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How should choir music be notated to best suit how conductors need to conduct, to make it easier for singers to follow the conductor?

I see at least two issues here:

  • what are the beats that the conductor conducts?
  • how many beats to the bar?

As for what should be the beats, there is of course a lot of scope for variety in what is a sensible speed (in beats per minute). But there are limits. We don't mark MM=240 because we don't need conductors to wave their arms around frantically like a windmill, and slower beats are good enough to establish the tempo.

At the other extreme we don't mark MM=30 because it's hard to get a feel for the pulse; moreover, the music would presumably entail quite a lot of subdivisions of the beat, and the more subdivisions the composer calls for, the more work the singers have to do to work their rhythm out. Is it OK to call for a BPM which entails the singers dividing the beat into 4 or 6, or should I instead call for beats 2 or 3 times as fast so that the beat is only divided into 2?

How many beats to the bar? If the song falls naturally into three-time, that's easy. But how to choose between 2 and 4?

I'm thinking of choral carols (not hymns!) for church in Britain, but answers that also apply to orchestral and band music would be good, too, to help future readers.

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Might I suggest that you are looking at this the wrong way?

I don't think anyone writes music with "to best suit how conductors need to conduct" as a major consideration. Composers are more concerned with getting their ideas clearly down in the notation. Conducting music can be anything from simple to extremely complicated but that's why conductors study conducting - its a skill that they apply in order to achieve the results.

To take one of your cited examples. You say we don't mark MM=240. For extremely fast music conductors just do the opposite of what they do for slow music. Instead of subdividing the beat they beat using a larger unit.

And sometimes it gets more complicated than that. For example in Walton's Belshazzar's feast there are parts where the choir is in 4 beats to a bar whilst the orchestra has a whole bar for each of those beats. So the choir needs to see 4 beats in a bar and the orchestra needs to see a completely different four beats to a bar.

So, whilst its an interesting point, I think that there are more important considerations when notating music than how the conductor is going to manage.

  • If it looks as if I'm looking at this the wrong way, then perhaps this is a consequence of the fact that the questions I have lately posted to Music.SE are the tip of the iceberg. I am sorting out many more issues by myself, including those which are (or seem to me to be) more important. – Rosie F Oct 11 at 9:40
  • Reading the question, your answer is pretty well what I thought. The conductor's job is to unravel the music, and will do so in different ways, even in the same piece. He/she (p.c!) will 'translate' what's written to make it as clear as possible to the choir - or even just parts of the choir. Possession of two arms is a great help here. +1. – Tim Oct 11 at 10:03

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