Throughout my entire composing duration, I’ve always found my experiences writing for choir to be my most gratifying—and not just from a money-making standpoint. There’s something special about writing for a choir. It’s at once grand and simple, and something about human voices makes both the works themselves and their performances more vulnerable than writing instrumental music. Whenever I need to be reminded how much I love composing, I usually default to writing another choral piece.
On multiple occasions, I’ve been approached by a student or peer asking me how to “go about” writing for choir, either in the context of an instrumentalist who wants to expand their composition portfolio or a vocalist who wants to take a stab at composition. The conversation is usually summed up by saying, “I’ve never done this before, and I’m not sure where to start.” In those conversations, I’ve often defaulted to the following ten pointers that I think even people who are already writing choral pieces should keep in mind for developing their skills. There’s a lot of subpar music for choir out there, and by keeping the following pointers in mind we can avoid being lumped into that category and really make our compositions stand out of the pack!
1. Start “text hunting”
This tip might sound like the biggest no-brainer. To write a choral piece, you typically need to have a text to set. And yet there are many people out there who want to write choral pieces and still haven’t given any regard to this matter.
The type of text you want to set can have a profound impact on how you want to go about starting your new choir piece. Are you setting a poem? Prose? Excerpts from a speech? Something sacred? Something silly? Something avant-garde? I’ve seen choral works setting everything from Shakespearean sonnets to Trump’s Twitter feed, and each requires its own style and nuance to set convincingly.
Before so much as writing a single note, I’d suggest having at least ten texts selected that stand out to you for some reason or other. I keep both a folder in my desk drawer and a Bookmarks tab on Chrome of texts that I want to set when the occasion arises. Right now it’s filled with various feminist poetry that I think could be really cool for writing epic works for women’s choir (an ensemble that often gets shafted in the realm of good literature).
Wondering where to go about finding these texts? Start by visiting poetry websites or checking out an anthology from the library. Just make sure you have the rights to the text you want to set! The last thing you want to happen is being sued by Robert Frost’s estate or whoever owns the NIV translation of the Bible. Public speeches, works that are clearly listed as “public domain,” or anything written before 1923 is a pretty safe bet.
2. Join a choir (if you haven’t already)
If you’ve spent most of your time in the past writing for instruments, you might not realize just how different of a beast writing for voices can be. Ranges are limited, the amount of time spent in any particular range can be finicky, and some intervals are trickier to sing than others. What any other particular voice part is doing can have a huge influence on the feasibility of something as simple as a half-step motion! And the surest way to get a sense for what it’s like to write for voice is—you guessed it!—to use your own on a regular basis.
Now you might be thinking to yourself something along the lines of, “but I can’t sing!” If you’re one of those people, you may want to consider joining a community choir that doesn’t need an audition. Some examples of those would be glee clubs, non-auditioning groups at your university (usually men’s or women’s choruses), your local church choir, most gay men’s choruses, etc. Being part of a non-auditioning group can provide a level of enlightenment all its own, and can also help you become familiar with your own voice enough to know its limitations—which will, in turn, give you some insight on the limitations of other people’s voices as well.
If that still intimidates you, or if you’re concerned you don’t have the time, consider asking your local choir director if it’s possible to sit in and observe some rehearsals. Even if you yourself aren’t singing, you can still learn tons just by watching. Pay attention to where the choir is having its biggest difficulties. Where is the director stopping and fixing mistakes, and what mistakes are being fixed more than others? What sections are tiring out the choir members? When do people need to breathe, and do they get the opportunity to? Finding the answer to all of these questions can really hone your choral composition skills.
3. Start by writing arrangements
If learning how to compose is like learning how to swim, writing a choral piece from scratch with a text that you’ve never seen set can feel a bit like getting thrown into the deep end of a pool while wearing ankle weights: all in all, it’s a surefire way to make life more difficult than it has to be. Luckily, you can start learning how to creatively compose for choir by making new arrangements of existing tunes and melodies, where the heaviest of the composing load has already been done for you.
