Music Composition 6: Vocal Writing

by Gary Guttman · 6 comments

A recent post asked about the basic approach to vocal composition. While this subject deserves more of a discussion than I can supply in this format, I can give you a few quick tips to get you started.

One simple way to approach vocal writing is to think of the choir as one body of sound. Although a choir is comprised of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses (SATB), you don’t always need to be concerned about giving each voice a separate function, as you might with a string quartet. You can create a wonderful vocal sound simply by having melody and harmony sung in rhythm together.

The following example illustrates my point. While it has a nostalgic Disney-esque quality, this vocal approach could be used for many different styles.

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In this excerpt, the melody is sung by the sopranos. Simultaneously, the melody is also sung by the basses, one octave lower than the sopranos. This gives strength and reinforcement to the melody line. In between this octave, the altos and tenors add harmony to the melody.

So what we are doing is simply stating the melody and harmonizing it at the same time. On the first beat of music, the sopranos are singing the first note of the melody, the G above middle C. One octave lower, the basses are also singing a G. Since we are in the key of Eb, and the first chord is an Eb major chord, we give the altos the Eb above middle C, and we give the tenors the Bb below middle C.

With the exception of the second to last note of the melody (on the word “love”), all the parts are singing the same rhythm. We are simply stating the melody and harmony as one body of sound.

In the beginning of the next section, the tenors and basses sing the melody in unison, and the sopranos and altos hold chords for two beats each. Then two bars later, the sopranos and altos sing the melody in unison and the tenors and basses hold the harmony notes.

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And as you’ve just heard, we end the piece the same way we began – with all four voices moving as one. It’s important to point out that although there is a light orchestral accompaniment, this vocal arrangement is so rich that it could just as easily have been performed a cappella.

While there are unlimited ways to compose and arrange for vocal groups, this basic approach is a simple way to learn to write for voices.

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pecline September 26, 2009 at 11:47 am

hi this is what i have been waiting 4 a very long time so my question is what should i do b4 thinking on composing a song

Gary Guttman September 28, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Hi pecline,

Since songs are a combination of lyrics and music, you should first determine whether or not you have lyrics that are expressive enough to be combined with music. If not, you should try composing some instrumental music first.

But if you have lyrics that you’d like to use, you can start by playing around with chord progressions and see if they inspire a melody. If you’re not familiar with chord progressions, you can learn how to use them to create melodies from them in our Secret Composer program.

Songwriting is a very different craft from music composition. But the better you are at creating music, the better your songs will be.

– Gary

Ravindra kukku October 1, 2009 at 6:20 am

how to tune asong or compose tune i have little music knowledge on instrument please explain

Gary Guttman October 4, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Hi Ravindra,

Since Secret Composer has been designed to accommodate musicians of all experience levels (from beginner to advanced), our software contains all the information you need to get started. You can purchase and download the software from our “Downloads” page.

– Gary

Nida Villalon March 11, 2010 at 9:04 am

Hello ! I have some sheet music from Filipino composers that I would like to have arranged in SATB. I have looked them up on line with no luck. I have some background in music, I have a choral group, and I need help in arranging the music myself. Is there a program that I can use to make my own arrangements? HELP !

Gary Guttman March 11, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Hi Nida,

Unfortunately, there are no chapters devoted to choral writing in the Secret Composer program. However, I do give some quick tips on choral arranging on this blog page that you are now reading. Spend some time following my instructions on this page and see if that helps you with your choral writing.

– Gary

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