So you'd like to write a choral work...
Fantastic! We're delighted to have you with us on Composer Create, a complete guide to writing a choral composition. This site is run by ORA Singers, an a cappella vocal ensemble whose mission is to commission, record and perform the best choral music of the day. We're always on the look out for composers who reflect the finest quality of choral writing and this includes finding undiscovered choral writers too. This site has been developed in partnership with the ORA Singers Composer Competition and our project supporters, Signatur, in order for us to help nurture a new generation of choral composers.
Thank you for joining us in our mission and we hope this will be the start of your journey to writing a stunning new choral work...
Before you start!
It's tricky picking up a new skill, starting from scratch, or daring to pursue a new career! We thank you for visiting Composer Create and hope that you find the materials useful.
The best way of learning something new is to truly immerse yourself in the culture of it! Have you listened to lots of choral music? Have you had a go at writing something, perhaps just a melody? Are you inspired by poetry that you'd just love to set to music? Are you desperate to sing?
Below are lots of different ways you can get involved in the world of choral music. If you're totally new to us, why not watch this short video from ORA Singers’ Group & Development Manager, Natalie Watson, on her introduction to Choral music.
Have you ever spent an afternoon immersing yourself in beautiful choral classics? This might not be your normal way to relax, but we promise you it's worth it! Choral music is an ancient tradition that seems to chime with all of us, regardless of our musical upbringing. We've had many people who are not choral fanatics who’ve loved our choral music.
Not convinced? Listen to this very short clip below and you will be!
There are thousands of outstanding choral works out there waiting for you! Listen to lots of music, listen to lots of styles, and become familiar with the language. Composer Create is designed to help you write a choral composition, but don’t feel limited by that! Listen to all sorts of music, for different instrumentation, different time periods and different genres.
+ Find out a little more about ORA's commissioning
ORA Singers is a group that explores music across history, from the Renaissance period (c. 1400- 1600) to Contemporary choral works (the music of today!). We believe both of these time periods have created some of the best choral music in the world, and so we perform music from both of these periods alongside each other; a presentation of the old vs. the new in our concerts and album recordings. If you've not yet listened to much choral music, why not start with the early composers, like William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Palestrina, and explore the more unusual and daring composers such as Gesualdo or Lobo. There are some excellent playlists out there, or if you're looking to start right now, why not enjoy these ones we've handpicked for you below.
Our Composer Create Choral Discovery playlist takes you through some of the important Renaissance classics, including a few recordings from ORA Singers, and then a collection of astounding 21st century works we love!
Live music is an entirely different experience to recorded music. If you’ve not yet experience music live, then you’re missing out.
+ Find out more about live music near you
Going to see your favourite band live is so much better than listening to their album at home. It’s the experience of being there, having a shared experience with the people around you, hearing the music there and then, in that moment. Listening to live music is a really important experience!
Concerts near you:
Check out the local venues and make a note of when bands/groups/orchestras are performing.
Try sites such as Concert Diary which list upcoming concerts and their location, some of which are free.
Sign up to the newsletters of your favourite groups and Artists- they often post about ticket discounts, open rehearsals or free ticket promotions in here.
If you don’t like anywhere near a concert venue, try live streaming. Lots of Artists stream live through Facebook or Youtube, but also try out platforms such as the Berliner Philarharmoniker Digital Concert Hall, Exit Live , The BBC Proms season on TV each summer, or the London Symphony Orchestra’s live streamed concerts.
2. JOIN IN
There are lots of ways that you can participate in music making, and lots of groups out there waiting for you to get involved with. Whether it be your county music service, or your schools, or local rotary clubs, there’s always a way to get stuck in. Don’t be put off if you can’t find anything in the usual avenues, you’d be surprised at how often music making is happening.
+ Find out more
Is there a local church where you can visit to hear rehearsals, evensong, or even the organist rehearse?
Do your neighbours play an instrument, perhaps you could ask to listen whilst they practise?
Are there any gig venues nearby where you could watch the bands rehearse?
Could you form a group together with some friends and have a go at singing?
Could you ask your school teacher about joining or starting a new club or ensemble?
Or even spend a day on youtube watching videos of concerts from around the globe!
If you’re reading this and you’d love to get more involved with music making, don’t be discouraged if some doors are shut for you. There may be some hurdles in the way: your local orchestra may need you to audition, or there may not be a music teacher at your school for you to ask about, or you might just have no idea where to start.
Why not check out our friends over at Making Music, a national charity aimed at engaging more people in amateur music making, who have a tonne of information on their website under 'Get involved'. In particular, you might find useful their sections on 'Finding a group' and 'Opportunities' to find out more about music making in your local area.
