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Just for Fun: Young Person's Guide to the Chorus

(source unknown)

In any chorus, there are four voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and
bass. Sometimes these are divided into first and second within each part,
prompting endless jokes about first and second basses. There are also
various other parts such as baritone, countertenor, contralto, mezzo
soprano, etc., but these are mostly used by people who are either
soloists, or belong to some excessively hotshot classical a cappella group
(this applies especially to countertenors), or are trying to make excuses
for not really fitting into any of the regular voice parts, so we will
ignore them for now.

Each voice part sings in a different range, and each one has a very
different personality. You may ask, "Why should singing different notes
make people act differently?", and indeed this is a mysterious question
and has not been adequately studied, especially since scientists who study
musicians tend to be musicians themselves and have all the peculiar
complexes that go with being tenors, french horn players, timpanists, or
whatever. However, this is beside the point; the fact remains that the
four voice parts can be easily distinguished, and I will now explain how.

THE SOPRANOS are the ones who sing the highest, and because of this they
think they rule the world. They have longer hair, fancier jewelry, and
swishier skirts than anyone else, and they consider themselves insulted if
they are not allowed to go at least to a high F in every movement of any
given piece. When they reach the high notes, they hold them for at least
half again as long as the composer and/or conductor requires, and then
complain that their throats are killing them and that the composer and
conductor are sadists. Sopranos have varied attitudes toward the other
sections of the chorus, though they consider all of them inferior.

Altos are to sopranos rather like second violins to first violins - nice
to harmonize with, but not really necessary. All sopranos have a secret
feeling that the altos could drop out and the piece would sound
essentially the same, and they don't understand why anybody would sing in
that range in the first place - it's so boring. Tenors, on the other
hand, can be very nice to have around; besides their flirtation
possibilities (it is a well-known fact that sopranos never flirt with
basses), sopranos like to sing duets with tenors because all the tenors
are doing is working very hard to sing in a low-to-medium soprano range,
while the sopranos are up there in the stratosphere showing off. To
sopranos, basses are the scum of the earth - they sing too damn loud, are
useless to tune to because they're down in that low, low range - and there
has to be something wrong with anyone who sings in the F clef, anyway
(although while they swoon while the Tenors sing, they still end up going
home with the basses).

THE ALTOS are the salt of the earth - in their opinion, at least. Altos
are unassuming people, who would wear jeans to concerts if they were
allowed to. Altos are in a unique position in the chorus in that they are
unable to complain about having to sing either very high or very low, and
they know that all the other sections think their parts are pitifully
easy. But the altos know otherwise. They know that while the sopranos
are screeching away on a high A, they are being forced to sing elaborate
passages full of sharps and flats and tricks of rhythm, and nobody is
noticing because the sopranos are singing too loud (and the basses usually
are, too). Altos get a deep, secret pleasure out of conspiring together
to tune the sopranos flat. Altos have an innate distrust of tenors,
because the tenors sing in almost the same range and think they sound
better. They like the basses, and enjoy singing duets with them - the
basses just sound like a rumble anyway, and it's the only time the altos
can really be heard. Altos' other complaint is that there are always too
many of them and so they never get to sing really loud.

THE TENORS are spoiled. That's all there is to it. For one thing, there
are never enough of them, and choir directors would rather sell their
souls than let a halfway decent tenor quit, while they're always ready to
unload a few altos at half price. And then, for some reason, the few
tenors there are are always really good - it's one of those annoying facts
of life. So it's no wonder that tenors always get swollen heads - after
all, who else can make sopranos swoon? The one thing that can make tenors
insecure is the accusation (usually by the basses) that anyone singing
that high couldn't possibly be a real man. In their usual perverse
fashion, the tenors never acknowledge this, but just complain louder about
the composer being a sadist and making them sing so damn high. Tenors have
a love-hate relationship with the conductor, too, because the conductor is
always telling them to sing louder because there are so few of them. No
conductor in recorded history has ever asked for less tenor in a forte

Tenors feel threatened in some way by all the other sections - the
sopranos because they can hit those incredibly high notes; the altos
because they have no trouble singing the notes the tenors kill themselves
for; and the basses because, although they can't sing anything above an E,
they sing it loud enough to drown the tenors out. Of course, the tenors
would rather die than admit any of this. It is a little-known fact that
tenors move their eyebrows more than anyone else while singing.

THE BASSES sing the lowest of anybody. This basically explains
everything. They are stolid, dependable people, and have more facial hair
than anybody else. The basses feel perpetually unappreciated, but they
have a deep conviction that they are actually the most important part (a
view endorsed by musicologists, but certainly not by sopranos or tenors),
despite the fact that they have the most boring part of anybody and often
sing the same note (or in endless fifths) for an entire page. They
compensate for this by singing as loudly as they can get away with - most
basses are tuba players at heart. Basses are the only section that can
regularly complain about how low their part is, and they make horrible
faces when trying to hit very low notes. Basses are charitable people,
but their charity does not extend so far as tenors, whom they consider
effete poseurs. Basses hate tuning the tenors more than almost anything
else. Basses like altos - - except when they have duets and the altos get
the good part. As for the sopranos, they are simply in an alternate
universe which the basses don't understand at all. They can't imagine why
anybody would ever want to sing that high and sound that bad when they
make mistakes. When a bass makes a mistake, the other three parts will
cover him, and he can continue on his merry way, knowing that sometime,
somehow, he will end up at the root of the chord.