Part Singing (Day Fourteen of Homemade Music)

Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from being an active participant in music making. To see other posts in this series, click here.

Amidst the gradual professionalization of music (i.e.. we don’t see the common man doing it much on his own anymore), we are gradually losing our musical literacy and along with it the ability to sing parts. In fact, if you haven’t sung in a choir or played in an ensemble of sorts, its not likely that you have much opportunity to read parts in music.

chambers(An ensemble I sang with in college. We generally did between four and eight part singing.)

If you don’t know what I mean by “reading parts,” I am referring to practice of two or more musical participants each reading and performing a separate line in the written music. Maybe you’ve heard of the four choral voice parts- soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Those are all separate parts. Likewise, each member of an instrumental ensemble has his own part to play in the music.


Don’t know how to read music? That’s okay, you can still learn a part by ear with some help from a friend who can. And the exciting thing is that the more you try to sing in parts with the music in front of you, the better you will learn to read the music. And the more you read the music, the easier it becomes to sing in parts. It’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

There are so many things I love about singing in parts with others:

  • It’s communal. You have to work as an individual but still work alongside other people. You have to really be part of a team when singing parts.
  • It takes your focus outside yourself. It lifts your thoughts upward and outward as you enjoy making music as a group.
  • It’s good brain work. You’ve got to think your own part enough that you don’t stray from it, while listening to the other parts enough that you work in harmony with them.

Let’s have a mini- part singing lesson, shall we? I found this guy online recording and putting up parts from a long list of hymns. Check out the site for more examples if you like trying this one. (Though please ignore his advice to “belt it out as loud as you can” on the harmony singing pages- that’s bad for the voice, not to mention poor musicianship. I do, however admire his enthusiasm and appreciate the resource he’s making available. No offense, Mr. Hugo.)

We’re going to have a listen to Hugo’s recording of America the Beautiful, since it’s a pretty familiar song for most of us. If you’re completely new to this, here’s a starting guide.

High female voices should take the soprano part, low female voices should take the alto, high male voices should take the tenor, and low male voices should try the bass. Of course, there is some overlap, and ultimately (if you’re just starting) you should try the part that feels most comfortable to you.

Sing your part alone over and over, til you feel very comfortable with it. Try singing it back without the video a few times to make sure you really have it. (If you’re doing the alto, tenor, or bass and you are very new to singing harmony, it’s gonna sound weird at first. That’s normal. When you put it all together it will sound beautiful!) Once you feel very solid on your part, try singing it along with the video that has ALL the parts. Try to stick to the part you learned and not allow the other voices to trip you up.

The other important thing is to look at the music while you try this. You can do it by ear, but you will learn to read and harmonize much better over time if you follow along with the notes. Ready to give it a shot?

Here’s the soprano part:

Here’s the alto part:

Here’s the tenor part:

Here’s the bass part:

And here’s all the parts together:

Different from formal part singing but also beneficial is harmonizing by ear. This is when a person comes up with the harmony on the spot without any music to read. It is itself a form of improvisation and composition. Many folks who enjoy singing but can’t read music will enjoy making up a harmony and singing along with a group.

Want to do more part singing? Grab some friends and try singing through some of these videos together. Look for a community or church choir to join. (There are many that require no auditions and welcome new learners!) Make it a family activity if you have some older kids. It can be quite a bit of fun to do together!

What’s your favorite song to sing parts in?

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