There are two ways I can think of to go about this, both with their own perks. The first is to look for older, classical melodies (folk tunes, church hymns, drinking songs, etc.) that you might want to arrange. Once you’ve found a tune that you want to set, start thinking of ways you can adapt it for choir that would make it stand out from what’s been done before. What are different ways you can harmonize the melody? How do you want to go about transitioning from one verse to another? Can you add a descant line to it? How are you going to start and end the arrangement? All of these questions, and more, can make the difference between a blasé transcription and the next Erb/Gould Shenandoah.
The second approach is to take up arranging for an a cappella group. For those of you who are (somehow) not aware, a cappella groups take existing pop songs and set them in a way that all of the instrument parts, including percussion, are sung or beatboxed by the group members. Some of the settings are straightforward adaptations (most anything by Straight No Chaser), and others get markedly creative in their interpretation (most anything by Pentatonix). Most universities—and even some high schools—have a cappella groups these days, and they’re usually hungry for new arrangements, so feel free to seek your closest one out!
4. Take a poetry class
If you can’t tell me what “dactylic hexameter” is off the top of your head, there’s still more for you to learn about analyzing text. And if you’re a student who can fit that course in as an elective, making sure you have a good teacher for it, it could very well be the most advantageous course you ever took to hone your choral writing. This, in my humble opinion, should be required of any college student majoring in composition, particularly if they ever want to write for a chorus. It was hands down the most valuable elective I ever took while I was working on my bachelor degree. It’s also one of the easiest tips to overlook because text analysis is often something we take for granted—you don’t notice it unless it’s done badly.
In order to convincingly set a text, you need to know how to analyze the text as its own entity. How does the text sound when it’s spoken out loud? What’s its pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, more commonly known as the text’s rhythm and meter? The rhythm and meter of a text will have a profound influence on the rhythm and meter of the music, and you don’t want the two to be in conflict!
Does the text have a rhyme scheme, and if so do you want the rhyme scheme to be reflected in the musical phrasing? Is it organized in stanzas, quatrains, couplets, etc., and how will that influence your sense of form? How can you use the melody you write to bring out the important words of the text? All of these are important questions you must consider when marrying your music with the text, and it’s hard to answer those questions if you don’t know how to go about asking them in the first place.
(If you were curious, strict dactylic hexameter is a line of text with eighteen syllables, the first of every three syllables being more stressed than the others. For example: “Union of meter in music and rhythm of word can be beautiful.” If you chant it quickly, you’ll notice you’re speaking in 6/8 time. These are the things literature/music geeks like me think about.)
5. Attend and observe a worship service that uses music
This is particularly important if you ever want to write sacred music (not solely Christian, but any faith tradition), and it can also be beneficial for expanding your horizons as a secular composer. The music used in most worship services puts the text at the forefront for somewhat obvious reasons. It might be a sung prayer, a sung line of Scripture, or a chanted litany. Either way, the text is an integral part of the worship, and the music is ideally used to enhance it and then stay out of its way. It’s one of the reasons sacred music remains some of the best literature for choruses, and why even secular choirs tend to keep it in their repertoire.
But lest you think because you’re already a religious person you’re off the hook on this one… you should most certainly attend at least one worship service for a religious sect outside of your practicing faith (I find that to be a good general life rule, really). When I was commissioned for my art song Mourner’s Kaddish, I relied heavily on my experience attending a Shabbat service at synagogue to get a sense of how the text could be set. I am not Jewish—I was raised as a Protestant Christian—and the music for a Shabbat service was a brand-new experience for me. It made me slightly more comfortable with the challenge of setting an important Jewish text in its native Hebrew.
