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Why are Alto and Tenor Parts so Boring?

Why do altos and tenors often get saddled with parts like this?

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Don’t composers know that singing the same two notes over and over again is boring?

To understand what composers are possibly thinking, let’s dive into some music theory . . .

A Viennese Theorist’s 1000-Foot View

Heinrich Schenker was an early 20th-century music theorist who wanted to examine the long-range relationships in (mostly 18th- and 19th-century Germanic) music. Schenker postulated that not all notes were created equal — that if you tried to analyze music looking only at adjacent pitches you’d be misunderstanding it. Instead, groups of notes as small as a few beats and as large as dozens of measures or more could be seen as elaborations of a single chord.

In other words, he suggested that behind every intricate texture was a simple four-part harmonization in which each voice moves by the smallest possible motion to get to the next harmony. (Theorists today call those small movements “parsimonious voice leading” — as if every musical step cost money and Ebenezer Scrooge was financing these motions.)

Schenker called this simple harmonization the “imaginary continuo,” after the 17th- and 18th-century accompaniment practice. He further explained that those four basic parts (the familiar soprano, alto, tenor and bass) also aren’t created equal. In fact, the upper three function as a unit in counterpoint to the bass. Thus, most music (from roughly the 1600s onward) can be reduced down from any number parts to two fundamental ones: the soprano — a composite of the imaginary soprano, alto and tenor lines — and the bass.

In these reductions, a listener could “zoom in or out“ in levels of detail. The “down in the dirt” view of the piece encompasses every note, but the “1000-foot view” of a piece may encompass only a dozen or so pitches.

With training, musicians can use this conception to disentangle intricate instrumental music into its basic elements. Seeing this skeletal structure helps musicians understand its elaboration, both to perform it with greater clarity and direction or to compose music having similar layers of meaning.

What this means for “boring” parts

You don’t have to be a musician trained in Schenkerian Analysis to understand how this applies to boring alto and tenor parts. Again, for Schenker, the fundamental versions of upper voices are constructed solely from stepwise motion. Now composers can do all kinds of things to make the actual soprano, alto and tenor parts seem more varied, but these ”interesting” parts will always derive this variety from the basic stepwise ones.

In other words, the surface parts in a piece of music are often composite lines that leap around among the various stepwise threads and feature rhythms that contrast with the other parts. You see these composite lines more often in instrumental music, but they occur fairly often in choral music, too — just not in all of it.

Thus, from Schenker’s point of view, what makes alto and tenor lines so boring is that they remain close to their stepwise originals and mirror the rhythms of the other parts.

Why would a composer want to do that? Because it gives the music a directness it would otherwise lose: all the connections between harmonies are easy to hear and easy to sing.

Still, the resulting boredom needn’t be a problem. Next time you’re bored singing congregational hymns, now you know how to make your part more interesting — just create your own compound lines by splicing in some of the others to yours.

3 comments

  1. Mark Mitchell says:

    Create your own part?? As a tenor, this is one of my pet peeves with my wife, an alto. When she steps on my part because her’s is boring, she gets dirty looks from me – it ruins the chord spacing and independence of voices. And those are my notes! This results in a spirit not in harmony with a Sacrament meeting…

    As for Schenker that’s an interesting connection I wouldn’t have made. I just figure the soprano and bass have roles and requirements the inner voices do not: the soprano of course is the melody (the relationship between melody and harmony is a different and large discussion), and the bass anchors the harmony. The tenor and alto fill in the missing chord tones in a hopefully pleasing but ad hoc way. One common texture is when either tenor or alto has a contrapuntal relationship to the melody (parallel 3rds/6ths and such) and the other is used as an inner pedal, singing a common chord tone between the chords (horns often perform this ‘gluing’ role in classical orchestrations). The pedal is not interesting to sing but plays an important role in the overall effect. So no, you may NOT abandon it in favour of the more melodic part!

    I have a love/hate relationship with Schenker. His insight about the scalar ‘bones’ of melody and longer musical structures is obviously true and important in understanding what makes a melody successful and satisfying. This is especially good for composers to know. The problem is that his theory focuses too much weight on pitch in creating and understanding long-form music. I tend to experience music smaller chunks, perhaps a minute or less. The harmonic/melodic relationship of a given 30 second chunk to what I heard five minutes before is not generally perceivable in my opinion and pales in comparison to the importance of surface rhythm and texture (as I’m certain Beethoven himself would argue). I spent 9 years in university theory classes analysing pitch to death, while almost totally ignoring rhythm and texture, where most of the music happens. The reason being, I suppose, pitch is way easier to analyse and talk about.

    • Joseph Sowa says:

      Confession: I totally make up my own parts when I get bored. Shamelessly. It’s okay, though; if we ever sit next to each other in sacrament meeting I promise I’ll stick to what’s printed.

      I love that inner pedal device. You see it all over the place in the hymn book in movement between root-position and first-inversion triads as a three chord gesture with a passing chord in the middle. In itself the device doesn’t necessarily bog down alto/tenor parts. Bach uses it often, but his inner voices go places. Again, I think it goes back to the contrapuntal conception: do you have 4 truly contrapuntal voices (like the Bach chorales) or do you have effectively 2 (the soprano-bass counterpoint in most of the LDS hymn book)?

      I totally agree that rhythm and texture are too often ignored. When I taught music theory I made a point of analyzing the role of texture in the pieces we discussed.

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