Friday, May 2, 2014

Whatever happened to four-part singing?

This is a re-post from 2010 from my old blog that disappeared when the web host suddenly went away.  So glad I found it through the WayBack Machine!


I get on this soap box a lot. Why do most of our gospel choirs only have three vocal parts — sopranos, altos, and tenors? My father tells me that back when he was young there were always four parts in the choir at church — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

Somewhere along the way, we replaced the bass singers with a bass guitar and started expecting all of the men to sing tenor. Webster’s Dictionary defines tenor as “the highest natural adult male singing voice”.  How can we ask every guy in the choir to sing in the highest possible range?

A lot of us have had the same experience in our own choirs as they describe in Wikipedia:
One nearly ubiquitous facet of choral singing is the shortage of tenor voices.  Most men tend to have baritone voices and for this reason the majority of men tend to prefer singing in the bass section of a choir.
Only in a lot of our choirs there is no bass section.  So after a while, men get tired of being told, “That’s not the right note.  It’s higher.  Go higher.”  And they stop singing in the choir.

At my own church, I’m trying to recruit some of these guys back into the choir.  It’s not easy though.  The contemporary gospel songs we sing are usually written in three parts, so if I want to add a bass part I have to create it myself.  If I take the time to do that and then no basses come to the rehearsal, it can feel like a waste.  And if a bass singer shows up on a night when I didn’t prepare a bass part, then I have to make up a part on the fly, which is no fun at all.

But I’m going to keep trying.  Our next church concert is going to be at Pentecost, and I’m going to prepare bass parts for all the concert songs and see if I can get at least two basses to sing with us.  We’ll see if it works.

Right now at, I have a client who has requested a song that’s in four parts.  I just finished it for them.  I hope their choir has a good time performing it.

And I found this on YouTube — the original version of a gospel choir standard, “No Greater Love” by the Gospel Music Workshop of America.  I had forgotten that it includes a bass part.  You can hear them singing by themselves at the 4:50 mark.  Don’t they sound nice?

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