The best way to learn how to write for voice, is for you to be active in singing yourself.
Singing in a choir is unusually valuable, but is not the only way to get involved in music making. If singing is not your bag, then there are plenty of other ways for you to start to participate in music making, details of which can be found further down the page.
Did you know that there are over 40,000 choirs in the UK alone?! The Big Choral Census, conducted by Voices Now, sought to find out how many choirs there are in the UK, who participates in them and what sort of music they sing. It estimates there are “at least 40,000 choirs”, including private choirs, church choirs and school choirs, with 2.14 million regular singers. Singing opportunities are literally on your doorstep. Why not check out some of the links below to find a local choir?
We all have a voice, so why not give it a go!
+ Learn more about the significance and importance of singing.
- Singing different parts in a choir awakens your harmonic muscles
Writing music from scratch can be tricky. When you sing music regularly, you are constantly learning from the composers whose works you perform. Perhaps you loved that cadence that you sang last week, and thought it was really clever how the altos resolved the suspension, or how the basses consistent pedal created a beautiful effect when the other voices changed note. Drawing from this inspiration is vital in terms of feeding your compositional appetite. Nearly all of musical composition is remixing other's ideas, collating different sources of inspiration, deciding how to rework them and producing a 'new' product. Singing regularly gives you lots of new ideas, even if it's just working out how you don't want to compose!
- Knowing your voice gives you realistic insight into composing for the voice
When you know how to sing, this really informs your choral composing. You learn what is difficult, what is enjoyable to sing, and what kind of writing really puts you off! This helps you relate to the performers who will sing your work and empathise with what they do. It will also leave you with a huge sense of appreciation for their talent- when you realise how difficult certain aspects of singing can be, and how well they still pull it off! The more you sing, the more this will stop you making huge compositional mistakes, and enable you to write feasible but challenging new works. Just because someone can sing does not mean they can automatically compose, but knowing your instrument well certainly improve the writing. Think of all the work actors do when taking on a new role! They have to look into terminology related to their characters and their professions, perhaps learn a new accent, interview people who can offer insight into their characters, or even take up the job of their character in order to experience what it might be like working in that role! If you're desperate to write for voice, but not a keen singer yourself, look at this as research into your new role and become immersed in the culture...
- Singing is the easiest way to get involved with music making
Musical instruments are expensive, but guess what... your voice is free! Singing is also really fun, and lots of studies say that joining a local choir can really boost your happiness, sense of community, and means making a whole new group of friends. Music should be for the masses, and is something we all enjoy listening to. Have you ever met someone who said 'I don't like music'? Get involved in making some music yourself, gain confidence and get to grips with learning a new skill.
Orchestra, wind band & other ensembles
For a lot of professional musicians, their local music services or school orchestras had a huge part in their development. There is so much to be learnt from rehearsing regularly and performing with other musicians as valuable skills are learned. Instrumentalists are challenged on: Do I blend with the other performers? Am I playing in tune? Are we placing this chord in the same place? Not only this, but it means getting to grips with loads of repertoire, composers and styles. Why not check out the following links to see if there is a local group you can join?
Starting a band can be great fun and also a great way to learn alongside peers. It’s also a really effective way of learning together quickly and working towards a common goal. Why not find a group of friends who you can join with to form a group, listen to some of your favourite music, and see if you can recreate some of the songs you listen to? Youtube is packed full of resources for guitarists, drummers, bass players and vocalists. Or you can even create a band with some other instrumentalists you know, and have a go at improvising together. Don’t feel limited by genre- you can play classical music in your band, or explore jazz, rock, indie, metal or even world music. And bands can be a group of any instruments; try the bagpipes, create a consort of recorders, form a string quartet, or start a choir!
Just do something!
Have you read all of the above and nothing has jumped out to you? This is not an exhaustive list of ways for you to get involved in music making.
+ Here are just a few other ways for you join in
- Raid charity shops
Charity shops are often full of abandoned instruments, sheet music, and cheap solutions to music making. If you still own a CD player, you can buy albums of incredible music for a very low cost. Perhaps you might find a recorder and beginner books there, which you could buy and see if you can teach yourself the basics? There are often lots of piano scores in charity shops too, why not buy a few and have a go at looking at the ways in which the composers were writing, or take a snippet of melody and write your own accompaniment?
- Talk with musicians
Musicians have a wealth of knowledge that they are able to share with you. If you want to write a new piece of music, the best thing you can do is speak to someone who plays that instrument! Mozart wrote for the whole orchestra but only played a select few instruments; this means he had to research how to write for those other instruments. You can learn a lot by talking to musicians about the challenges of their instrument and by asking them what their favourite pieces of compositional writing are. Don’t be afraid to approach any musicians you might know, music teachers, performers at the end of a concert, or even write a comment in your favourite Youtube video!
