Tool #50: Writing for Voice – Step 1

Instrumental composition is hard.  It is rewarding, but challenging nonetheless.  Even harder (in my opinion) than instrumental composition is vocal composition.  Here I would like to start talking about writing for the voice, and focus on working with text first.

Step 1: selecting the text to work with

There are a few questions you will have to answer before you even get to work with the text:

  1. What text will you use?
    This seems very basic, but the numbers below will help you find that text
  2. Is the text copyrighted?  If so, how will you get the rights to set it?
    Consult copyright law for your country.  You can only set the text of public domain words, or text where you have express permission from all its rights holders if it is copyrighted.  Please note that a translation of an old text can be copyrighted.  In general, the older the text, the more likely it is in the public domain.  But, you must do your homework to ensure you have all the rights secured.  If you don’t, you will not be able to publish, perform, or sell your music legally.
  3. Is the text good for singing?
    Some text doesn’t really suit singing well.  Too many consonants, weird or harsh vowels, lots of awkward phrases, or lots of strange word endings may present opportunities, but are likely to challenge you more than you should be challenged in your first attempts at vocal writing.  I always read the text slowly, both in my head and aloud, enunciating and squeezing the juice out of every syllable, to ensure it is something that sounds good as a sound object, is not problematic to set to music, and is something that I want to set.
  4. Is the text good for setting to music?
    Text that is too short or too long may need to be adapted to fit your instrumentation.  Text that is disjointed may present problems in your musical form/structure.  Every problem is a challenge and an opportunity, but it may not be good to throw every challenge at yourself at first.
  5. What language is the text in?
    If the text is in your native tongue or one you are fluent in, you are all set.  But, if you are not completely familiar with the language, acquire a dictionary in that language, and ensure you know how the words and phrases should be pronounced.  I recommend blowing up the font of the text to a large size, printing it on oversized paper, and marking up the accents, stresses, inflections, consonants, vowels, and other pronunciation to ensure you are an authority on your text.
  6. Will you use the entire text, or part?
    Some text is too long for practical use, and sometimes the text explores multiple concepts in multiple sections when your piece only needs a certain section.
  7. Will you rearrange or edit the text in any way?
    Will you repeat syllables, words, phrases, etc.?  Will you add in vocalizations, screams, “ahs”, consonants, side comments, etc.?  Will you cut up the text into small pieces?  How will you use, edit, or adapt the text’s inherent phrase structure?  Is chopping up your author’s text an affront to their work, beliefs, or culture?  Is it tactful to twist your author’s words through edits?
  8. What is the meaning of the text?
    What lenses can you see this text through besides its original one?  How can you illustrate, enhance, or contradict the text’s original meaning or meanings?  Does the text have a meta-meaning, or does it naturally contradict itself?
  9. Does the text fit your concept of your piece?
    Even if it does not, does that have to disqualify it from your search?  How can you change the text or its musical concept to fit your intention?
  10. Does the text offer any opportunities to change or enhance the concept of your piece?
    Every roadblock presents a chance to be creative.  How can you actively collaborate with the text to make your work better than it would have been alone?
  11. Does the text have any historical, societal, or political context or association?
    Are there any provocative elements you can utilize or that you should avoid?  What does the text mean in terms of the history of mankind and our societies?  What statements are you making by using the text, and using it in the way you do?
  12. (There are many more questions to ask yourself about the text)

I hope to follow up on this post with further posts about working with text and voices.  There are many areas to consider, and I encourage you to chime in on this post.

Happy composing!


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