Author Topic: Composing for Choirs  (Read 2909 times)

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CJBruce

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Composing for Choirs
« on: June 21, 2013, 05:59:03 PM »
Hey everybody, I need some help (I'm pretty new to the forum). I play tenor sax and clarinet, and I compose a lot of band music, and a fair share of orchestral pieces. My thing is, I don't know anything about writing for choir. I know the generic "instruments", if you will, of choir: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass. But how do I write for choir? Specifically writing for like a male barbershop quartet or an a capella group. I have people I could ask, ex-girlfriends or friends, etc, but I would only get a few viewpoints. If you guys could help me out, I would be immensely grateful. Thanks!

Chris

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Ron

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Re: Composing for Choirs
« Reply #1 on: June 21, 2013, 06:31:54 PM »
A lot depends on the kind of choir you are writing for and their level of expertise. The requirements for a basic church choir, for example, would be quite different than for a semi-professional choir of the sort that sings with symphony orchestras.

General rules: do not cross voices. No more than an octave between parts except basses can be a 10th or more below tenors. Amateurs generally take their pitches from each other and can find jumps difficult to hit accurately. Step-wise should be no problems. Avoid augmented intervals. Barbershop grouping drive me nuts (I've written for a few).  It's the 2nd highest voice that takes the lead (and is called "lead" for some odd reason). I've never really figured out the top voice except as a kind of descant. If you give the top voice the lead, they will blow it and it will be your fault.

I assume they will be singing words--that's another kettle of fish. Match syllables to the musical rhythm so that you don't get: "In THE morn-ING, I saw A crow." English is a bugger because you can't sustain a consonant and yet most English words end in them. (Italian works beautifully for lyrics.)

Anyhow, I have written very little for voice, so take all that with a grain of salt and wait for the pros to give some hints.
Ron
Rules? What rules?

Michel.R.E

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Re: Composing for Choirs
« Reply #2 on: June 21, 2013, 07:21:38 PM »
(very "Stream of consciousness" comments here.. I'm just jotting everything down as it comes to me)

I might be a tad more relaxed on the "crossing voices" part than Ron, but otherwise, his comments are all pretty much spot on.

1. Give singers time to breath
2. Be careful of large or particularly dissonant intervals within a single melodic line (they should generally be well-supported in the other parts)
3. You MUST respect the prosody of the text you are setting. which means taking the text aside and marking off all the tonic and secondary accents in the lyrics you intend on setting.
4. Respect the vocal ranges you are using. Try to keep "extremes" to a minimum.
5. Remember that range extremes have different uses: high notes are harder to sing softly, low notes are harder to sing loudly.
6. Avoid "closed" or "tight" vowels on very high notes (oo, i, ee)
7. Give the text time to breath as well.
8. Strive to make EACH and every voice a uniquely singable experience for the performers. There's nothing more boring that having a part that's just "filler" while the other section gets to sing all the melodies.
9. Text doesn't HAVE to be treated in a monophonic fashion (every syllable in every voice matching the exact same rhythm)
10. Where text is NOT monophonic, give important lines the chance to shine through so that the text CAN be understood.
11. Treat registers carefully... if everyone is in a comfortable median register and you give a melodically un-important part to a voice that is in a very high register, you WILL hear the un-important part more than the others.
12. Likewise, avoid giving the most musically important material to a voice in a weak register, while the rest of the chorus is in a very powerful register.
13. distance between voices, as Ron said, should avoid intervals greater than an 8ve between soprano and alto, and between alto and tenor (two voices that CAN overlap without deleterious effect). You can go considerably wider between basses and tenors, 8ve and a half is not unusual.
14. "Voice leading" is considerably more important in vocal music than in any other type. Dissonances should be prepared and resolved in the right voice.


Vocal music is, by its very nature, more conducive to less-avantgarde music.
Unless accompanied, a chorus has only its collective ear to use as (I always have trouble finding the right word for this) a "roadsign". They don't have open strings to rely on. They can't just blow into the instrument and get a specific sound.

A capella music tends to gradually go flat the longer a piece of music lasts. Your chorus might start out singing "In C" but end up in Bb or worse by the final cadence.

There are different vocal effects that can be achieved, depending on context and the writing of the music.
For example "sotto voce" ("subtle voice") which is a very soft effect, subdued, almost a whisper, a beautiful effect in so many circumstances.
"Falsetto" is usable by men's voices, though be warned, many men are actually incapable of producing a falsetto tone. This CAN be used to cheat high notes in soft dynamics.

