Setting one's own texts to music
  • Grace and peace, everyone, and a very happy New Year.

    I have started setting my own hymn and carol texts to music; this seems a fairly harmless occupation and need not involve leaving the house.

    I am wondering whether anyone here has any advice or other thoughts. My taste runs to the solidly traditional. I have been leaning heavily on Hawley Ades's _Choral Arranging_ and would welcome other suggestions.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • One thing I can think of right away is to remember not to simply think vertically but also horizontally. It's easy to come up with some lovely harmonies but then you sing through the alto or tenor part and realize they have a very boring part or an awkward interval which can be rendered much more interesting and singable by perhaps shifting the voicing. So the moral of the story is alway sing through each part individually before committing to a final version.
  • All "interesting" harmonies you might conceive should only be reached through individual voice-leading, rather than arbitrarily. I think this way even when extemporizing organ accompaniments.
  • One thing I can think of right away is to remember not to simply think vertically but also horizontally. It's easy to come up with some lovely harmonies but then you sing through the alto or tenor part and realize they have a very boring part or an awkward interval which can be rendered much more interesting and singable by perhaps shifting the voicing.

    Preach it, ServiamScores! Why should the sopranos and basses have all the fun?

    Schonbergian, I'd love to see some examples of arbitrary vs. voice-led harmonization. I think I know what you're talking about and at the same time want to be sure.
  • Perhaps a word more pleasing word to Schönbergian would have been "engaging". As a mostly-tenor-but-sometimes-baritone/bass I've had my fair share of boring parts. Switching to bass suddenly got a lot more fun.

    This reflection leads me to another thought: although it's something that can't always be avoided, I also try not to have my singers stay at either end of the extreme of their ranges all the time either. As a tenor I absolutely dread Handel's Alleluia because he has the tenors scraping the empyrean heavens the entire time... it's [literally] exhausting.
    Thanked by 1Anna_Bendiksen
  • For a bad example, look at Lauridsen's voice leading where he finds piano chords he likes and lays them out vertically without caring if dissonances resolve properly or if the lines make any sense (his works read like beginner piano transcriptions of actual vocal compositions) Will post some better examples tonight.
  • the tenors scraping the empyrean heavens the entire time

    Wow, I just looked at the score---how right you are.
  • @ServiamScores
    When I began attempting choral compositions, I had the opposite approach of looking at music vertically; I started my career in chant, everything was looked at from a horizontal aspect and I didn't even know what voice leading was until I started talking to more professional musicians about the matter. I always wondered why certain parallels were to be avoided (5th, 8th etc), and let me just say, it matters when trying to distinguish individual parts by ear. I generally find myself favoring the alto section of a composition when writing for 4 or more voices, complemented by a good "dialogue" with the tenor.
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  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 3,397
    I usually have found Brahms difficult to sing, mainly because of lack of coherence in the (first) bass. (And the misery of the texts).
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  • You could find no greater teacher than Bach. Acquire One Hundred Chorals by Bach (available from Amazon) and study it diligently. You may or may not want a more modern treatment, but, whatever your preferences as to musical 'language', Bach will prepare you for success in beauty of form and genuine interest in each voice part.
    Thanked by 1Anna_Bendiksen
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 5,164
    I second MJO's recommendation to study the chorales of J.S. Bach. CPDL has the following collections:

    Chorale Harmonizations (BWV 250-BWV 438)

    185 Bach Chorales

    389 Choralgesänge
  • Dear brothers, I am absolutely thrilled to hear this recommendation, as I asked for several of these books for Christmas! Now, do you have any suggestions for how I might go about studying the chorales? What might be some fairly easy exercises and what might some slightly more difficult ones be?
  • @Anna_Bendiksen
    I generally find studying music videos with good audio, and understanding the relationship between the individual voices the most comprehensive way for this.
    The other: write, and keep on writing.
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  • francis
    Posts: 10,701
    Take common hymn melodies and write alternate SATB arrangements. Fill an entire manuscript book with the excersize. Simultaneously learn and apply the rules of harmony.
  • Wow! No. Putting it on my list.

