When searching to find new songs, singers will often look at the lowest and highest notes to see if they fall into a comfortable range.
The vocal range refers to the tonal distance of notes from the lowest to the highest. However, this measurement of a song can be somewhat deceptive, as the highest note may happen only once, and very quickly at that.
Tessitura is another important factor to consider.
What is tessitura?
Think of the difference between how high a ladder is (vocal range) versus which step(s) you will spend most of your time standing on (tessitura).
Tessitura (Italian for "texture) refers to where most of the notes lie in a song.
For example, the chorus of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” has a vocal range of G4 to D4, which is just over a half-octave and is not extremely large. The highest note, D4 is at the top of the singer’s transition (the area between the chest and head voice) and can be daunting for the singer. However, you only hit the note twice in each chorus. If the sung note is not that strong, the listener may or may not pick up on it.
The chorus's tessitura centers largely on Bb4; you will sing this note over twenty times on each chorus! If this note is not strong the listener will definitely be made aware.
This Bb4 sits right in the middle of the vocal bridge or mix voice area (where the voice is likely to crack). Its constant repetition makes this song a tough slog if the singer has not yet learned to balance this area.
In fact, Bb4 can be prone to pulling up chest voice (using too much of the lower register coordination). If this note is sung too heavy or with too much of the lower voice in it, the singer will fatigue very quickly.
All singers have a particular sweet spot in their voice and area in their vocal range where the notes take on a particularly pleasing quality. The location of the sweet spot will tend to be different depending on the singer's voice type.
For example, with proper training and diligent practice, a baritone can often learn to sing a convincing high C. However, the quality of this note will be different from a tenor. The tenor will likely have more brightness and brilliance in the sound, whereas the baritone might be a bit darker.
Also, the tenor will likely project a greater sense of ease in the note, and the listener will sense that the voice can go even higher. In contrast, the baritone's high C will likely be heavier, projecting a sense that the voice is reaching its upper limits.
The tenor has a voice type that is better suited to these high notes.
In comparison, a tenor singing a G below the high C will not have the intensity of a baritone on the note. The baritone will have a more thrilling quality as the note sits higher in the baritone's vocal range.
The tessitura of tenor music will sit higher than that of a baritone or a bass, even though they can sing many the same pitches. The composer will aim to place the tessitura in the sweet spot of the voice.
your vocal sweet spot
Think of Bruno Mars vs. John Legend. They both compose songs and chose keys to have the tessitura sit where their voice sounds best.
While contemporary music does not have the same strict parameters around voice type that classical music does, it is still important to know where your voice works best.
Since the average voice has a range of over two octaves, you should strive to find keys that put songs in your vocal sweet spot.
One of the main reasons singers study and practice is to expand this sweet spot and to give themselves a wider range of tessitura choices. However, knowing your voice type is still helpful.
Determining a song's tessitura can be a bit trickier than finding the overall vocal range as you need to examine the song closer.
This is why it’s handy to identify the notes on the staff and have a basic knowledge of where vocal bridges occur. This way,, you’ll analyze music quickly to see where the trouble spots are and if the tessitura is particularly difficult.
You want to find where most of the notes lie within a song. Some songs will have a more balanced, wider tessitura, with the notes being spread more evenly over the range. Other songs will be more focused within a small part of the range.
Find the basic tessitura of the verse, then the chorus, and the bridge (if there is one) by finding where the notes concentrate.
By seeing where the concentration of the notes lie, you can make a more informed decision on song choice and what you need to work on.
Knowing the basic tessitura of songs can be helpful in choosing songs, either for performance, practicing, or for teachers assigning songs to their students.
One example is Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep.” While this song goes to the C5 (and even the Eb5 for a brief moment) in the chorus, most of the song, and therefore the tessitura, sits below the singer’s transition area.
While this can help the singer work on their lower notes or chest voice, it does little to help teach a singer how to mix or balance their voice in the transition.
Adele's voice type is also lower than the average female, making the C5 she sings on the word "all" very intense. A female with a higher voice type may imitate Adele's thickness and intensity, causing her to over-muscle and constrict on the pitch.
Knowing the difference between range and tessitura is an important tool for the singer and the voice teacher.