The "richest" and more powerful sound you can achieve with a chorus will more than likely be when the music is set in relatively close harmony.

A 4-part choir with enough members can easily divide each part in two, giving you an effective 8-part choir. The more amateur the choir, the more singers it takes to achieve this. A good professional chorus can handle divisi starting at as few as 12-16 singers. While an amateur chorus might have trouble even with 20 people on each part.

Be wary of non-harmonic notes (notes outside your harmonic framework) that need to be attacked without preparation.

For larger and more qualified groups, clusters, when properly prepared, are a gorgeous effect.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

CJBruce

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Re: Composing for Choirs
« Reply #3 on: June 21, 2013, 07:50:23 PM »
Thank you so much, both Ron and Michael. You both gave me the sort of information I can easily understand (the musical terms and speak-seems I sometimes speak music better than English...) and I think this will help immensely as I start writing for a choir. Thank you again!

Chris

Michel.R.E

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Re: Composing for Choirs
« Reply #4 on: June 21, 2013, 08:02:22 PM »
regarding lyrics/text: think of the natural high-points of your text.

for example, let us say we're setting some Congreave: "Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast,"

Which syllables are the most important?
let's immediately eliminate the UNimportant syllables: -ick, has,  to, a, -age
So obviously, weak syllables (ie unaccented syllables) are not "important" melodically. You don't want a music high-point to land on a syllable that has no "meaning". For example, you would not say this text as "musIC has charms TO soothe A savage breast,"

Are there words/syllables that could be rendered using multiple notes? (melisma) In this particular example, the word "soothe" might be a candidate for a phrase of multiple notes: soo-oo -oo -oo -oo -oo -oo - oothe.

Are there any syllables that you should avoid placing on high notes? understanding that tight and closed vowels are harder to produce clearly in high registers, then mu-SIC and soothe are two words that would benefit from being in more median registers.

One might consider having the word "charms" set to a particularly florid melodic passage. It's a "light" word, it seems to radiate a joy and beauty.

You might want to set the word savage to a more angular rhythm.

In my opinion, and this is personal taste, I would have "charm" as the "high note" of the phrase, with a melisma that gradually winds downward, another melisma on soothes without reaching for a high note.


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« Last Edit: June 21, 2013, 08:15:49 PM by Michel.R.E »
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Michel.R.E

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Re: Composing for Choirs
« Reply #5 on: June 24, 2013, 01:20:55 PM »
I know this music isn't the most modern, but in my opinion it is some of the best-written vocal music of the last 50 years.

John Rutter thoroughly understands both the voice and how text fits into a melodic contour.

here is an excerpt from his requiem (the Finale)

in this excerpt you hear his use of the different registers of each section of voices in counterpoint.

the lyrics:

I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labours.

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine (Lord, shine an eternal light upon them)
Cum sanctis tuis in aeternum (as with your saints, in eternity)
Quia pius est (for you are merciful)

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, (Lord, grant them eternal rest)
Et lux perpetua luceat eis. (And let eternal light shine upon them)


Regarding the music itself, while this isn't terribly modern or avant-garde (it is almost the very antithesis of modern and avant-garde) I still find that this music merits respect. There is tremendous craft involved, an understanding of setting text to music, of counterpoint, of harmony, of vocal writing, and orchestration. I can't help but become emotionally invested when I listen to this work. For me, that makes it a successful setting of text.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"

Monise

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Re: Composing for Choirs
« Reply #6 on: November 29, 2013, 11:06:46 AM »
Hi, this is extremely interesting read. I find this interestingg becos I can actually relate many of these ideas/concepts to my perceptions or interpretation of music. Michel talk about the 'square' of music. I think of syllables as rounded and square. The round ones are the easier ones to fit into the music with the square ones not so easy.

I consider our language very 'squarely?' and not very friendly when you are working on the lyrics for a hymn etc. For example 'Please' can be one syllable and be rounded off smoothly, while its local equivalent in Tuvalu is 'Fakamolemole' this is already 6 syllables and very square in sound.

Cheers, M

Michel.R.E

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Re: Composing for Choirs
« Reply #7 on: November 30, 2013, 09:40:15 AM »
those vocal ranges are fine for good-quality amateur choruses.

with a professional quality chorus, the sopranos should have at least a Bb, the tenors should have an easy A or Bb, the baritones SHOULD be able to go up to G, and the basses definitely need an E.

add to that the "profundo" basses who should have a low C.
"Writing music to be revolutionary is like cooking to be famous: Music’s main function is not revolution. – Alan Belkin "

"Saying something new about something old is still saying something new. – Jamie Kowalski"