Writing Vocal Music

I believe it’s important to honour the singers who perform our music - and to give them work where the music feels so natural that it flows out of them, allowing them to put all their attention to conveying the story to the people listening. This doesn’t mean the music has to be dull, cautious and non-virtuosic. I think there are three essential elements to writing vocal music that sits comfortably for singers.

The first is TEXT.


Singers sing words. Words come with inbuilt rhythms, pulses, inflections, accents. Words convey meaning. Many years ago I studied acting. The work I learnt then for approaching text - to sit with the text and discover what words to emphasize, what words to throw away, where to pause, where to rush - has been invaluable to me as a composer. It is the same work to compose. I think - write your text down. Read it aloud. Find the most important words in the piece and ensure they are the climax of the song. Find the accented words, find the throwaway words. Find the stanzas, find the phrases. Find the character whose words these are. What will they need musically?

Secondly SING IT.


Ask a singer if they can tell when pieces have been written at a keyboard. They’ll probably roll their eyes. A work written at a keyboard might be harmonically marvelous but a singer sings. Over and Under tone singing aside, voice is a one note at a time instrument. A melody instrument. Writing at the keyboard, with the harmony playing won’t give you a sense of whether the work makes melodic sense. How can you do that? Close the lid of the piano and sing it yourself. You don’t have to be able to sing well, you’re the equivalent of a seamstress’s dummy. But if the melodic line doesn’t sit well unaccompanied for you, I believe that’s a great indication the work isn’t finished.

Thirdly LINE.


The rainbow shape of a phrase line is telling isn’t it? I find it hard to stay attentive when I listen to vocal lines that are agile and jumpy without a helpful overall phrase shape I can relate to. I think agile lines most need the scaffolding of carefully architected shape. And like interior design where a feature colour means two throw pillows and one pot plant against a neutral background, an exotic interval will become a feature by being used sparingly and strategically placed.

I’m currently setting some of Psalm 22 for a lent piece for Emlyn. Here, I want the anguish of major sevenths and tritones. I’m only setting the first part, the most bereft text of the psalm. But I don’t want Emlyn or his audience distracted by the jumps - ooh tricky, can he do it? It’s not a stuntman show! I want him to find the line natural and expressive so he can put all his attention to conveying the anguish and despair of the text for his audience.

This is my work then. I’ve decided YOU HAVE LAID ME IN THE DUST OF DEATH is the climax of the piece. Because Jesus is quoting this psalm and addressing God, I think it is important that “You” (God) is a high note in the phrase. If it was a different character, appealing to a different “you” this might not have made sense.

I have decided to end high - and jump the line up for the last three words. It’s only a C, which a baritone can sing comfortably quietly, but higher would be thoughtless on my part. Lower voices - basses, baritones, contraltos and low mezzos, can sing high notes. They’ll let you know how high they are comfortable. But the key is to use the top notes sparingly and for the lower voices they tend to be easier loud. A beautiful high, soft, floating melody is something to leave for the tenors and sopranos. However I suspect, having lived with a rather representative baritone for twenty five years, I’ve got a good feel for baritonial comfort and this jump up for this last three notes will be low enough to sing quietly and can offer more room for emotion than staying low. My instinct is also that the current notes for “fragments of pottery” are a bit twee. But it might be alright. Things to ponder.


Still playing a few chords for security so there’s still work to do!