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

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.

Alto

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.

Tenor

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.

Bass

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.

Read the full essay with lovely, informative graphs and the full table of pitch data.

12 Comments

  1. Greg Johnson

    Wow Mark, you are the master of useless trivia! 🙂

    Actually fascinating. I wish the hymns would more fully allow me to develop the range below the low G and a lot less on the D above middle c – which if I want to sing I’ll crank Journey and sing most in falsetto! 🙂

    • For a composer this stuff is not trivial at all, but quite essential. One of the most common student errors is problems with range. And isn’t it fun to know what the lowest bass note in the book is?

      • Erik

        That’s why I came here, wondering about the lowest bass note in the book. I’m off to sing Thy Holy Word! Great work and very interesting.

  2. Mark, well done! What a great study. I too consult the hymnal for all the same reasons you list. I got a bit thrown off when I realized the copies I had at home were all older than the 2002 re-edit, where it seems the entire thing had been typset on a computer (the quickest way to tell is that the new edit doesn’t have that thick black line to the left of the staff which I can’t get in Finale either. Another difference is the hyphenation of the word ‘every’ on I Need Thee Every Hour). Your study does make me curious about wider hymn practice in the modern hymnals of other denominations, as well as historical practice. Since our 1985 hymnal actually was edited with the intent of putting the hymns in more accessible ranges (see pages 181-182 in Hymns) it would be interesting to get a sense of whether our hymnal is a conservative anomaly in terms of range or more representative of a trend in contemporary hymnody. In any case, for new LDS hymns, generally following the range practice congregations would be familiar with seems like a good starting place!

    • Thank you Michael. Very glad you enjoyed it. I hadn’t realized there were two editions of the Hymn book – that’s very interesting. I’ve perused many hymn books from other denominations and am impressed with the quality of ours. I hope you read the full article: I especially love the composite graph on page 2, which should be memorized by every composer, students particularly.

      By the way, there is a way in Finale to do the thick initial barline at the beginning of each staff: select all, then in the staff menu choose “Add Group and Bracket”, select the heavy line and change the distance from left edge to 0. Done!

      • Thanks Mark,
        Yeah, the solution you suggest does put the thick line there…maybe it is nitpicky of me it seems that this line is much too thick, compared to the hymnal (or other modern hymnals, where this thick line seems standard in place of brackets). When I try to change the line thickness in Document Options, it also changes the thickness of the thick line in the double barline.

  3. Jacqui

    Every time I sing an alto line that is so monotone it starts to hurt my vocal chords I think of your analysis. Although I’ve discovered there are many hymns that statistically wouldn’t make the “almost no range” category because they’ll throw in a sneaky G at the end or something, but are 99% the same one or two notes.

    So are you saying that it is a feature of the middle voices to often be saddled with the droning notes? Is that what “inner voice” is talking about? And if I’ve got it right, why musically is it ideal for the middle voices to play that role as opposed to the outer voices? Some of my faves do the opposite–I like the sound of “The Lord is My Shepherd”

    • My dad called this a “one note Sally” part. Tenors and altos get it equally.

      The melody has to have shape and a trajectory to be effective, so it’s rare for the soprano to have a whole line on one note (although not impossible, as you note). The bass has a special function, defining harmonies, so it usually moves, although bass pedals are possible, as in the opening of “As Now We Take the Sacrament”. But much more common is for an inner voice (meaning alto or tenor) to stay on a common tone while the chords change. It’s a very pleasing effect and composers in this 18th-19th century style do that very often. In orchestra music you’ll often hear the horns holding long notes through chord changes, performing this exact role.

      Of course, singers find it boring – Karen often comes to steal my tenor line during those passages, earning a scowl from me. I don’t mind singing them though – I like how the flavour of the note changes as it changes functions within the chords – root/fifth/3rd…

  4. B

    Does anyone have a list of hymns that have a range of 1 octave or less? Our Clavinova can transpose up or down. We are looking for “regular” hymns or those suitable for communion.

    • Hi Betsy. If you click the link to the original article (at the bottom of this blog post), you can find the master table I created. I’ll send you that table sorted by “Soprano Range”. The value in that column is “semitones” so all the hymns 12 and under have a melody an octave or less – an octave is the average range for the LDS hymnbook so there are a lot to choose from!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *