In partnership with the ORA Singers Composer Competition
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First thoughts

The first steps in writing your composition

1. Starting your composition

Your starting point can be practically anywhere or anything, but can be sorted into three main categories: concept, text or music.

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  • Concept - you may be wanting to capture the idea of something in music, say the sea, the beginning of time, machines, fast food, the list is endless. Once you have a concept, you will need to think what sounds and vocal effects might best convey the concept in the way you want. Take the example of the sea: is it stormy? Is it calm with sun reflecting off the water? Are there children paddling, or speed boats driving past?

  • Text - this is the starting point for many composers, and can be anything. Poetry is an obvious option, as it often suits itself to musical setting but, if it inspires you, you can take text from anywhere. See our section on Choosing a Text (scroll down) for more ideas.

  • Music - Do you have a musical line going round and round in your head? Or a particular beat that you like? This could be the start of your composition. It could be the main tune of your piece, the melody, or perhaps it’s a bass line. You might even have a particular chord that you would like to build around. All of these musical options could be a good starting point.

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2. Using technology

Music technologies are important tools in the creative process.  But they are generally no more than tools.  Music writing software is the equivalent to a word processor or an old typewriter.  It makes a music score look neat, but it can't invent the music for you.  

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While good old fashioned pencil and paper are the perfect tools for 'sketching' ideas, 'writing up' via a music notation programme will make life easy. You can adapt and change without the need to get the scissors out, or use messy rubbers or Tippex. So what software should you choose?

Well, like anything, you shouldn't allow a limited set of parameters dictate what you want to create and how you can express it. Many free packages currently offer very limited notation mechanisms. Don't opt for that, if something better is available. In this, you should consider a music notation software's ability to create a score that looks not only exactly how you'd like it to look, but can also create the most complicated and visually obscure possible. That sort of software means you have a genuinely good tool.

Finale, Dorico and Sibelius and probably the best known software systems. All operate differently, and compatibility with a tutor/teacher's system might prove advantageous, but you shouldn't go wrong with any of these. The key thing is to write down what you want to first (with pencil and paper) and then start inputting that. Yes, you can develop your ideas at a computer desk, yes you can use it as a mechanism to play back what you have created, etc. But always develop your aural skills beyond that of the computer playback.

Most software systems now offer monthly subscription schemes. Many also offer student rates and substantial discounts for professionals, etc. So ask the company for the most competitive price.

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3. Choosing your ensemble size

Believe it or not, it does matter whether your final ensemble will be 4 or 400 singers! The size of the ensemble changes the timbre (that’s the distinctive sound quality) of the music. Your voice sounds very different singing alone, as it does when singing in a large crowd!

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Most compositions are written for SATB; that’s Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. This can mean one on each part, or several on each part. The composer can specify if they have a particular desire for the number of voices- or leave this up to the performer! If a composer wants to write two separate lines for each voice, they may write this as SSAATTBB or SATB, and at some point in the score the line will separate.

Singers have generally agreed amongst themselves whether they are the ‘lower line’ or ‘upper line’ of each section- that means if you write two Soprano lines, there will be dedicated ‘higher range’ singers who will take the highest notes and others for the lower notes. Sometimes it can get tricky when you write in the extremes of the voices (either high or low for one particular voice) as you may tread towards the territory of another voice e.g. if you write a very low Soprano part, you may in fact need an Alto to perform it! For large, and particular amateur choirs, its best to stick well within the bounds of the recommended voice ranges.

If you are writing for a specific project, perhaps a friend or a choir you already know, you may end up writing a line specific to one particular performer. For example, if that choir has an incredibly low bass singer, and you want to write them a solo in the piece, great! Just beware that this might make your work un-performable by other groups and it will reduce the likelihood of others taking this up. If you are writing for an exam or grade exam, please by wary that the examiner may not think you have considered this and might mark you down!

At ORA Singers, we choose 18 singers, which we believe gives us the perfect balance of voices, flexibility in sound and opportunity for solos and smaller ‘choirs within a choir’. Some of the works people have written for us have been for 2 double voice choirs and soloists, 18 separate parts, or even just standard SATB. We find a good mix keeps our listeners on their toes and our singers happy!

