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Is there a maximum "range" for a tessitura?

Hello,
 
While range refers to the spectrum of notes from the lowest to the highest in a piece, and tessitura refers to which part of that range is most used, I'm wondering what the "range" of a tessitura could be. In other words, is there a maximum interval for tessituras (5ths, 6ths, 7ths, octaves, 9ths...?) For example, a song with a range from C4 to E5 could have a tessitura from G4 to C5, which would cover an interval of a fourth.  On the other hand, is it possible for a piece to have a range of an octave and a half or two octaves and a tessitura of one whole octave? 
 
Looking forward to reading people's opinions.  Thanks in advance.
 
Lorraine
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on March 4, 2011 3:11pm
Lorraine,
 
The best definition I know is, "the average highness or lowness of a piece." In other words, within the range of the particular voice, (SATorB) are there many notes in a particular area of the vocal range? Your question is something like,"How many is a few?' or  How much is "some?"
One can scan a piece of music and say, "my sopranos can handle this" or "not." Or "My bass section has nothing below F." Other than trying to define the word "tessitura," of what use is it?
I remember the great Johnny Carson telling an audience, "It is rainy outside." They would call out, "How rainy is it? 
If your choir can handle it, the tessitura is acceptable.
 
EP
on March 4, 2011 3:46pm
Hi, Lorraine.  The simple answer to your question is, "no."  Range and tessitura are interrelated, but they are two very different things.  And I would suggest that it simply confuses the situation (which is already confusing for many singers!) to try to combine the two terms.
 
The Wikipedia article says it very well, and very understandably.  For a given voice, the tessitura defines the "comfort zone" for that voice (if it is a "good" tessitura), or defines a song as lying outside that "comfort zone" (if it is a "bad' tessitura), and that is a helpful use of the term.
 
But trying to measure the "range" of a "tessitura" strikes me as not providing much useful information at best.  There are songs that use almost the entirety of a singer's range, and in those cases it doesn't make much sense to talk about tessitura.  But if a 1st tenor part lies consistently between, say, D4 and A4 (think "Messiah"!!!) it's a very USEFUL concept indeed.  Some soprano parts in Purcell are the same, since he wrote them for choirboys who could stay in a high tessitura forever, while many female sopranos cannot.
 
Just my immediate thoughts.  I look forward to reading others.
 
John
on March 5, 2011 3:37am
Thanks again John!
 
The reason I ask is that I heard someone say that tessitura could not span an octave.  In other words, I think the person was implying that a tessitura would only cover a 5th or a 6th but could not be wider than that. I'm wondering how that can be true.  I used the word "range" of tessitura as a play on words. :) 
on March 5, 2011 10:08am
Lorraine:  Whoever said that is obviously unfamiliar with the arias Mozart wrote for his Constanza!!
 
On the other hand there's the Cuban singer who was so popular back in the '80s (whose name has temproarily escaped me), all of whose hit songs covered the total range of about a 4th!!!
 
John
on March 6, 2011 4:41am
Excellent, thanks!  I imagined there must be pieces out there where the tessitura covered more than an octave, but didn't know which ones, if there were any.  Thanks so much.
on March 5, 2011 10:35am
Hi, Lorraine -- I find it's always important to keep the following in mind:  there are two ranges and tessituras at play in any repertoire decision -- the range/tessitura of the singer, and the range/tessitura of the piece.  They can be very different.  Our goal when selecting repertoire is to make certain that there is a match between the range & tessitura of the piece and the range & tessitura of the singer.  If not, then the piece should not be chosen.
 
I hope this helps a bit!
 
Take care,
Patrick Freer
Georgia State University
on March 5, 2011 3:55pm
The problem, I think, stems from conceiving of tessitura as referring to specific pitches.  I don't believe it does; it refers to a portion of a range--high, medium, or low.  I think it's deliberately vague, because a given phrase or even whole piece might generally lie in one part of the voice but still go above or below that fairly often.  Owen Jander's example in The New Grove is telling: 
 
The role of Siegfried in Wagner's Ring, for example, ranges from c♯ to c″, but its tessitura would be described as high (and very demanding) because the tenor is required to sing phrases in the range c′ to a′, with great frequency (and often at high volume).
 
Note that the tessitura in this example is described as "high" because of the pitches that frequently occur, but it is not described in terms of the pitches.
 
So to say that a tessitura can't cover an octave (or that it can, for that matter) is confusing, because an octave is very specific, while tessitura is very much relative and somewhat subjective.  In your illustration, the piece in which most of the phrases lie between G4 and C5 would have a medium tessitura for a soprano or mature alto, but it might be medium-high for a younger alto.  In your second example, where the piece has a wide range, the phrases might well lie mostly within a particular octave, with other notes being outliers, but that still doesn't tell us the tessitura.  If most of the phrases are at the upper end, it's high, and so on.
on March 6, 2011 4:30am
Hello David,
 
Thanks for your input!  I like the idea of calling tessituras high, medium or low.  So I have a question for you.  Say a piece can be sung by either a soprano or mezzo-soprano and has a medium tessitura for sopranos and a high tessitura for mezzos.  The question is: would it not be more practical, if one is ready about songs, their range and tessitura, to know the approximate tessitura by pitches so that singers can determine for themselves if they like that tessitura or not?  For example, a song's range is from C4 to G5 and its tessitura seems to lie between D5 and F5.  If it were written this way, singers could determine if the tessitura suits them, be they soprano or mezzo.  Otherwise, if the information about a song says the tessitura is high or low, we don't really know how high or how low. 
 
