How to Write Choir Music

Whether you’re an experienced composer or just getting started, our guide to writing choir music will help you transform your ideas into beautiful notes.

Choirs are great, aren’t they? Just a bunch of voices weaving together a tapestry of sound.  Don’t let the overwhelming choir sound intimidate you–they’re pretty easy to write. Shortly, you’ll learn about everything you need to know. We cover where to begin writing a choir song, how to consider your vocal ranges, and even how to pair lyrics with choir music.  

Understanding the basics of music and vocal ranges.

When creating choral music, it helps to understand the basics of music theory, such as chords, chord progressions, and major and minor scales.

There are many resources. You can educate yourself online, get a teacher, or use tools like the SimplyPiano app to get you up to speed.

Furthermore, knowledge about your singers’ vocal ranges empowers you to write parts that suit their voices. Here’s a summary of the voices in a traditional choir:

  • Bass–E2 – E5
  • Tenor–C3 – C5
  • Soprano–C4 – C6
  • Alto--F3 – F5

The differences between orchestras and choirs.

It’s helpful to have experience writing for orchestras or bands, but choir music is a whole other thing. You can’t simply think of the voices as more instruments in the orchestra. They have specific needs you have to cater to in your music scores. 

To help you understand, analyze existing choir music. Play it, sing it and compare it to other types of sheet music.

Deciding on the accompanying instruments.

Before you start writing, decide which instruments must accompany the voices. Are you writing for a school choir where a teacher plays along on a piano or an ensemble that performs with a full orchestra? You can also write for an a cappella choir, where you only have to write for the voices. 

Picking the number of voices for the song.

Personal preferences and the type of choir you write for determining how many voices to include. The average SATB choir has the four in the list above, but there are also the following options:

  • All men choirs only have bass and tenor voices.
  • Female-only choirs contain altos and sopranos.

Picking the voices is part of your preparation because it affects your song’s pitch range.

Writing lyrics.

Do you have a famous poem you want to put to music? Or perhaps it’s a completely original work with words flowing from your pen. 

Know what lyrics you want to write music for, so the words and the melodies suit each other and convey the same message. 

Struggling to write an entire song’s words? Then simply settle with a single verse or the chorus, as long as you can pinpoint the heart of the song.

Note: In some cases, you may start with the melody and then write words for it. This is up to personal preference, or you may want to turn a funky riff on the piano into a full-blown choir song. However,  make sure that in the end, your lyrics and melodies suit each other.

Creating the melody.

Now it’s time for the notes!

You can write choir music using any instrument you’re comfortable with, whether it’s playing the piano or strumming the guitar. Go at it bit by bit, instead of feeling overwhelmed with penning down the entire song in one go. 

Do you have a catchy tune for the chorus, or does the verse you wrote inspire certain notes?

One of the voices will sing your melody, so write within the specific vocal range. 

Respecting voice ranges.

While you write, respect vocal ranges because it helps the choir sing comfortably and deliver the notes with more power. You can move outside a range at times, but overdoing it–especially by adding too many high notes–strains their voices. They won’t enjoy singing your choir music as much, which affects the quality of the performance.

Creating harmonies.

Next, use the other voices to create harmonies with the main melody line. This is where your knowledge of chord progressions comes in handy. 

Don’t make the other parts too simple. Choir members appreciate an interesting piece, enjoy it more and as a result, sound better when performing. 

Once again, it’s up to personal preference whether you want to write an entire song’s melody and then do the other voices, or build the song one verse and chorus at a time. Find a process that feels comfortable to you.

Combining lyrics and melodies.

You have to put together your lyrics and melodies. Knowing how the song goes could help you finish the song’s words. Perhaps your melody shows you that you only need two catchy sentences for the chorus or repetition of a simple phrase as a bridge. This step does require some skill though.

Understanding note positioning

It’s essential to line up words and notes correctly, so you show singers how you expect them to sing each syllable. For example:

  • Choir members sing the vowel sounds on the note or beat.
  • Your music score must allow enough time for proper pronunciation of all consonant sounds.
  • Unlike consonants such as ‘t’ and ‘d’ you can lengthen certain consonant sounds, such as M, N, F, V, S, and Sh. 
  • A chorus views a rest as an indication to release the note. 

Minding the breath

This is one of the major differences between writing music for orchestras and choirs. For instruments like pianos and violins, musicians can go on playing whatever notes you want of them next, without taking a break during the performance. 

A choir member needs enough air to produce the sounds, so your choral music must provide moments for them to breathe. Then, they’re able to take on the next part. Be creative and kind by planning their breaths and releases when you write. 

Tip: If singers must sustain certain notes for an extended period though, singers can stagger their breathing. 

Hinting at notes to come

For choir members to sing each note on pitch, they may need some help from you.

Before a song’s performance, some choirs use tuning forks to find the right starting note. But, throughout the piece, there are other notes to pitch correctly. 

Of course, the accompanying instrument plays the relevant notes of your melody. But, if you know a certain note is difficult to hit or transition to, find a way to help the choir. 

For example, include it somewhere in the score just before the main voice needs to sing it. Their trained ears can pick it out from the musical score and help them sing on pitch. 

Stressing syllables with intention

The syllables you stress the most are powerful in helping you convey your message. Don’t simply assign random notes in the melody to any word or syllable. Move syllables around and make melody changes if necessary, so singers pronounce words correctly while also highlighting a certain part of the song’s meaning.

Combine all these techniques and you’ll have a song that sounds great and is enjoyable to sing.

To make life easier, join a choir if you’ve never been part of one before. Understanding the perspective of the choir members goes a long way in helping new writers create stunning choir music. 

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