In this final interview for ComposersOnline.org, Dr. Warland provides specific tips for writing choral music, including advice on notation, score layout, and text-setting.

He spoke with ComposersOnline writer Abbie Betinis from his offices in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the summer of 2004.

(Reprinted by permission of ComposersOnline.org – link no longer available)


Dale Warland’s 6 Tips for Writing Choral Music:

1) Find good quality texts.

So many people make such a distinction between writing sacred music and writing secular music. To me there just “ain’t no difference”. All great music is sacred, and all great texts are sacred. (Of course, a religious piece is one hopefully appropriate for religious purposes.) I get so disgusted with people calling certain things sacred and then having the worst text in the world. Choosing a good text is very important.

2) Write beyond what you can play at the keyboard.
Don’t limit your vocal lines by making them dependent on your keyboard skills. I see this too much in composers new to vocal writing.

3) Know all you can about the voice.
Approach writing for the voice as you would any other instrument. Find out what idiosyncrasies it has – and it certainly has them! Learn the ranges, the tessitura, extended techniques, etc.

4) Be realistic and practical without losing your imagination and freshness.
So many composers shoot themselves in the foot by making things unnecessarily difficult. I think composers should look at each individual part and think, “If I were going to sing this, what would I want to be singing?”

5) Avoid awkward jumps or difficult pitches to execute in the voice.
There is an important distinction to be made here between musically-awkward and vocally-awkward writing. Musically-awkward writing might be intervallic leaps that look difficult at first glance, but which singers can certainly learn. These might be a tritone, or a seventh… and even those are not so difficult after you get them in your ear. Some of the best choral writing includes some very difficult intervals all in succession, and yet remains very singable. So it’s not necessarily the interval, but the placement of the voice that can make a leap awkward in execution.

Vocally-awkward writing has to do with this placement of the voice, and it can be unhealthy, even impossible. Range issues come into play, tessitura, etc. There are certain vowels that are harder to sing high, and certain consonants which make those approaches to the vowel easier. So don’t necessarily avoid musically-awkward intervals, but to put the sopranos at triple forte on a low B… now that’s vocally-awkward writing, and should really be avoided.

6) Sing in a good choir.
Choose one with a high level of performance and a high level of repertoire. It will be your best teacher.

I took this interview opportunity to ask Dr. Warland all the specific questions about writing for chorus which I had always wondered. Below, he reveals his preferences for text setting, breath marks, specific notations, score layout, and more.
– Abbie Betinis

On Text…

1) Avoid texts where there is an overabundance of awkward words or syllables. Dr. Warland says, “There are really very few entirely awkward words. But something like ‘chrysanthemum,’ for instance, is a very beautiful word, but very awkward to sing.”

2) Use natural word stress to determine placement of text. For instance, avoid accentuating a “schwa” sound. (“flow-ER”)

3) When notating the text, pay attention to the way the syllables divide. If the word is “pas-ture,” then writing “past-ure” is incorrect. Invest in a dictionary which includes syllabification.

4) Always include the text of the piece, as it appears in its original form, somewhere in the score, preferably on the inside front cover. Also, if possible, print the text in the program. Dr. Warland says, “Of course it’s always good to have a program note too – something about the concept of the piece. Many composers forget to include the program note in the actual score, but it is also a helpful tool for the performer.”

On Breathing…

CO: Should composers be specific about marking places to breathe when writing for chorus?

DW: There are disagreements about breath marks. Some composers think I’m overzealous about them, especially when editing scores to go off to press. But I think composers should put them in when there are places where they want breaths for sure.

Exercise 1a

Example 1a

If there is a danger to breathe in a place that should be connected, I suggest a broken line connecting the noteheads to indicate “no breath.” [ex. 1b]

Example 1b

Example 1b

I tend to be very specific by adding eighth rests for breaths, so everyone cuts off at the same time. For clarity, I really do prefer that a composer writes rests right into the measure in that way [ex. 1c].

Example 1c

Example 1c

Many times, a composer will prefer a breath mark [ex. 1d] instead of a more specific rest because the breath may not be exactly on the final eighth, for instance. It may be later. In these cases a chorus might wait until the very last instant and then give more of a general lift, rather than a full breath.

Example 1d

Example 1d

Seeing places to breathe in a score affects a singer in a psychological, subconscious way. When a singer is looking ahead and sees a breath coming, she does something different to the phrase. Likewise, if none of the singers know where the breath is, the phrase can really suffer.

In the end, I think a choir likes to know where the heck they’re supposed to breathe.

Ex.1a leaves the breathing entirely up to the conductor, who may or may not add a breath between the words.

The dotted line in Ex.1b clearly states there should be no breath between the words.

Dr. Warland’s choice: An eighth rest in Ex.1c clearly indicates a breath before “heavy,” as well as the exact cut off for the ‘s’ on ‘Trees.’

A breath is clearly what the composer intends in Ex.1d, but the exact placement is left to the singers.

On Release Notes…

CO: I’ve never understood a specific inconsistency found in vocal writing: When releasing a held note on beat 1, most composers simply write a rest on beat 1, but some tie the note to an eighth note after the barline [ex. 2a, 2b]. How do you interpret the difference, and which do you prefer?

DW: This has been difficult for me too. It comes from the instrumental tradition, but there is a difference in the connotation. An instrumentalist will tend to release on the downbeat when there is a held note like that over a barline. As a conductor I’d say, “Sing into it!” and then put the final consonant on the eighth rest after beat one. But it’s true, some composers – especially those coming from the instrumentalist tradition – intend, with that tie, to hear the final consonant on the eighth note, not the following rest.

It always comes down to “What did the composer really want?” And if you can’t call ’em up, then you just have to decide. Did they intend the release on beat one? Or did they intend it on the ‘and’ of one?

