On Arranging for Female Voices

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There have been a number of productive conversations recently in the Barbershop Arrangers’ Facebook group about arranging for women’s voices, and why you can’t just transpose an arrangement for men up a 4th or a 5th and expect it to sound good. We can thank Amanda Nance for starting us off, and a good number of my fellow female arrangers have piled in sharing best practice.

Examples of things to consider have included: voicing the chords more tightly than you would for men, keeping the bari line below the lead more than above it, and care of tessitura, in particular not keeping tenors in the upper part of the range all the time, and ditto for the lower 3rd of the basses’ range. Just summarising these here so that when the detail of the discussions have been buried under the weight of subsequent threads, I’ve got a record of the key things shared at the time.

It’s taken me a little while (and a few sessions of brain-churning in the wee small hours) to pull some thoughts I’ve been having in response to the discussions out of intuition into conversant awareness. But I think I’m now ready to mull on the question of voicings, and, in a later post, on other aspects of vocal behaviour. I’m not sure I have anything much to add to my colleagues’ collected wisdom on how to voice chords effectively for women’s voices, but I have been having potentially useful thoughts about why these are the right answers.

Now, the received wisdom, back when I was first trained as a Music Category judge in the late 1990s, was that women’s barbershop used closer voicings because women had a smaller range. I have always challenged that assertion, since it is manifestly untrue. If you add what sopranos are routinely asked to sing in choral literature to what female barbershop groups regard as normal ranges, you a span the best part of 3 octaves, pretty much the same as you’ll find for men in the same repertoire. It’s just that women’s voices have an entire register at the top that barbershop doesn’t use.

Still, it remains true that women use a smaller subset of their range for barbershop than men do, and it’s worth considering why that is. My instinct is that there’s just too much power in the register above the treble stave: barbershop’s pyramid balance likes to tuck the top note unobtrusively into the top of the chord, whereas ‘unobtrusive’ is rarely a word one uses to describe a top B flat. Higher sounds are perceived to be louder (which is why you only need one piccolo in an orchestra), and so taking the female tenor too high puts increasing strain on balance.

Indeed, that is one of the primary arguments given against using voicings at a 10th or a 12th as the default in women’s barbershop as you would in men’s. (The other argument is that of tessitura – just because the range is there, doesn’t make it comfortable to stay up there all the time. Which of course is something that male writers for female voices in other genres need to hear too.)

And it was in thinking about the question of voicings that I realised how unhelpful it can be to think about this in male-as-norm terms. Those of us who spend as much or more of our time writing for upper voices as for lower experience it the other way round, and tend to think in terms of what is normal for us but which you can’t do for men.

And the key thing here is: tight voicings. As in, voicings where all the notes are as close to each other as you can get, without any gaps in the chords. As I’ve noted before, the Sweet Adelines Arranging Manual recommends alternating closed voices with more open ones at the level of primary harmony, and this produces some very interesting musical possibilities.

But you have to be much more sparing with genuinely close voicings in men’s barbershop, reserving them only really for the upper end of their range. I mean, you wouldn’t build a tight voicing on a D3 for women either, that would be terribly muddy, but when you’ve got up to about 5th above the bottom of the women’s bass range, so equivalent to where D3 lies for a male bass, you’d not think twice about voicing tightly. But for men, it’s getting on for an octave above the bottom of the bass range before it starts to be viable.

The recommendation that a 10th is the voicing that gives optimum ring, therefore, isn’t just a neutral statement, it’s a recognition that genuinely close harmony doesn’t work below a certain absolute pitch. As such, the recommendation is only valid as a generalisation for those ensembles working in lower registers.

This is a thought I was playing around with during my 8-parter project in 2020 – noting that the principle that you want the larger intervals in a chord lower down obtains right through the texture when you are writing for mixed voices. I noted the comparison with the piano – how you more often get the spread chords and open octaves for the left hand, with the RH grabbing fistfuls of close-voiced chords on top.

What I didn’t bring out in that context is that, just as arrangements for higher voices don’t sound so good if they are spaced too wide, arrangements for lower voices don’t sound so good if they use tight voicings. Whilst the relationships within each ensemble are structurally the same in principle, the absolute pitch level impacts on the kinds of voicings you can use and have it sound good.

<3 <3 Thank you!!
(as a feminist as well as a female tenor).
I don't want to be 'sat up there' all the time as that seems to be what is tiring. Men's falsetto can naturally be lighter in a way that our top notes tend not to be. But it's another way in which it's demeaning to be 'not the norm' all the time and get constructed as worse. We can do great stuff and sound just right!
There are no male Beverley Sisters for a reason! xx

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