Renowned composer, singer and vocal coach Lydia Jane Pugh shares her advice on writing for choirs.
The voice is a marvellous thing, and group singing showcases this spectacularly. As a singer and composer of choral music, I can vouch that there is immense joy in hearing a group bring your composition to life. But what does it take to write or arrange music for voices?
The first thing you need to write music of any kind is a basic understanding of melody and harmony. That’s not to say that you need to have an inside-out knowledge of music theory – Paul McCartney wrote an entire choral album with no theoretical knowledge; but what he does have is an understanding of music. One great piece of advice I can give is to look at “part dispersion”. As a general rule, the further below Middle C (C4) parts get, the further apart they need to be in order to sound effective. Likewise, the further above Middle C, the closer together they can be. Try this at home:
In choirs, standard mixed voice writing is split into Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass (SATB). These labels tell us what range the part will be singing (not necessarily voice type by the way). Below are the approximate ranges for choir:
These parts and approximate ranges work pretty well for more classical compositions, but if you’re writing pop music arrangements, SATB formats often don’t work as well. Gospel music for example often features close harmony, tends to be in SSAT or SATT arrangements, and the vocal ranges will be more what would be expected for belting. This therefore dramatically changes the way you need to write to reflect the genre.
Another challenge in voice writing is creating something interesting for each part to sing. We choristers joke that Altos always end up with the “filler” harmony, which works harmonically but is hugely unsatisfying and un-melodic to sing! I pride myself, as a choral composer, on taking time to sing each vocal line, as I want every singer in the choir to feel like they matter. And, by singing through each line, you can take into consideration one of the biggest fundamentals of singing: breathing! A lot of new writers fall into the trap of just writing melodic lines, but they haven’t considered when the singers will actually be able to breathe!
Other things to consider when writing for voice:
Are you writing for a specific group?
If so, do your research and learn about the groups’ abilities; their vocal ranges, preferred part divisions, style preferences etc, and stick to these guidelines. That’s not to say you can’t try a few things, but common sense should tell you that writing something that goes outside a group’s abilities isn’t going to work so well.
A cappella, or accompanied?
Unaccompanied vocal writing has its own challenges, as you need to create the full harmonic picture with voices only. An accompaniment can help in filling things out, but it comes with its own challenge of needing to understand how the accompanying instrument works. Incidentally, it does pay to have skills on another instrument, such as piano. However, you don’t need to be an amazing instrumentalist, it’s more about being able to play with melodies and harmonies to hear what it is you really want. Also, if you don’t have great instrumental skills, ask someone who does to help you out!
Listen and Learn
Go and listen to loads of vocal music in a variety of styles to see what can be achieved. I credit my skills with harmony to my study of Bach’s Chorales for A-level music, so listen to things you might not have otherwise, as it might help you find your own compositional voice. Listening also applies to your own work – You will hear if something sounds right or not, so trust your instincts and let your ears guide you.
Finally: remember that the possibilities of the voice are endless! Just have fun creating new soundscapes and taking in the huge variety of work that is already out there. To get you started, here are a few examples;
Something classic; you can’t get much more classic than the Hallelujah Chorus
Something modern; and a great showcase of just what can be achieved with a cappella voices! The Voca People
And a little something by me if you want to know more about how I write: My Hiding Place
Happy writing everyone!
MAIN IMAGE: The BBC Singers and Sofi Jeannin perform Bach’s St John Passion on BBC Newsnight