It's in this sense that I use the term "range" of the tessitura, since I define the tessitura with pitches. :) 
 
What do you think of that?  Is this feasible at all? 
on March 6, 2011 12:32pm
Hi, again, Lorraine.  I think we're all coming around to a general area of agreement, but both David and Patrice made a VERY important point.  To expand on it just a bit, every voice is different (as it is different as it goes through its various stages of development, of course); but every melody is also different; AND every lyric is different, presenting a differen set of vowels, and how those vowels fit into an individual voice on an individual melody is a multi-valued equation that probably cannot be reduced to simple terms at all!!!
 
Choir directors, of necessity, like to classify voices according to voice parts.  Fair enough.  When we select music, we have to know that we have singers who can cover the parts as written.  Voice teachers, on the other hand, go into excruciating detail (some would even say they tend to obsess!) further dividing voices into sub-categories.  What IS the difference between a lyric soprano and a spinto?!!!  Darned if I know!!  But in truth, even that is not enough.  Every human voice is unique, and whether we are composers, arrangers, or conductors, we succeed best when we know the exact voices we're dealing with, and not thinking in generic designations like "soprano or mezzo-soprano"!
 
In many, many years of conducting I've come across ONE--perhaps two at the very most--actual 2nd soprano.  She had a functional high C, so it was not just a matter of a soprano who had not mastered the upper passaggio, which is what defines MOST 2nd sopranos.  And it was a lighter voice than what I think of as a mezzo:  as I said, a true 2nd soprano.
 
And in many years of arranging (and of auditioning singers as well), I've discovered that sometimes neither range nor tessitura gives a valid description of a given voice.  Transposing a song just a halfstep can make a HUGE difference if it changes how particular vowels hit a singer's passaggii, and that has nothing to do with range.  And I've actually had singers who could sing a wider range in a song than they could vocalize!  Vocalizing  they worried about how they sounded.  In a song, they did whatever it took to make the song work!
 
With my commercially-oriented university show ensemble, I started each season by sending out a chart telling each singer which part they should sing if the music split from unison to 2-, 3-, 4-, 6-, or 8-part, and then in rehearsal further modified that to compensate for someone who might have to be off stage for a costume change.  And I had 1st altos (by my voice chart) win spots in theme park summer shows where THEY were the 1st sopranos!!! 
 
I also auditiioned some who had sung alto in high school (because they could read music!) who became 1st sopranos for me, and others (more often, actually) who had sung 1st soprano in high school but became 2nd sopranos or 1st altos for me.  And on occasion (voice teachers, please do not read the rest of his sentence!!) when I had to make a mid-year replacement, I selected the best available PERFORMER regardless of the voice type, although I did promise to move such a person up to the proper part the following year.
 
I also had one singer who came to me with nodes, or rather with a history of nodes (from high school cheerleading, of course!), who had very luckily connected with a good doctor and a good voice therapist and was actively working to recover, and after sitting out for a year she became one of my 1st sopranos.
 
Choir directors do what we have to.  Voice teachers grumble because we do.  Our goals are different.  It's the choir directors who are also voice teachers I feel sorry for, since they have to balance up necessity with ideals every time a decision comes up.  You can't have a choir with 30 sopranos and 2 altos!!!!  On the other hand, Broadway aside, you can't have a choir with 2 sopranos and 30 altos, either!  But the bell curve is a coninuous function, and is not divided into neat little segments to match up with our little voice part boxes that we try to cram singers into.
 
All the best,
John
on March 6, 2011 12:47pm
Hi, Lorraine.
 
I still think we're at cross-purposes, because you say "I define the tessitura with pitches," and I don't think anyone else does.  In other words, it's a non-standard use of the term.  I'm also not sure I understand the benefit of what you propose or how you would decide the "range" of the tessitura.  As I say, it's largely subjective.  It's where the piece lies in a particular singer's voice.  If you're talking about somehow refining range information to specify what part of the range is most frequently used, then I suppose it might be helpful if you can't see the music for yourself.  But I think most singers would simply prefer to look at (or even try) the piece to see how it works in their voice.  As you know, it's not only the specific pitches that determine whether or not a piece is in a comfortable tessitura:  it's how the extremes are approached and how much it stays at the extremes.
 
To say it another way, respectfully, I think this would be a lot of energy spent that could be better spent in other ways.
 
DS
on March 6, 2011 2:53pm
Hi Lorraine,
 
In my 2011 textbook, Becoming a Choral Music Teacher, I make an attempt to notate the ranges and tessitura ranges of middle school and high school voices.  I base my conclusions on Ken Phillips's writings.  You might find it useful.  It does help my university students generalize, although as in everything, each individual is different.
 
Patrice Madura Ward-Steinman
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