For fans of carmina Burana:


A Glossary of Choral Music Terms

Aleatoric Music:  Music composed by the random selection of pitches and rhythms.Frequently found in the performance of the choir anthem.

Antiphonal: Screening all your calls.

Augmentation: Delicate surgery for altos involving the implantation of "falsettos".

Basso Continuo: When the conductor can't get the fools to stop singing.

Cantus Firmus: A singer in good physical condition (as opposed to "Cantus Flabbioso".)

Castrato: The highest male voice (some alteration required.)

Choral Partitas:  Small choir get-togethers that are frequently interrupted by the police.

Concerto Grosso:  An accordion concert.

Contralto: An alto who has been convicted of a felony.

Dominant: In a choral relationship, usually the soprano.

Etude: What comes right before the Beatitudes.

Fantasia: An alto in a leather choir robe.

Glissando: What directly precedes the highest note in the soprano part.

Grand Pause: When the conductor loses his place.

Leitmotif: Like a regular motif, but less filling.

Perfect Pitch: Throwing an accordion into a dumpster without hitting the sides.

Polychoral Motet: Six parrots singing "Exultate Justi".

Riff: What happens when someone takes your choir robe.

Sackbutt: A choral singer over 65.

Score: Basses 8, Tenors 0.

Tonic: A smooth liquid generally enjoyed over ice after choir rehearsal.



(by Tom Hurd on


When you're 16 measures into the piece and realize you took too fast a tempo


To play with a divinely beefy tone


Accompanied by knee-slapping


A composition that you regret playing


A series of notes not intended by the composer, yet played with an "I meant to do that" attitude


 A musical entrance that is somewhere in the vicinityof the correct pitch


A composition incorporating many people with chest colds


A large, multi-movement work from Beethoven's Caribbean Period


An exceedingly small wind instrument that plays only sour notes


A note held over and over and over and over and . . .


A note of dubious value held for indefinite length


Grumpy string players


Those tiny mosquitos that bother musicians on outdoor gigs


A sensible and inexpensive brass instrument


 A French horn player


The title bestowed upon the monk who can hold a note the longest


Someone who takes control of the repeated bass line and won't let anyone else play it


A faux tenor


A sudden burst of music from the Guy Lombardo band


Manifesto of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Violists


An indication to string instruments to produce a bright

and bubbly sound


What an elementary school orchestra is having when it's not following the conductor


Any clef one can't read: e.g., alto clef for pianists


An indication to build up to a fiery conclusion


Child prodigy son of the concertmaster


A Concise Guide To The Choir

In any choir or chorus, there are four voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

There are also various other parts such as baritone, countertenor, contralto, mezzo-soprano, etc., but these terms are mostly used by people who are either soloists, or belong to some excessively hotshot classical a cappella group (this applies especially to countertenors), or are trying to make excuses for not really fitting into any of the regular voice parts, so we will ignore them for now.

Each voice part sings in a different range, and each one has a very different personality. You may ask, "Why should singing different notes make people act differently?" Indeed, this is a mysterious question which has not been adequately studied, especially since scientists who study musicians tend to be musicians themselves and have all the peculiar complexes that go with being tenors, French horn players,tympanists, or whatever.

However, this is beside the point; the fact remains that the four voice parts can be easily distinguished, and I will now explain how.

THE SOPRANOS are the ones who sing the highest, and because of this they think they rule the world. They have longer hair, fancier jewelry, and swishier skirts than anyone else, and they consider themselves insulted if they are not allowed to go at least to a high F in every movement of any given piece. When they reach the high notes, they hold them for at least half again as long as the composer and/or conductor requires, and then complain that their throats are killing them and that the composer and conductor are sadists.

Sopranos have varied attitudes toward the other sections of the chorus, though they consider all of them inferior: The altos are to sopranos rather like second violins to first violins--nice to harmonize with, but not really necessary. All sopranos have a secret feeling that the altos could drop out and the piece would sound essentially the same, and they don't understand why anybody would sing in that range in the first place -- it's so boring.

Sopranos think tenors, on the other hand, can be very nice to have around; besides their flirtation possibilities (it is a well-known fact that sopranos never flirt with basses), sopranos like to sing duets with tenors because all the tenors are doing is working very hard to sing in a low-to-medium soprano range, while the sopranos are up there in the stratosphere showing off.

To sopranos, basses are the scum of the earth -- they sing too damn loud, are useless to tune to because they're down in that low, low range -- and there has to be something wrong with anyone who sings in the F clef, anyway. One curious fact, however, is that although the sopranos swoon while the tenors sing, they still end up going home (and/or to bed) with the basses.

