In partnership with the ORA Singers Composer Competition
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Writing up

Compositional considerations whilst writing

1. Developing a melody

ORA Singers interviews Oliver Tarney on what to do if you get stuck!

2. Word Setting

We speak to Janet Wheeler about her expertise in word-setting.

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3. Performance indications

We can so often have a wrong view of performance indications! You might have written a piece and then be told to ‘add in’ performance indications, or as a performer you’re told to make sure you pay special attention to the performance marking! But they’re just extras… right?

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Wrong! Performance indications are treasured and crucial compositional tools. You can transform your writing simply by the performance indications. Remember, without these you haven’t actually given any instruction on how to perform your music. What use are the notes if you haven’t conveyed the style, mood, speed, dynamic, intention or stress behind them?

Plenty of composers have repeated musical writing and kept their audiences entertained, simply by altering the performance directions. For example, in a theme and variations, often it is the style, dynamics and articulation that are altered, whilst the notes are kept the same. Perhaps the first version is broad and loud, the second short and quiet. You create an entirely new atmosphere is doing this and in turn, a whole new idea behind the music.

Have you ever tried to start your composition by thinking about the performance indications, rather than the notes?

Why not begin your composition by thinking about the mood you want to convey? Perhaps you’d like it to sound triumphant, in which case the performance instructions follow quite naturally; you’ll want it to be loud, broad, and likely a moderate speed (you can even write ‘triumphantly’ at the start!). Or perhaps you want it to be uncertain, in which case it will likely be quiet, tentative and the notes in your melody and harmony might reflect this too. It’s a great way to think about composing, mapping out an ‘emotional journey’ instead of writing your notes first.

Performance indicators, particularly in singing, mainly fall into the following categories:

1) Indicating the speed or mood of the piece.

These words usually come at the start of the piece, or section of a piece, and indicate the general mood. Musical tempo terms such as ‘Adagio’ and ‘Allegro’ can be used here, but also english words like ‘Briskly’, ‘Sweetly’, ‘Tentatively’ are also very effective.

2) Showing you how to articulate each note.

Articulation is, in essence, how to produce a note. If it has a dot over the top of the note, this means it is ‘staccato’ and you make it short in length. Lines over the top of notes are ‘tenuto’ and mean ‘to hold’/play long. These are just two example, but you can get great texture by varying these throughout a piece and even throughout a musical phrase.

3) Dynamics.

Dynamics mean how loud or soft something is. We indicate this on a scale of soft to loud. These indicators usually go underneath a musical line and you can graduate this scale by adding crescendo marking (getting louder) or diminuendo marking (getting softer) also. We generally use the scale below so that musicians globally understand how loud or quiet to sing/perform:

ppp- as quiet as possible!

pp- for pianissimo, meaning very soft

p- for piano, soft/quiet

mp- for mezzo piano, moderately soft/quiet

mf- for mezzo forte, moderately loud

f- for forte, loud

ff- for fortissimo, very loud

fff - as loud as possible!

4. Writing what you love whilst being practical!

ORA Singers interviews Richard Allain.

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5. ‘Choral equality’

Giving each voice their time in the sun is important! Janet Wheeler talks to us about how she tackles writing for four voices types.

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