Which part are you really singing?

by | Feb 9, 2017 | Commentary & Observations, History

“We were looking for someone who looks like a man and sings like a woman. We got the ‘sings like a woman’ part down….”

Emcees have been using variations of this joke for years, and yet somehow, it always gets a laugh. It does, however, raise an interesting question….what part is the “tenor” really singing??

To answer that question, we have to go back to James Vaughn and the era of songbooks. His idea of putting a quartet on the road to sing the songs in his songbooks to help sell them was one of the factors that ultimately led to what we now know as the southern gospel male quartet. The problem was, the songbooks most often were written in SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) format so both men and women could sing the songs. In order for a male quartet to sing the songs, they had to be re-arranged into a TTBB (tenor, tenor, baritone, bass) format. The easiest way to accomplish this was to have one man sing the soprano (melody) line an octave lower, thus filling the second “tenor” part. The first tenor would then sing the alto part, the baritone would sing the written tenor part, and the bass would (of course) sing the bass. Because the melody is also referred to as the lead, we wind up with the standard lineup of Tenor, Lead, Baritone, Bass – the modern southern gospel male quartet!

In classical/traditional music, however, there is no such part as the “lead.” It’s doesn’t exist. The closest you would come to what we refer to as the “modern gospel lead singer” would be the Second Tenor (and in fact, if you look at some older gospel music material, the lead singer is often referred to as the “second tenor”). A modern gospel quartet is basically a TTBB lineup, which in the Vaughn days was perfectly fine, because the goal of the traveling quartet wasn’t to promote themselves; it was to sell songbooks for the churches to use and sing with. It was less about showmanship and more about making sure the congregation could sing the songs.

Over time, however, some of these quartets began to make a name for themselves, and they began looking for ways to stand out. They would take the same songs, but spice them up with different arrangements to show off their vocal skills. This started the trend of super-high tenors and super-low bass singers. The tenors in stood out because they “looked like a man and sang like a woman,” while the bass vocalists were singing notes up to an octave lower than most male vocalists could sing.

But what vocal part are they actually singing?

The modern gospel music male tenor is actually a countertenor (a male singer whose vocal range is the equivalent of an alto or mezzo-soprano), with an upper range going to a high D or E. For the higher gospel tenors, they actually would fall into what’s known as a sopranist, who can get up to a C6. The bass singers are usually in the “basso profoundo” range (although, depending on the terminology, some may only make the “strong bass” category). Really low singers (think JD Sumner) would be considered “oktavists” in the classical field. The modern “lead” singer is usually in the classical tenor range, leaving the baritone as the only one who actually is singing the correct vocal assignment.

So, at the end of the day, what we consider to be Tenor, Lead, Baritone, and Bass, are actually Countertenor, Tenor, Baritone, and Basso Profoundo. Just don’t expect to see it on any liner notes or website bios anytime soon….

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Kyle Boreing

Kyle Boreing

Kyle has been writing for MusicScribe since 2008. He is a musician, producer, arranger, and occasional quartet singer, who pays way too much attention to recordings. He is an alumni of Stamps-Baxter School of Music and has shared the stage with many different artists. He also really likes movies that are "so bad they're good." Visit his website at kyleboreing.com, or follow him on Twitter @kyleboreing.


  1. David Bruce Murray

    Brian Free & Assurance is basically “the three tenors.”

    • Darrell

      This is true. There’s a reason they never hired another bass singer. Their arrangements were pretty much written for 3 parts anyway.

  2. Samuel

    The tenor part is interchangeable between tenor or alto. Usually older arrangements have the tenor singing the alto part while modern arrangements have the tenors singing the tenor line. It makes for a tighter harmony that way.

  3. David Bruce Murray

    There’s no simple way to adapt SATB to TTBB, because SATB arrangers often double notes within the upper three voices. In most hymnal arrangements of “Amazing Grace,” for example, there are several spots where the alto and soprano are singing the same note an octave apart. There’s even two spots where the alto and soprano are doubling the exact same note. That’s fine for mixed voices, but not so great for male quartet harmony.

    • Samuel Sitler

      There’s “rules” in composing that are almost never followed (like parallel fifths, crossing parts, etc.). Whenever I arrange by ear, it’s usually TTBB, which I usually keep very tight with the baritone occasionally going higher than the 2nd tenor. In SATB, I usually arrange with my altos and sopranos in mind. If I do a song for both, as with what I’ve also seen with other arrangers, the middle harmony parts (tenor/baritone & alto/tenor) will vary because of the ranges I’m arranging for. A key that works with SATB may not work with TTBB, especially given even less people to work with. I think the key, especially in TTBB arranging, is to find what works the best with everybody singing a note in the chord and not straying much from their assigned parts.

      • David Bruce Murray

        Definitely, it will sound much better when everyone sings a note that is in the chord. :)

  4. Scotty searan

    Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Darrell

    I used to think that men’s music was just as you described, Kyle, with the alto part going to the tenor and the baritone singing the tenor line in a SATB arranged song. That is until I attempted to sing baritone in a mens group once with some men from church. I very quickly discovered that songs arranged for men’s voices are much different that those arranged for mixed voices. The baritone was quite difficult. Nothing close to singing tenor in a mixed group, which I used to.

  6. Josh

    This post reminds me of a couple years ago at NQC when they did the all-bass quartet and Pat Barker was put on tenor. He got confused because “that’s the alto in this book”

  7. Larry Kinsler

    I’ve wondered how the female mimicking male ” tenor ” came to be in the SGMA, and the answer seems to be , quite simply , to get noticed and stand out. This phenomenon ( a man mimicking a woman’s voice )occurs only in this genre, and it seems to have been a deliberate decision at a precise point in the past. In Bluegrass, when we hear ” high tenor ” from men such as Doyle Lawson, Paul Williams, Del McCoury, and Sonny Osborne, they sound like men. To be frank, the idea of a man ” trying to become a woman”, whether physically in appearance, or vocally in voice, is very unappealing to myself, as I’m sure it must be to myriads of others. One wonders if the SGMA should have placed a female in the four part model at it’s inception, but, for some reason, this was to be four men. It seems odd that, after establishing four men as the model, you would then seek to present one in the model as something other than they actually were.. a man. Thanks for this insight.

    • David Bruce Murray

      The SGMA was formed in 1997. You appear to be suggesting the SGMA leaders should go back in time and influence these trends, which is just utterly foolish.

      This is real life, not a Marvel movie.

      But yeah, go ahead and perpetrate that tired old stereotype that anyone who can sing high surely must be gay. One thing really has nothing to do with the other.

      As for the notion that men who sing tenor in bluegrass “sound like men,” there’s really no appreciable difference in tone or range aside from the fact that bluegrass singers typically sound more nasal while Southern Gospel leans more full-tone in the tenor range. I suppose if you want to tell yourself one sounds more or less feminine than the other and feel satisfied you’re right, that’s entirely up to you, but it doesn’t reflect reality.

    • Kyle Boreing

      I believe, Larry, that you read my opening sentences, stopped reading, and went immediately to the comments section. Some of your questions/observations have already been answered in the rest of this article.

      That being said, you seem to be under the impression that the Southern Gospel Music Association is somehow a governing body that dictates what male quartets should be or how they should sound. This is not correct, as the SGMA is simply an organization designed to honor and promote the genre, and there isn’t one single governing body over a musical genre.


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