, 227, 240 and 303). The highest note is 76, or E in 225 Carry On, although it’s important to note that the top 6 alto high notes hit that note in a unison melodic passage with the sopranos (this also accounts for the lowest soprano notes, also in unison passages). The highest independent alto note is a high D(72) in 64 On This Day of Joy and Gladness. The normal alto range in the hymns is quite narrow – the narrowest of the four parts. The most common low note is B(59) and the most common high note is G(67) for a range of a minor 6th (8 semitones). Not surprisingly, the widest range for altos is in Carry On but the high end for independent lines is just over an octave – not really a very taxing request. Naturally, the altos hold the record for the smallest range: 163 Lord, Dismiss Us with Thy Blessing with a range of one semitone! Altos and tenors dislike those one note passages (the technical term is inner pedal), but they play an important part in anchoring things while the harmonies dance around them.
Similar to the other inner voice, the altos, the tenor has a smaller average range, from E in the middle of the bass clef to a high D, or a minor 7th (10 semitones). The smallest range is just 3 semitones in 235 Should You Feel Inclined to Censure and 274 The Iron Rod; the largest range (due again to a melodic doubling) is 340 Oh Say, Can You See? with a range of 19 (same as the soprano) but the largest range of an independent part is 37 The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close at 17, or an octave-plus-a-fourth. The lowest tenor note is the A-flat in Oh Say Can You See? (a melodic doubling; the lowest note in an independent part is just a C). The highest note, a high G, is in our friend The Wintry Day (does anyone actually sing this hymn?), but The First Noel is not far behind with a high F-sharp and is the winner for Hymns That Are Actually Sung.
While the low end is the primary feature here, basses are also called upon to sing the widest range of all the parts. By far the most common low note (in almost half the hymns) is a low G, while the average high note is A below middle C and it’s quite common for basses to sing up to middle C and above. The widest range is in 91 Father, Thy Children to Thee Now Raise with a range of 20 or an octave-plus-a- minor-6th, but there are six hymns at 19, all of them quite common ones: All Glory, Laud, and Honor, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains, Go Forth with Faith, All Creatures of Our God and King and I Believe in Christ. The highest bass note is a high D; it appears in six hymns, the two with independent parts being The First Noel and I Believe In Christ (which has one of the few choral unisons in the book, where all four parts sing the same pitch, the men singing high and the women singing low; this is only possible in a narrow range around middle C where all the vocal ranges overlap). Finally, the lowest of the low is in 279 Thy Holy Word which has a low E-flat, the only one in the book.
And what is the most ordinary hymn in the book? 4/4 is called common time for a reason – 56% of hymns are in that metre. And the most common key is G at 23%. One hymn has nearly all the criteria: the exact average soprano, tenor and bass hi/lo notes, a slightly higher-than- average alto part, in G and in 4/4): 135 My Redeemer Lives. It’s not the most popular of tunes, which maybe tells us it’s not good to conform to all the rules all the time. Ironically for me, another that meets most of the average criteria is 224 – I Have Work Enough To Do… Time to get back to it.