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I'm currently writing a vocal piece for a high school SATB chorus in Musescore. Throughout the composition process, I've been using the Musescore playback, which presents all voice syllables in a Choir Ooh soundfont. This is my first time writing a(n) SATB peice.


How am I supposed to know whether the layers of lyrics will make sense with the harmony? Or how the piece is influenced by the gender of voices? Are those even pertinent questions?

What am I missing in terms of composition by referring the soundfont?


Is it recommended that I regularly ask the choir to learn and recite their current parts to test playback? If so, how regularly?

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It depends.

One of the best pieces of advice for writing music in Musescore or any other score editor is to compose with pencil and paper first, sitting at the piano if you have one. Computers are great tools for typesetting music, but don't always help with the actual process of composing. As Brian says, playback is a nice sanity check but if you rely on it you won't learn to hear the parts in your head. That said, some composers never leave their DAW so ymmv.

Whether the interplay of the lyrics and melody/harmony is important is something only you can answer. There's a long and august choral tradition of setting any old (usually religious) text to music without considering the words at all, but equally there are composers and songwriters who think very carefully about how both the sound and meaning of words and syllables fit with the melody, and how the words sung by different voices weave in with each other. Whether different syllables work better with different harmonies, or whether different sequences of syllables work better with different chord progressions, is something only you (and your ears) can decide.

By relying on a soundfont you are mainly missing out on a) the actual sound of the human voice and b) the consonants. There's a lot of auditory information in the consonants, for example plosives and sibilants are very different. If you really want to get into detail, vowels will sound different (and be easier/harder to produce) when you get to the higher notes. I would think primarily of the pitch of singers' voices rather than their gender myself, but countertenors definitely don't sound like altos. Again, only you can decide whether that matters.

You also miss out on the limits of your singers' ranges, their tessiture, and their lung capacity. Real singers like to breathe every now and again, and will thank you for bearing this in mind.

The good news is that the soundfont in your head takes all this into account, or at least you can train it to with practice and experience.

In general I would try to avoid giving a choir new parts too often, though it depends on the choir and your relationship with them. If you want to actively involve the group as collaborators in the composing process it can be fun and productive but it does change the dynamic between you, and tends to work better with smaller groups.

Remember no two choirs are the same. Think about what your choir are able to sing well, and also what they enjoy singing. Composing for a community choir has a very different set of constraints than composing for a professional chorus. A high school choir would be somewhere between the two, but depending on the high school it could be nearer one than the other.

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"Are those even pertinent questions?" I think the answer is no. Think about how songs get translated from one language to another -- yesterday I found myself supposed to be singing "Time to say goodbye", or "Con te partiro" as it said on the orchestral scores. (They were lucky; we didn't even get a score - "Sing the melody on 'ah'"!) No-one thinks about changing the harmony because Italian has different vowels from English, let alone that the words are completely different.

I think you could be relying too much on the playback, but this would mean that you are not hearing the harmony in your head before you write it down; the playback is a very useful check, but that should be all. You should also be able to check you are getting the effect you imagined by playing through on a keyboard. I also think you have to be prepared for something not being as effective as intended, and you might want to revise parts of the piece. To that end, much better than getting the choir to learn the parts would be to find the best 4 (or more) singers who can more or less sight-sing, and run through with them (and listen to their feedback). Hope this helps.

  • "Think about how songs get translated from one language to another" Generally quite badly ;) – Bob says reinstate Monica Oct 16 '17 at 11:49
  • What is important about hearing the harmony in my head? I can recall thinking of a chord, but being unable to spell it, therefore unable to use it. Beyond that, what makes it more necessary? – Plentelle Oct 17 '17 at 6:40
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First, I'd suggest the choral 'ooh' sounds are probably the LEAST useful sounds for previewing what a harmony will sound like! Unless you're scoring a 1940's Disney cartoon, substitute wind instrument sounds.

You're missing the point that, although computer sounds give a very useful preview of what your music will sound like, it IS only a preview. You and your 'inner ear' still have to take ultimate responsibility for writing singable parts that give the required effect. Make sure YOU can sight-sing each part, both in terms of endurance and 'finding the note'. Know each voice's limits of range, and stay away from them for the bulk of the music. Identify with the singers - I guess you've sung yourself? If not, join a choir, NOW!

You'll get some surprises when you start doing this. Some things just won't work - discard them. Some will work, but with a surprising effect!

Beware of one thing. Particularly with amateur choirs, the way they first learn a piece will be what you get - despite you handing out revised parts!

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