I recommend keeping the score as clean as possible. If you want to stop at the end of that measure, then don’t tie it to anything. Even if there is a final consonant at the end of the word. If the word is “trees…”, then the final “z” sound will be on the downbeat of the following bar anyway, with or without your eighth note. I don’t see any need for it. 

On Layout…

CO: I have seen SATB choral scores in two, three, and four staves. What do you prefer to see?

DW: A piece should have a separate line for every voice part, unless it is completely homophonic. If all the dynamics, rhythms, and words are the same for each voice part, then two lines will work (SA share one line, TB share another). Otherwise, four-line notation is much more clear.

(Editor’s Note: Dr. Warland also told me the three-staff choral scores I’d seen were those of Norman Luboff, whose main goal was to save paper! Who knew?)

On Divisi…

CO: When choral parts divide, there are often quite unequal numbers of singers on each part – especially when dividing from the usual 4 parts (SATB) into the slightly more unusual 6 (SSATBB). You’re known for being extremely particular about balance, would you speak a little bit about how to use balance and divisi in choral writing?

DW: I love dealing with balance and divisi because it can just be magical. One of the secrets to the success of the Dale Warland Singers is simply dealing with balances. An audience doesn’t know who sings what, they just hear what they hear without having any idea how many people might be singing on a part. But getting the proper balance – whatever the composer wants – is very critical to a great final result. Orchestras have the same challenge. Some orchestras deal not at all with balance. I’ve seen a lot of conductors just ignore it, just play away. But balances are crucial to me.

Time after time when I critique a choir, I’ll say, ‘The balances are all messed up. How do you have this divided?’ Many choirs do exactly what’s on the page and don’t listen to it at all! Therefore, how the composer sets up the page is absolutely crucial.

CO: OK, so imagine this: A men’s part divides from two lines (tenor and bass), into three, with the basses split and the tenors in unison [Ex. 3a]. What happens to the balance?

Exercise 3a

Exercise 3a

DW: However obvious, a choir will not necessarily have equal numbers of singers on each of these three lines. Because the split is specifically written in the bass part, you may have half the number of basses on the bottom two parts, against the entire tenor section on the top. If you want a passage like this to be balanced, you must have a footnote that says “Divided parts should be balanced equally.”

To balance equally, the conductor often has to come up with a 6-part SSATBB divisi from the choir which is different from the SSAATTBB divisi used for 8-part writing. I often call composers to say, ‘Do you really want this line with double the number of singers on it? Or do you want it all equally voiced?’ I’ll pin them down if it’s not written in their score. I have had to do that time and time again.

In an equal 6-part SSATBB split, it is likely that some second sopranos will move up to sing first soprano, while some first altos will be moved up to sing second soprano. Likewise, some second tenors might be moved down to baritone, and some baritones moved down to the lowest bass line.

CO: Is range ever an issue in re-voicing scores in this way?

DW: Yes. In all this part-switching, range can be a problem. That is something the composer should think about beforehand: What voice parts might have to stretch their range to balance this texture?

It is difficult to know how to show divisi on the page. Sometimes I see a three-part texture with two parts on the tenor line, but the bottom tenor is the same as the baritone because the composer wanted only three parts, not four. That is misleading too because half of the tenors and half the basses will be on that one part, overbalancing the outer voices. [Ex. 3b]

Exercise 3b

Exercise 3b

A composer has to decide where a piece is going to be able to best represent it on the page. It may be just a momentary thing, or it may be quite a bit of music that goes by this way. Usually I find the best way, especially if the part is in the lower tessitura of the voice, is to write the split into the bass line, with a note referring to equal balances, as I mentioned before. That seems most clear.

A conductor’s first instinct will be to split the voices as they see the line. That’s why you have to put a big footnote on the page that says, “Darn it! Get it balanced!” (laughs)

It’s really very critical! I just can’t emphasize this enough.

On Tempo Markings…

CO: What should composers do to best represent tempo in a score?

DW: Though the essence of your piece will be very clear to you as the composer, it may not be nearly as obvious to the conductor. Key character words in addition to a specific metronome marking can really aid a conductor in hearing your music how you hear it (“robust” or “boisterous,” or something). A simple ‘ca.’ before the metronome marking also gives a conductor liberty with tempo, if that is what you wish.

On the Piano Reduction…

CO: The commissioning guide for the Dale Warland Singers includes a list of score layout do’s and don’ts. It requires a piano reduction (for rehearsal only) to be placed beneath the a cappella chorus parts, but I wonder whether it’s really necessary if it takes so much space on the page. Don’t conductors read open scores anymore?

DW: I seldom use a condensed score or piano reduction at the bottom of the page, but everyone seems to think one should be included. I guess I would say to put them in, but I think it is a bad habit for conductors to get “plunking along,” playing the reduction. I focus on every choral line instead. And that takes good discipline on my part!

When I study a score, I sing each line, or play one part and sing another. There are rare occasions where I study the reduction, but I think it is good advice to have one part per line, plus the piano reduction.

On Dynamics…

CO: Do you prefer drawn out crescendos/decrescendos, or a simple “cresc.” to conserve space on the page?

DW: I don’t believe dynamics can be overmarked. I would so much rather see crescendos and decrescendos drawn out, than the words “cresc.” or “decresc.” If it is a matter of space on the page, I recommend using the plain words as a last resort. And always remember to mark the dynamic at the beginning and end of the crescendo or decrescendo.

I feel it is always better to be too specific than not to pay attention to detail.


Dr. Warland concluded the interview by assuring me that there are so many differences of opinion in these matters of notation, or score layout and so on, that it is important for composers to ask questions of conductors and performers in order to develop their own instincts. He recommends taking each situation individually, letting the music guide the notation.

– Abbie Betinis