Monday, October 10, 2022

When men and women sing the same harmony part

Often, when I’m teaching a song, a man might ask to sing the tune, or a woman might ask to sing the bass.

I usually say no, as I don’t like mixing men’s and women’s voices in the same part. Why is that?

I’ve written a few times about men and women singing together in the same octave:

By which I mean that they are singing the same note at the exact same pitch.

The problem is that often singers aren’t able to perceive this. The women think the men are singing too high, and the men think the women are singing too low.

Which brings us back to men and women asking to sing particular parts.

A woman might ask to sing the bass part because she prefers to sing low. Although there are some women who can sing in the bass range (but they are quite rare), most women will be singing an octave higher. They really belong in the tenor section.

Those men who want to sing the tune (usually the top or alto part), know that the bass section is usually too low for them, and the tenor part may be too high. There are some men who can sing in the alto range, they are quite rare. They really need a baritone section (which doesn’t always exist). But if they sing the tune, they will be singing an octave below the women in that part.

Does it matter if we mix octaves?

If there are an equal number of men and women in a part, then it adds a certain richness to the overall harmonies and I don’t have a problem.

However, if there is only one man singing the alto part an octave lower, or one woman singing the bass part an octave higher, it will sound odd. More than that, it can be perceived as if the odd on out is singing out of tune, even if they are spot on!

And even if they are singing in the same octave, the difference in quality between men’s and women’s voices means that they still might stand out (see Why do I sound much lower (or higher) than the person next to me when singing the same part?).

Explaining octaves to inexperienced singers can be difficult. Which is why singers in my workshops often get upset if I don’t let a woman sing bass or a man sing soprano. But over time, most singers (especially those in the tenor section) will learn to hear the differences between men and women singing in the same octave and when they’re not.

I’d love to hear if you’ve had any experiences with this. Do leave a comment.

Chris Rowbury


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