- Look at scores
There are lots of free resources online, including access to scores. Seeing how other composers write gives you invaluable insight into their compositional expertise. It also provides you with a framework about how to present your scores, as the music needs to be readable by the performer! Music publishers such as Edition Peters allow you to preview the start of the score before you buy, or websites such as the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) give you access to thousands of parts, scores and compositions currently out of copyright.
- Be the stage manager, sort out the music, make the tea!
There are other aspects to music making outside of performing. You can learn a lot about how music groups work by taking part in an administrative role for an organisation, and spending time around all that music making and other musicians will often help you to develop as a musician yourself. If you’ve never learnt an instrument or composed before, this is a great way for you to take your first steps in the world of music making.
Notation is probably the most logical, flexible and universal language ever created. Because it is so logical, it is actually very easy to understand the basics. It’s also a great skill to have and will stay with your for life.
Music notation is not the only way to write a composition, but as it is the universal way of translating what you mean on paper into sound, it’s a really good idea to brush up your skills on music writing, notation and theory. We’ve included some helpful advice for you on the Top up your theory page, which we recommend you check out next!
+ Read some more on writing exercises!
Writing exercises are like practise runs. Just like a painter might do a study before they embark on a major painting, or a whole series of studies, a composer might do some sample sketches of ideas before they think about writing a new piece. Particularly when you are starting out, don’t be afraid to try out new ideas in melody, rhythm and harmony, and structure/design or concept. When you write a melody, ask yourself whether you need to write a rhythm, or can you pick out a series of notes you’d like? Or you might focus on rhythmic writing, and later add in the melody. Here are some different ways you could explore having a go at starting a composition…
Melody, tune or line - Why not have a go at coming up with a short melody? It’s always great to write something down in pencil so that you can explore and change ideas. Music software often locks you into a time signature and key signature, and then stops you thinking creatively. Instead why not go for a walk, or sit at the piano and try a few things out. Perhaps then look at your simple melody and try writing an accompanying line. It's likely your melody line is written for a soprano, so maybe work out what the alto might do alongside it? You'll find once you have two lines working then the other voices are much easier to slot in. Play around with different textures, or perhaps rewrite your melody into the relative key (major or minor) or change the time signature. Alter the speed, or dot the rhythms so it sounds more like a dance, or slow the melody line down into long semibreves and write an interesting bass line underneath. There are so many ways to write interesting music from a single source of inspiration- your original melody!
Rhythm- Why not have a go at tapping out a series of different rhythms, or writing a series of notes and then assign them different length notes. Play around with this to see what sorts of different effects you can create.
Pulse- When you vary the speed it totally changes the feel of the piece. Have you ever sung ‘Happy Birthday’ really, really slowly? It changes from the mood of celebratory to sombre. Think about changing the pulse to see which how whether fast or slow would work best for your composition. Some melodies might be too tricky to perform at a very fast speed, or at a really slow speed there would need to be space for breaths. Have a go at trying out lots of different pulses.
Harmony- We often feel like harmony operates by lots of ‘rules’ and set guidelines, but harmony is essentially how different notes sound when played together. Why not try putting notes together 2 notes, and then 3 notes, and 4 and 5, and see what sounds you like. What does it sound like? Is is positive, withdrawn, angry, bright, scary? Experiment with the different effects you can get. Perhaps then change one of the notes- how has this impacted on the sound world?
It's time to begin…
The process of composing is often trying out loads of ideas, scrapping large chunks of music, starting again, writing and re-writing. Composers are creating works of art that are not always complete. You shouldn't expect to sit down with a piece fully formed in your head, notate it all down and then voilà- a masterpiece is born! We're not all Mozart.
Don’t forget to use what you have at your fingertips to help you in composition. Use the ‘record’ function on your phone to sing a melody you think up, or leave a voice memo with a new idea you might have had. You can surf the internet for interesting poems to set music to, and there are lots of apps available that let you try out some musical ideas. IPhones come with Garage Band installed, which is great for trying out ideas for bands or having a go at layering different rhythms.
Don’t forget pen and paper! You can play with all sorts of effects, such as writing a melody and then turning the page upside down and seeing what it sounds like if you read the music from the other way around. You can play with changing the time signature, or key signature, or transposing the notes up a third but keeping the original key. Use a rubber and don’t be afraid to change your ideas.
Finally- enjoy the world around you. There is music in everything, whether it be the birds singing, the rhythm of the train on the tracks, your morning alarm clock, or the sound of the cat scurrying up the stairs. Get out and be inspired.