One such service to consider attending, especially if you aren’t a religious person yourself and don’t want to feel intrusive, is a Choral Evensong service at an Anglican or Episcopalian cathedral. The service is usually about an hour long, comprised mostly of music in a wide variety of formats, traditions, and time periods. Participation as a congregation member can be minimal if you so choose so that you feel almost as if you’re attending a particularly sacred “concert” of sorts.
6. Listen to the “greats” and study their scores
I put “greats” in quotes deliberately here, because I am about to mention at least one or two names that I know will have some people up in arms, and might leave off someone’s favorite and have to explain myself otherwise. Nonetheless, there are many composers who have stood the test of time in the choral world over centuries (or are at the very least insanely popular and programmed today) and have written works that are considered staples in the genre. Some of these works are of a grand scale, requiring as many as two hours of spare time to listen to in their entirety. Others of them can be performed with as few as four voices in three minutes. But all of them showcase choral writing at its most accepted and celebrated, and all for different reasons. They can have a very positive influence on your writing style.
For Renaissance writing, start with Palestrina and Gabrielli for their counterpoint and fluid melodic lines. In the Baroque period, Bach is your hands-down go-to, with Handel being a close second. Mozart and Haydn are your standard Classical period references (for pretty much every genre of music as well as choral, it seems). For the Romantic period, Beethoven has his gems, but you would have more emotive material to explore by checking out Mendelssohn and Brahms. The twentieth century gives us Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, John Taverner, Sergei Rachmaninoff, all vastly different and yet easily accessible. And as for the mainstream contemporary artists being programmed to death today, the list would not be complete without mentioning John Rutter, Arvo Pärt, and Morten Lauridsen.
Oh, and some guy named Eric Whitacre, I hear he’s kind of a big deal.
7. Listen to things no one else has heard of
Of course, you don’t want to be too influenced by the greats. I and a colleague judged a student choral competition recently, and we made it a point to select the winning entry for having its own distinct voice and not sounding too much like another popular artist (three guesses who). We can’t all be Lauridsen or Whitacre, nor should we want to be. They do that job well enough for themselves. We have something all our own to offer to the table, and that can be hard to remember if we’re only listening to the same five or six composers all the time.
To expand your Renaissance horizons, check out some William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Josquin des Prez, Jean L’Héritier, Jacobus Vaet, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and Thomas Morley. The choral works of Claudio Monteverdi, Henry Purcell, and Giovanni Pergolesi provide a spin on the Baroque period that Bach rarely highlights. The Classical period can be hard to find new artists from, but you can’t go wrong with William Boyce, Thomas Arne, Thomas Attwood, and Franz Bühler. The Romantic period has Joseph Barnby, César Franck, and John Bacchus Dykes—names virtually no instrumentalist has encountered before. The twentieth century boasts names like Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Howells, Francis Poulenc, Louis Vierne, Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke, and Henryk Górecki.
And contemporary artists? I’ve been on an Ola Gjeilo kick for quite some time, and can’t recommend him enough as a starting point. Aside from that, check out the new rep lists from choral publishers like Alliance Music, Walton Music, and Santa Barbara Music Publishing. That’s always one of the best ways to become well-versed in who’s coming to the fore in the world of choral writing.
8. Talk to vocalists and choir directors and learn from them
If you want to write a piece for violin, usually the first thing you want to do is find a violinist to look through your drafts. If you’re writing a piece for trombone, you want to hunt down a trombonist to learn the ins and outs of the instrument. Likewise, if you’re writing for choir, you should seek out choir directors and vocalists of all voice types to see what they’re most interested in.
Here’s an example: Which voice part usually gets the least interesting parts to sing? If you talk to enough vocalists, you’ll find that the stereotypical answer is the alto. “I’ve gotten very good at singing the same three notes.” That’s partly an occupational hazard of traditional voice leading rules (which we’ll get into here in a second), but it’s also an opportunity to spice up your writing in a way you know the choir will appreciate. I make a conscious effort to give my altos interesting lines to sing, and I’ve been thanked for it every single premiere.