If this is your first choral composition, let’s begin with the standard SATB formation; one single line on each voice. You can experiment with larger and more complicated formations as you develop your writing skills.

It might also be good to imagine an occasion for your work. Will the total number of performers be 4; a small ‘consort’ performance? Or will the total number of performers belong a large choral society, of approximately 40 in number, and mean that you are writing 10 to a part? Have a think about all these factors before you write your piece!

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4. Choosing a text

It might sound obvious, but you really need to consider carefully what text you are going to use when writing for a vocal ensemble. Singing is essentially enhanced speaking, in other words, it matters what they are saying! 

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Make sure that you write very clearly which words belong to which notes, and put a dash next to syllables that are going to extend for more than one note. This is known as melisma and should be very clearly noted in your score. It's important to include a mixture of melismatic (more than one note per syllable) and syllabic (one note per syllable) to keep your audiences on their toes and to make sure the music isn't too busy with lots of sounds!

Times when this can become tricky is when you are writing verses with different words but the same melody. Make sure you consider how many syllables the new verse is, and whether this will fit naturally into the melody you have written for the original verse. Otherwise your singers will have to guess where to place the syllables, possibly adding in extra up-beats or double syllables to make sure they fit them all in. Remember: the text is important and should not be skimmed over, so make this your focus before fixing the melody!

Other issues to consider are certain syllables in the extremities of the voice. Any voicepart that is singing at the top, or bottom, of its range may well be less clear with their words, they may not be able to pronounce the consonants so strongly and they may have to alter the vowel to make it easier to sing at that height or depth. Similarly, if you're setting words that are very low in a voicepart's range, the liklelihood is that they will be less clear and a little muddy. Essentially, if you really want the text to be heard keep the voiceparts in a fairly cenral part of their vocal range.

When using texts in another language (including Latin), professional singers will have been trained in the general pronunciation of words and should be able to give an accurate performance. Amateur choirs will not necessarily have received any training, and so if you have a native speaker in your audience, they may not actually understood what is being sung! The best advice is to stick to what you know, the languages you speak, and to do some research when using old texts (such as Latin and Old English).

Practically any text can be set to music, but that might make it quite daunting to choose the ideal text for you. Here are a few pointers that might help.

  • You should be aware that it generally takes longer to sing words than to speak them, especially in choral music. So think about shorter amounts of texts, don’t weigh yourself down with having to fit in the words from a whole book! Even whole operas have much less text than you’d think.

  • Conversational text tends to work less well in choral music, whereas more descriptive or abstract passages can work well. This may well explain why so many composers like to set poetry to music.

  • Remember that text is not only about meaning but also has rhythm. Certain types of text can be very percussive (try this example here of a piece called ‘Geographical Fugue’!), and others very fluid.

  • Finally, don’t be afraid of writing your own words if that works better for you!

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5. Consonance & Dissonance, Tonality & Atonality

ORA Singers speaks to Paul Max Edlin, Professor of Composition at Queen Mary University of London.

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6. Voice parts and grouping

Before you start writing, it’s worth thinking about how many voice parts you want to write for, and how you want to group them.

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The most common way to write for choirs is with four voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor and bass (SATB for short) but your options are virtually limitless. For example, you could write solely for female voices (SA) or you could go as far as Thomas Tallis in his Spem in Alium where he writes 40 separate voice parts, divided into 8 groups of SSATB, that means 16 sopranos and 8 each of altos, tenors and basses!

Quite often composers divide their piece into two evenly matched ‘choirs’ with the same number of voices in each, [Victoria - Ave Maria] or will have a main ‘choir’ and a smaller group called a semi-chorus. Semi-choruses are quite often placed away from the main choir in performance to create an echo or atmospheric effect, for example in Allegri's Miserere, 4 singers are placed ‘off-stage’ to achieve a quieter and more distanced sound.

Generally composers don’t get to decide how many actual people will sing their piece. Choirs can vary in size from single figures to (very rarely) thousands, but most choirs are in the 8 to 40 people range. It’s worth keeping in mind what size group you’re writing for, don’t write 40 voice parts for a choir of 8.

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7. Capturing the sound world

Richard Allain speaks to us about how he approaches the compositional process.