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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

LmusTCL BA Mus (Hons) MISM

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Next UK ABRSM Paper-based Theory Exams Grades 6-8:
Sat 17th June 2023 [Grades 1-5 now available online on demand]
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Grade Five Music Theory - Lesson 9: SATB Writing for Voices



Writing for Voices"SATB" is a quick way of referring to the four main voices that make up a choir, which are Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass.

Soprano and alto are women’s voices, whereas tenor and bass are men’s voices.

Soprano is the highest voice and bass is the lowest.


Grade 5 Questions

Update: SATB was removed from the ABRSM Grade 5 syllabus in 2018 and there will no longer be SATB questions in the ABRSM exam.


Open Score and Short Score

Vocal music for SATB is either written on 4 staves with one for each voice, like this:

Open score

This is called "open score". The voices are always in this order: soprano (top), alto, tenor then bass (bottom).


Or it's written on two staves, with two voices on each stave, like this:

Short score

This is called "short score". Soprano and alto share the treble clef, and tenor and bass share the bass clef stave.


Open Score v. Short Score

Here are some of the main differences between open and short scores:



In open score, the tenor voice uses a treble "octave" clef with a small 8 hanging off the tail-

treble octave clef

This means that the music actually sounds an octave lower than written.

In short score, the tenor voice uses a bass clef.



In open score, the stems of the notes follow the shape of the melody.

In short score, soprano and tenor parts always have stems up, and alto and bass parts always have stems down.

We write:

Stem direction in short score


We don’t write:

Incorrect stem direction in short score



In open score, ties are always written on the opposite side of the note to the stem.


In short score, the ties on the soprano and tenor parts curve upwards, but the ties on the alto and bass parts always curve downwards.

Notice how the ties on the two soprano A's and the two bass G's have changed their shape:




In short score, rests are written near the top of the stave in the soprano and tenor parts, and near the bottom of the stave in the alto and bass parts. In open score, rests are placed in the middle of the stave. Here are some rests written in short score:

Rests in short score


Unisons and Seconds

Sometimes, two parts can sing an identical note or a "unison". In a short score, you need to show that the note belongs to both parts, and you do this by writing one note-head with two stems. One step points up, and the other points downwards.

Look at the soprano and alto parts in this open score: they are singing the same G.


In the short score, you will write one G, with two stems:



When two voices sing notes which are an interval of a 2nd apart, you won't be able to write them one above the other. Instead, you will need to move the lower note slightly to the right of the higher note, so that both can be clearly seen.

In this open score, the soprano has a G, and the alto has the F directly below it:


In a short score, the alto F needs to be moved slightly to the right, so that both notes can be seen:


If you try to align the G and F vertically, you will end up with an ugly blob like this!




Neat Writing

Does it matter how neat my writing is?

Yes! For general tips, look at “Lesson 1 - Good Notation”.


How to Rewrite in Open Score

Let's try to rewrite these short score bars in open score.



Start by placing the clefs on each of the four staves, like this: 

Don’t forget the little 8 on the tenor clef, and remember this means that the pitch of all the tenor notes is actually an octave lower than in the "normal" treble clef.

Place the clefs first

Copy the key signature and time signature onto each stave.

Put in the key and time signatures


Copy the soprano, alto and bass lines note-for-note, but don't write the tenor line just yet.

Make sure you change the stem direction if necessary: remember that notes below the middle line have stems up, and notes above the middle line have stems down. Notes on the middle line follow the notes next to them.

Be sure to line up the notes vertically in exactly the same way as they are in the original.

This is the right way to do it: notice the stem direction and how the notes are aligned. 



And this is the wrong way to do it! The grey lines show notes which should be in a straight line vertically, (because they sound at exactly the same time). The boxes show notes where the stems are pointing in the wrong direction.


Now rewrite the tenor part in the treble-octave clef.

Remember that this clef sounds an octave lower than normal treble clef, so you will need to work out the exact pitch of the notes in the short score, then put them up an octave in the open score.

Middle C in bass clef is Middle C bass clef but in treble-octave clef is Middle C in treble octave clef

Make sure all the notes are aligned properly, and the stem directions are correct in the tenor part too.

Here is the finished re-writing:



Finally, make sure you’ve added any dots, ties and accidentals in the same way as in the original melody.


How to Rewrite in Short Score

Start by placing a treble and a bass clef, like this:

Start with the treble and bass clef


Copy the key signature and time signature onto each stave. 

Using a ruler to keep the notes aligned vertically, copy the soprano, alto and bass lines, making sure that the stem direction is correct (soprano and tenor=up, alto and bass=down). 

Rewrite the tenor part in bass clef. Remember where middle C lies: 

in treble (octave) clef it’s Treble octave clef in bass clef it’s middle c in bass clef 

Make sure you’ve added all dots, ties and accidentals.



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