THE ALTOS are the salt of the earth -- in their opinion, at least. Altos are unassuming people who would wear jeans to concerts if they were allowed to. Altos are in a unique position in the chorus in that they are unable to complain about having to sing either very high or very low, and they know that all the other sections think their parts are pitifully easy. But the altos know otherwise. They know that while the sopranos are screeching away on a high A, they are being forced to sing elaborate passages full of sharps and flats and tricks of rhythm, and nobody is noticing because the sopranos are singing too loud (and the basses usually are, too). Altos get a deep, secret pleasure out of conspiring together to tune the sopranos flat.

Altos have an innate distrust of tenors, because the tenors sing in almost the same range and think they sound better. They like the basses, and enjoy singing duets with them -- thebassesjust sound like a rumble anyway, and it's the only time the altos can really be heard. Altos' other complaint is that there are always too many of them and so they never get to sing really loud.

THE TENORS are spoiled. That's all there is to it. For one thing, there are never enough of them, and choir directors would rather sell their souls than let a halfway decent tenor quit, while they're always ready to unload a few sopranos or altos at half price. And then, for some reason, the few tenors there are always seem to be really good -- it's one of those annoying facts of life.

So it's no wonder that tenors always get swollen heads -- after all, who else can make sopranos swoon? The one thing that can make tenors insecure is the accusation (usually by the basses) that anyone singing that high couldn't possibly be a real man. In their usual perverse fashion, the tenors never acknowledge this, but just complain louder about the composer being a sadist and making them sing so damn high.

Tenors have a love-hate relationship with the conductor, too, because the conductor is always telling them to sing louder because there are so few of them. No conductor in recorded history has ever asked for less tenor in a forte passage.

Tenors feel threatened in some way by all the other sections -- the sopranos, because they can hit those incredibly high notes; the altos, because they have no trouble singing the notes the tenors kill themselves for; and the basses because, although they can't sing anything above an E, they sing it loud enough to drown the tenors out. Of course, the tenors would rather die than admit any of this.

It is a little-known fact that tenors move their eyebrows more than anyone else while singing. And it's true what Liszt said: tenors have resonance where their cerebra should be.

THE BASSES sing the lowest of anybody. This basically explains everything. They are solid, dependable people, and have more testosterone and facial hair than anybody else. By the same token, they also tend to baldness more than any of the other parts. The basses feel perpetually unappreciated, but they have a deep conviction that they are actually the most important part (a view endorsed by musicologists, but certainly not by sopranos or tenors), despite the fact that they have the most boring part of anybody and often sing the same note (or in endless fifths) for an entire page. They compensate for this by singing as loudly as they can get away with -- most basses are tuba players at heart.

Basses are the only section that can regularly complain about how low their part is, and they make horrible faces when trying to hit very low notes. Basses are charitable people, but their charity does not extend so far as tenors, whom they consider effete poseurs. Basses hate tuning the tenors more than almost anything else. Basses like altos -- except when they have duets and the altos get the good part.

As for the sopranos, they are simply in an alternate universe which the basses don't understand at all. They can't imagine why anybody would ever want to sing that high and sound that bad when they make mistakes. When a bass makes a mistake, the other three parts will cover him, and he can continue on his merry way, knowing that sometime, somehow, he will end up at the root of the chord.


A Player's Guide for Keeping Conductors in Line


Golden Rules for Ensemble Singing

Q: What's the dictionary definition of "tenor"?
A: Any baritone who joins a choir that doesn't already have enough tenors.

Q: How many altos does it take to change a light bulb?
A: All of them. One to change the bulb, and the rest to complain about how high it is.

Q: How many sopranos does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Only one. She holds it up, and the world revolves around her.

Q: How many tenors does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: They can't, because "It's too high!"

Q: How many basses does it take to change a light bulb?

A: None. They think it's more macho to walk in the dark and bang their shins.

Q: How many choral conductors does it take to change a light bulb?

A: No one one's looking!


Miss Beatrice, the church organist, was in her eighties and had never been married.

She was admired for her sweetness and kindness to all.

One afternoon the pastor came to call on her and she showed him into her quaint sitting room.

She invited him to have a seat while she prepared tea.

As he sat facing her old Hammond organ the young minister noticed a cut-glass bowl sitting on top of it.

The bowl was filled with water, and in the water floated, of all things, a condom!

When she returned with tea and scones, they began to chat.

The pastor tried to stifle his curiosity about the bowl of water and its strange floater, but soon it got the better of him and he could no longer resist.

'Miss Beatrice' he said, 'I wonder if you would tell me about this?' pointing to the bowl.

'Oh yes' she replied, 'Isn't it wonderful? I was walking in through the park a few months ago and I found this little package on the ground.'

'The directions said to place it on the organ, keep it wet and that it would prevent the spread of disease. Do you know I haven't had the flu all winter'