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How To Choose the Right Song for Your Voice

ImageI once had a female student who insisted on only singing songs sung by men because she felt that songs sung by women were not within her range. She did not have a particularly low voice and after spending a few minutes working on vocal exercises with her, it was clear she had access to her head voice. In other words, aside from a lack of voice training, there were no real reasons, at least from a physical standpoint, why she could not sing songs written in the female key. In fact, restricting herself to singing songs only in the male key could put unnecessary strain on the voice in the long run and lead to potentially severe vocal damage.

Goodbye Sound of Music…VictorVictoria
When legendary singer and performer Julie Andrews took the lead role in the Broadway Musical “Victor/Victoria” in 1995, she played a female singer who disguises herself as a man named Victor who performs as a female impersonator (try to wrap your head around that one!).

Playing a female character pretending to be a man meant that she had to spend a lot of time speaking and singing at a range that was far below what was natural for her famous voice – a voice that she herself once described as a “very pure, white, thin voice, (with) a four-octave range”.

In 1997,  Andrews was forced to quit the show due to vocal problems and subsequently underwent a throat operation to remove non-cancerous throat nodules that had formed on her vocal folds. It was essentially every singer’s worst nightmare.  The surgery ultimately left her with a permanently limited range as well as a limited ability to hold notes. Of course, not all of us are Broadway singers who need to subject ourselves to a gruelling schedule of 8 full performances per week. However, this example is still a clear indication of the toll that can be taken on the voice if we constantly sing unsuitable songs over a period of time.

Factors to Consider When Selecting a Song for Your Voice
There are a lot of factors to consider when selecting an appropriate song for a performance or practice session. Questions such as, “Does the song speak to me?”, “Is the song appropriate for the occasion?”, “Does the song show enough of my vocal abilities?” are all important and relevant in your decision-making process. However, perhaps one of the most crucial musical aspects that one must always look at is the tessitura of the song you are considering.

Tessitura (Italian for “texture”) in the musical sense refers to the general range of pitches found in a melody or vocal part. The tessitura of a piece is determined by which part of the vocal range is most consistently used.

For example, a song like Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” has a relatively high tessitura because on average most of the notes are situated within the higher part of a male’s vocal range (specifically in the first and second bridges, or passaggi, in a typical male’s voice).

In contrast, a song like Frank Sinatra’s “As Time Goes By” has a relatively low tessitura since most of the notes are situated in the lower part of a male’s range. In fact, the highest note in the song is Db4, which means the entire piece is actually sung within a male’s chest voice range.

Tessitura Vs. Range
It’s important to understand that a song’s tessitura and a song’s range are two very different things.

The range of Elvis Presley’s song “If I Can Dream” goes from an A3 (quite low in the male chest voice register) all the way up to the highest note of the song which is A5 (quite high in the male head voice register). Although the range of the song is very wide, spanning two full octaves,  I would not say that the tessitura of the song is high because the A5 note only appears two or three times in the entire piece. In fact, approximately two-thirds of all the notes in the song lie at or below a male’s first passaggio (i.e. in the chest register).Bryan Adams3

Compare this to Bryan Adams’s “Summer of 69” where the highest note of the song is also A5 but, unlike Elvis’s number, the tessitura is also high because most of the notes in this song are arranged around the first and second passaggi (i.e. more in the male head register). Indeed, the A5 is a recurring note that appears many times throughout Adams’s crowd-pleasing tune.

Why is this important?
The tessitura of a song will determine how comfortable you will be when singing it. If you know that your most comfortable singing range is more towards the Frank Sinatra/Michael Buble/Elvis Presley end of the scale, then choosing a  Bruno Mars or Jason Mraz song is probably not the best idea.

Yes, there’s always the option of lowering the key of a song with a particularly high tessitura, but this may not always be practical. For a song like “Grenade” where so much of the song sits in such a high part of the male register, a singer whose most comfortable range is at or below their first bridge would have to lower the song by several keys (at least 9 semi-tones lower than the original) before they would begin to feel comfortable.

Remember, it’s one thing to hit a high note once or twice in a song, and an entirely different thing to not only hit but sustain a series of high notes over and over again.

How do I know if the Tessitura of a Song is Suitable for My Voice?
The first step to answering this question is by having a good understanding of your voice.

Enlisting the help of a professional vocal coach would be the best way to go about doing this. But if this option is not available to you, the way to determine if the tessitura of a song is something you would be comfortable with is really through trial and error.

Practice singing the song you are considering over and over again. Then when you are familiar enough with it, record yourself singing it a few times as if you were performing it for an audience. Listen back to the recordings and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I able to sing the whole song comfortably and on pitch?
  • Do I feel or sound like I’m struggling with any of the notes? If so, how often does this happen? Once or twice? Or many times throughout the song?
  • How does my voice feel and sound after singing the song two, three or even four times in a row? No change? Tired? Sore?
  • Does my pitching worsen with each repetition or improve?

When you have answered the questions for yourself, ask a friend you trust to listen to the recordings and have them answer the questions from their perspective.

Throat Hurts PicIf you are finding that you’re struggling consistently with hitting notes, or that your pitching and vocal tone worsen with each repeat performance, or that the song leaves you vocally tired and sore after 2 or 3 tries, then you should considering either lowering the key or changing the song entirely as it is likely that the tessitura of your selection is too high.

Are You a Piano Player? If So, Please Read On!
If you play the piano, finding the tessitura of a song is even simpler. Firstly, you need to know where your vocal bridges generally lie. Below is a list of where the vocal bridges typically are located for different voices:

Male Baritone or Tenor Voice:
1st Bridge: E4-G4
2nd Bridge: A4-C5

Female Soprano Voice:
1st Bridge: A4-C5
2nd Bridge: E5-G5
3rd Bridge: A5-C6
Now that you know where your bridges are, play out the notes of your song on a piano or keyboard and look at where most of the notes are arranged.

Most beginner singers or those who have not had extensive formal vocal training will already experience difficulties in their first bridge. Therefore, if you know that you are one of these singers, all you have to do is see how often the notes in your selected song appear within the range of this first bridge. If they appear only a couple of times, the song may be just fine for your voice. If you find that the notes are appearing over and over again, particularly in the upper areas of your first bridge, then you may want to consider lowering the key or choosing a different song.

A Final Word…
Ultimately, when we sing songs, we want our listeners to be moved by the emotions and message of our delivery.

If the tessitura of the song you are singing is too high for your voice, your audience will notice. Going through this process of determining where your bridges are as well as the tessitura of your chosen song will significantly deepen your understanding of your vocal instrument and allow you to make better song choices. It’ll take a bit of time at the start, but as your ear improves you’ll be able to determine the tessitura of any song very quickly.

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