Arranging Music for Upper Voices (SSAA)

As a choirmaster one of my many challenges is to provide a regular supply of new music for my choirs which is both challenging and accessible. Over recent months, although not strictly intentional I have started working with a number of ladies choirs, or to be politically correct, upper voices. This brings with it many challenges, not least working out how to stop them talking! Joking aside, one the main challenges is finding music which is written, or arranged for SSA or SSAA.

Of course at this point, assuming you are still with me, many of you will be quick to point out that there is plenty of music arranged for Upper voices. A quick trip to or any similar site will reveal whole sections devoted to music arranged for upper voices. However, it’s not always quite that simple. Arranging music for upper voices, particularly where the original piece was scored for a mixed choir or even a solo voice is not straightforward. The easy way to create music for upper voices is to make sure it has an accompaniment of some sort – typically piano. That way you can fairly quickly adapt anything for SATB by simply deleting the two lower parts and perhaps adding a second soprano line based loosely around the tenor. With the piano accompaniment left in the harmony, on the whole, should sound unchanged, depending on the arranger. That said I have come across many an arrangement for upper voices where the original harmony of the song has been totally changed and often verses are missing.

The real challenge, however, occurs when you start looking for songs which are a-Cappella or unaccompanied. The problem here is dealing with the reduced range of upper voices or ladies choirs. Broadly speaking the range of an upper voices choir is about two octaves whereas an SATB choir is nearer 4 octaves in some cases. Because we are working with upper voices, it’s essentially the bass line which has gone missing. To deal with this the second alto part becomes the bass line which, generally speaking, dictates the harmony. By now, many of you are probably thinking this doesn’t seem that much of a big deal. You’ve still got two octaves to play with, just how hard can it be?

The answer to that question is largely dependent upon the style of music being arranged and therefore the harmony required. A lot of tonal music, I’m not going to use the word basic harmony for fear of offending anyone, will quite happily sit within a two octave range. The difficulty occurs when you are after some more interesting harmony’s such as in jazz music. Any jazz musician will tell you that it’s not simply the notes which make up the harmony but the order in which they occur. For example a chord of C major in 4 parts sits very comfortably in the middle of an upper voices range. However as soon as you start incorporating sevenths the order of the chord becomes crucial. A flat 7 for example is based around a combination of Eflat, G flat, A flat and C. So in root position with the A flat in the bass you can easily incorporate this chord into an upper voice arrangement. However, if you start changing the order of these notes and spread them over a larger range you can get some very interesting chords.

In recent weeks I have started arranging a lot of music for my ladies choirs mainly out of frustration of simplified harmonies being used in upper voices arrangements. Obviously as discussed above there are sometimes limitations when scoring for upper voices. But that shouldn’t mean that everything is simplified to essentially the chords of I, IV and V. In the end, like anything musical, it comes down to a matter of personal taste but I’m hoping with some of my forthcoming arrangements I can combine the composers original intentions into a challenging new work for upper voices. The ultimate test of whether I am successful will be decided by the choirs, audiences and publishers who will, I hope, be subjected to the arrangements.