If you want choirs to perform your pieces, then a conversation with choir directors is essential. What kind of pieces are they looking to program next year? What have they really wanted to see but can’t find? How could a piece be tailored to the strengths and weakness of their choir? If you can tailor your work to their expectations, you’ll have instant success.
9. Learn your part-writing rules
Oh, part-writing rules. The bane of every music theory student’s existence. Every time you write parallel fifths, Bach kills a kitten.
No one likes part-writing rules. No student likes following them, and no teacher likes grading students’ half-hearted attempts at following them. But part-writing rules serve a very important purpose: to teach people how to write multiple singable lines at once.
These part-writing rules, be it species counterpoint or four-part voice leading, were modeled on the practices and norms of heavily trained composers. And in the Renaissance, what were these composers typically writing? You guessed it… music for people to sing! When we study part-writing, we are essentially studying the centuries-old art of writing music for voices. It’s why we keep into account things like large leaps, parallel intervals, voice overlap and voice crossing, and so forth. If we don’t know these rules, we often write things that are at best needlessly impractical and at worst flat-out impossible.
It may seem needlessly taxing and boring at first, but I’ve seen students of mine who hear their successful part-writing exercises played on the piano for the first time brighten up and immediately say, “No way! That’s what I wrote?!” It’s as if they can’t believe what they were doing was actually composition. One student reacted by saying, “Wow, that sounds like Bach.” Well, there’s a reason for that… it’s because Bach followed these exact same practices when he was composing his chorales. Half the rules we follow in part-writing came from his example. And being able to write like Bach to the best of any human ability is always a great skill to have.
Besides… think of the kittens.
10. Break your part-writing rules
Would now be a good time to mention that Bach grossly violated every single rule we have ever accredited to his music? If you’re familiar enough with his music, you’ll find part-writing “errors” everywhere you look, starting with voice crossing. The number of times he has his tenors singing higher than his altos makes our no-voice-crossing rules almost laughable.
Part-writing rules are the Pirate’s Code of music theory: they’re more like guidelines anyway. Many teachers I know don’t like referring to them as rules at all, preferring the term “norms.” There’s a reason they’re the norms—because they work. You can’t sound bad when you follow all of these voice leading standards. What you can sound, however, is boring.
I mentioned before that altos usually get the least interesting parts to sing. That’s usually because in your most basic voice leading, the alto line has the least wiggle room and usually moves as little as possible to whichever note best fits the chord—a note that is usually only a few steps away at most. The soprano gets the melody, the bass gets more leaps, the tenor gets that cool harmonization that they can bring out, and the alto… gets what’s left, I guess? At least, that’s what usually happens when you follow part-writing rules to the absolute letter. It can be better to break (or at the very least bend) these rules for the sake of bringing your pieces more interest.
So why learn the rules at all? Again, because the rules work. They may not give the music any magic, but they sure do give it some stability. The trick is, with every rule you break, you need to be aware that you are breaking it and why you are breaking it. In my eight-part writing, you can count on me having some parallel fifths between the two bass parts (look at all those kittens Bach just didn’t kill). It’s because I like that “power chord” sound, and it alludes to some really ancient Medieval organum practices that I thought were on to something. It’s also, sometimes, just the most convenient thing for my basses to do for that given moment, and anything else would distract from that amazing countermelody I just gave the altos.
Did I mention I gave the altos something to do? That probably broke another rule or two somewhere in there.
Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the twentieth-century instrumental greats such as Aaron Copland and Philip Glass, summed it up best, I think: “To study music we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them.” Pablo Picasso also had a great take on it: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
With these ten things in mind, stepping into the word of composing for choir should hopefully feel at least slightly less intimidating. It can be a long process learning how to write good music for choir, and it will involve a lot of exposure to things you haven’t experienced before. But the end result is beyond rewarding, and definitely worth at least a little peek down the very vocal rabbit hole.