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Standards... by whose Standards?

Questions continue to come up about and I hear references to a bowed psaltery being soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and even bass. This always makes me wonder “What do they mean by that.”

When I hear tenor, I think of a note range that starts lower than what I’m used to as well as a larger instrument; but that’s also what I think when I hear alto, baritone and bass. It’s very confusing, particular for a person new to the instrument.

Hoping to find a musical standard, I researched musical ranges for the violin family, guitar, ukulele, mountain dulcimer, hammer dulcimer and piano. None are the same and none provide a good basis for comparison.

Voice was the only thing left. Even these standards vary slightly from source to source but they are somewhat consistent.

I copied the ranges that follow from the online Yale University Library – The Irving S. Gilmore Music Library that cited Grove Music Online. Listed are 6 categories for solo vocal ranges, this excludes choral and opera.

Soprano C4-A5

Mezzo-Soprano A3-F5

Alto – G3 to E5 (contralto F3 – D5)

Tenor – roughly C3 to A4

Baritone – A2 – F4

Bass F2 to E4

Note: there are more categories out there, i.e., countertenor G3 to D5, but I’m sticking with one source. My head is threatening to explode.

Standards are developed over time, can change over time and are generally defined by some group or governing body but folks in today’s world are used to having them. The bowed psaltery is a very young instrument and standards don’t exist for it. I don’t know if they ever will.

It’s possible I’m the only one who cares about this issue. The bowed psaltery world will get along fine without clear categorization but it would be helpful for communication purposes and of course, standardization. 🥴

Anyone (builders, now is your chance to be heard) want to share what you think? There are no right or wrong answers.

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