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2.2: Ensemble Basics/Ranges:

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    When two instruments perform together it is generally referred to as a duet or solo (instrument) with accompaniment. It is a common practice to accompany a melody on another instrument. In American Pop music there are many examples of artists accompanying their own singing by playing harmony and rhythm on guitar or piano. For this to be a duet there have to be two musicians.

    When more than two instruments perform together the group is called an ensemble. Two musicians make a duet, three make a trio, four make a quartet, and so on. Instruments in an ensemble generally differ in register or in timbre.

    Register and range refer to the “height” of a note or the height of an instrument’s range of notes. Range is the distance from the lowest to the highest notes that an instrument can play. In Western musical practice ensembles generally contain instruments that can cover the notes in four standard ranges: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. These registers are associated with basic registers of the human voice. The basic vocal registers are:

    Soprano: the high-female vocal range

    Alto: the low-female vocal range

    Tenor: the high-male vocal range

    Bass: the low-male vocal range

    Western vocal music is traditionally composed in a way that limits singers to their natural range. For western aesthetics each range is roughly two octaves. Choral music is commonly composed with four musical lines: sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. Singers sing the line that fits their vocal range.

    Instruments are also given these designations based on the ranges that they play. Some use the actual terminology of the vocal ranges to show the differing registers. An example of this is the saxophone (sax) family of instruments. Saxophones are single reed instruments of the woodwind family that are usually made of brass. The common high-pitched saxophone is called a soprano. The alto saxophone has the same timbre as a soprano sax but it plays a lower pitch range. The tenor saxophone plays lower notes than the alto sax with the baritone playing even lower. Baritone indicates a pitch range in-between tenor and bass. There are several in-between and extended ranges. A common saxophone quartet includes a soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax and baritone sax. These instruments all have similar timbre but they differ in range. Western bowed-lutes are also differentiated by the register of each instrument. The high-pitch instrument is called a violin. A viola is slightly larger and has a lower range. The violoncello (‘cello) is lower still with the double-basses playing the lowest range of notes. A common string quartet consists of two violins, a viola, and a violoncello.

    Because the aforementioned ensembles were all made of the same instruments they all had similar timbres. Ensembles in which all of the instruments have similar timbers are referred to as homogeneous ensembles. While this is certainly an apt description for ensembles of instruments that differ only in register (like choirs, saxophone quartets, and string quartets) it can also be true of ensembles that contain different instruments. Usually these different instruments are from the same family (but not always). Examples of this include woodwind ensembles (oboe, flute, French horn, bassoon, clarinet) and brass ensembles (trumpet, trombone, baritone, French horn, tuba).

    Ensembles in which instrumental timbres vary are called heterogeneous. There are many genres of contemporary popular music that exemplify this concept. The basic band used in much instrumental pop contains a rhythm section (drum- set/kit, bass guitar, guitar, keyboard. In itself a rhythm section is a heterogeneous ensemble. The timbre of the drums is not meant to blend with the timbre of the guitar or piano. The drum kit itself is a heterogeneous instrument. The standard components of a drum set are:

    • High-hat= two cymbals played together with foot pedal or a stick
    • Ride cymbal= large cymbal that is meant for consistent patterns instead of

      accenting important moments

    • Crash cymbal= smaller cymbal that is used to accent important moments
    • Snare Drum= drum that has wires (snares) stretched across the bottom head
    • Tom Toms- drums of various sizes
    • Bass Drum- Lowest pitched drum

    The cymbals have a different timbre than the drums. The high-hat has a different timbre than the cymbals. A snare drum has a different timbre than the other drums. Add to the rhythm section a lead instrument playing a melody and the timbres vary even more. This instrument is often the human voice but it can be a melodic instrument like trumpet, saxophone, or flute as well.

    Often an ensemble has aspects that are both heterogeneous and homogeneous. Symphony orchestras are the large ensembles that play many popular genres of Western Art Music (symphony, concerto, opera, soundtracks for films/games, ballet). Orchestras are made up of four sections of instruments grouped by timbre (strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion). The art of orchestration refers to how a composer (or orchestrator) creatively uses the varying timbres. Sometimes the composer will write for only one section, creating a homogeneous ideal. This can be contrasted with sections where the entire orchestra is playing, creating a heterogeneous ideal. Orchestration can also be heard in marching bands, wind ensembles, Chinese orchestras, Brazilian samba groups, Japanese gagaku, and in Indonesian gamelan orchestras.

    Musicians in ensembles practice individually and then come together to rehearse. These rehearsals require coordinated efforts by the musicians to achieve a common goal. Often this necessitates a leader. In many large ensemble genres the leader is someone who organizes activities, conceptualizes musical goals, rehearses the group, and performs with the ensemble. Many drumming groups from around the globe are led by a master drummer who preforms cues and signals that guide the ensemble and dancers through the music. Jazz bands are usually led by a prominent band member who rehearses the group, and counts off (starts) tunes. The musical leadership role of symphony orchestras has evolved from a violinist who led the group while playing (much like a jazz band director). As the music became more demanding there was a greater need for the leader to lead without performing on an instrument. The result is a conductor who rehearses the group, starts and stops the ensemble, guides them through tempo changes, and inspires the best efforts of the musicians (and the audience).