Tool #51: Writing for Voice: Understanding Singing

As part 2 in my series of posts about writing for voice, I would like to depart from the traditional model of outlining steps.  Yes, the first post was labeled “Step 1”, but in a desire to not oversimplify things I will refrain from using further labeled steps, unless I decide to label a “Final Step” (that would be the only exception).

To write for voice you have to understand singing.  To do this, I suggest doing these:

  1. Singing in a choir
  2. Listening to a wide variety of vocal music
  3. Taking voice lessons
  4. Understanding overtones and the harmonic series
  5. Having piano playing and sight reading facility
  6. Understanding tonal music theory

These could be turned into many volumes’ worth of output as they apply to singing, and these take years to develop.  But, here are my condensed thoughts on how to understand the voice.

  1. Timbre is the most dynamic aspect of the voice.  Every vowel and consonant sound is a change in timbre.  You cannot write for choir as you write for string orchestra; the different words in a choir change the timbre drastically, while strings are relatively homogeneous in timbre over many notes
  2. The voice is a physical instrument.  One’s whole body is the instrument while singing.  Here are some tips to help you utilize the body correctly:
    1. Account for breathing, always
    2. Know each vocal range, break points, and what pitch areas will tire out your singer(s) quickly (this may be the subject of another post)
    3. Certain sounds cannot be made easily in certain ranges (eg. certain vowels up high and down low), or in certain ways (it is hard to crescendo on an ooh vowel)
    4. Hearing is inherently tied to vocal writing:
      1. Singers cannot pick pitches out of thin air.  (Never assume singers with perfect pitch will solve this problem entirely, as other sounds may confuse pitch)
      2. Other sounds can confuse tuning of pitches (eg. accompaniment sounds)
      3. When in choirs, voicing members of the same sections in dissonances can confuse tuning and finding pitches
    5. The mouth and tongue play an integral role in producing sound.  They need to be accounted for:
      1. If you cannot speak or sing the words in time, your music may be too fast
      2. If you cannot pronounce every word of your text correctly, you need to understand it completely before writing
      3. If you phrase words so that they are hard to understand spoken, they will be even harder to understand sung
      4. Certain consonants can be sung, such as “m”, “n”, and “v”.  These are called voiced consonants.  Their counterparts, unvoiced consonants, can be used to great effect for articulations (eg. “t”, “d”, and “p”) and making other sounds when sustained
  3. Choral music stems from a tonal tradition.  While there is plenty of strong and canonical atonal music for the voice, most singers are trained in the tonal system and common practice period, using solfege and folk songs to get the basis for their ability to produce pitch (this all applies to Western musics).

    Get to know the music of late Medieval and Renaissance music (Palestrina, Leonin and Perotin, de Machaut, de Lassus, etc.), where our system of consonance and dissonance first began, and further tonal music of later periods builds on this.  Liturgical music in particular is the backbone for Western vocal music.

    Singers think tonally.  Key signatures, which I personally find limiting during the compositional process, can be lifesavers in the finished product of a piece.  They save much time, effort, and confusion in rehearsal

  4. Most choral music selling largely today is simpler than you might think.  Tonal music; music for children, amateurs, and schools; folk songs; pop music; seasonal/holiday music; and music that pales in complexity to the typical Modernist avant-garde is oftentimes the music that is the most popular.  I am not saying do not write your best music, nor am I saying do not write complex music; I am just saying be aware and judicious of your output, audience, and which of your pieces are most marketable
  5. The voice is the most malleable tool to explore and exploit the harmonic series.  Closely voiced notes in the higher register with octaves and fifths in the lower registers can produce harmonious, rich results; open (widely spaced) dissonant chords can sound really bright, and lowly voiced clusters can be very warm
  6. Most rehearsals with singers will have a piano in the room.  It is important that you keep this in mind, particularly:
    1. Writing piano reductions for a cappella writing
    2. Making piano parts supportive of the chorus
    3. Making piano parts playable
    4. Making piano parts not overly complex or hard
    5. Making piano parts sightreadable

These are my first thoughts on this, in a condensed format.  Do you have questions?  Comments?

Happy composing, and thank you for reading,



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