  • francis
    Posts: 10,701
    book is free as a pdf here:


    (apparently still in copyright... link deleted)
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  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 9,176
    That's not really free, as that English edition of Fux is still under copyright until 2038. You can get a used copy for less than $4, so why cheat?
  • I second the motion on the Bach Vierstimmige Choralgesänge (read through them all on the piano if you are able) and Fux (note-against-note, two-notes-against-one, and "ligatures" are the 3 species that stayed with me from when I did some).
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  • francis
    Posts: 10,701
    Hmmm... didn’t know about the copyright... taking link down. Mea culpa.
    Thanked by 1chonak
  • It is sometimes said that "A composer who sets his own texts has a fool for a collaborator." That doesn't have to be (and is probably not in your case), but it very often is. Verse is a separate skill set from composing, and because we speak language from infancy and not music, we tend to think we have it covered. Before you set your texts, turn a hairy eyeball to them and ask: does each verse scan? (exactly, as in hymns, not approximately as in the OCP School). Are the rhymes forced? (might be better to rhyme less, or half-rhyme). Is word order awkward? Are you using archaicisms solely for metric or rhyme purposes? (If you're trying to create an archaic world, then you'll be policing for the modern.) Are there words that seem stuck in just to fill the meter? Is every word earning its keep, every adjective, adverb, noun and verb the most powerful possible? In short, does the poem sing with its own music? If so, it's ready for your music.

    Next, you need a tune. Common pitfalls: 1)stultifying rhythm of quarters and halves 2)cadencing only on tonic and dominant 3) too much internal repetition, or not enough. Your tune will probably (but not necessarily) have some kind of climax toward the middle of the 3rd line of a 4 line stanza. Be aware of what the "hook" is; even hymn tunes have them.

    Next, you need harmony. A collegiate Harmony 101 course would teach you everything you'd need to know. It's also kind of the "breaker" course, that separates wannabe music majors from real music majors. James Dapogny, late of the University of Michigan, had a "table of offenses against tonality with their penalties" and would objectively grade 4-part chorale exercises, and I earned more than my fair share of red ink. But almost everything in music is nascent in chorales, and if you master that style, you have a foothold on everything else. You can do it with will and a copy of Aldwell and Schachter, but it's a lot easier with a friend to keep you honest. Besides "the rules" (no parallel/direct 5th-8ves, double leading tone, bass motion over barline etc.) consider these positives:
    1. Use chord inversions. 6/4s are faithful servants as passing chords and hard masters as downbeat phenomena, 6/3s add buoyancy and make your bass line more melodic.
    2. Use tonicisation/secondary dominants. V/vi is particularly useful, and "V of" doesn't necessarily need to go to the "of"; it can go to vi/"of" or to "of7" (V7 of IV of your "of"). Don't be a three-chord hymn composer!

    Hope this helps.
  • Jeffrey, I am indebted to you. Thank you.

  • I wouldn't bother with Fux in 2020 - due to the lack of published Renaissance works in his lifetime, the method was only able to loosely approximate the Renaissance style. Knud Jeppesen's text is a much better option for learning 16th-century counterpoint. As for the 18th-century, there is no better way to learn than studying the works of the North German masters.
  • Fux is a primary source: the man wrote a method with clear insights, and it was influential.
  • I would recommend both Fux and Jeppesen. Of the two the latter is the most scholastically significant discussion of renaissance practice (Palestrina in particular), but Fux is a staple practicum which everyone should know and profit from.
  • It was influential, and was studied by most of the great composers after Bach to be sure - but I wouldn't use it as a source if one wants to learn specifically 16th-century counterpoint.
  • Don9of11Don9of11
    Posts: 690
    does the poem sing with its own music?
    in addition to Jeffrey's comments, I would suggest that your hymn also be prayerful. I've found this to be a particular trait of the hymns of Faber, Caswall, Procter, Newman, Donnelly and many others whose hymns were first published as text only and then composers would set them to melodies. Today I think hymn writers compose their words with a particular melody in mind a luxury early hymn writers did not have.
    Thanked by 1ServiamScores
  • A quick rundown of what I've learned since posting above.

    1. Prayer is key.
    2. Some pieces, no matter how highly polished, should never leave the house.
    3. See number 1.
    Thanked by 1Jeffrey Quick
  • Anna,

    I wrote a hymn text and the music to go with it, which I sent to my mother ( a musician of some worth, but not very much note, who studied at the Royal College of Music back when Lloyd Weber was the father, not the son) who sent it to my aunt (her sister-in-law) who commented that while she liked the text very much she had felt the music unsuited to it, and had written her own, and included it in the envelope. I was much younger then, much less experienced, and I haven't looked at the text or the music in years, but I will always remember the feeling of "that music didn't suit the text, so I wrote something better". I'll see if I can find the stuff if you're interested.

    About composing: think like a singer if you're writing for voices, not like a music theory student. Singers need to breathe, but music theory exercises don't. Singers like their lines to make sense, within the context of the piece as a whole as well as in isolation. Remember that (the Bach recommendation notwithstanding) not every harmonization works for voices which works for organ, or non-organ instruments. Human voices have ranges, and these should be respected.
  • Jeffrey Quick
    Posts: 2,060
    I wouldn't bother with Fux in 2020 - due to the lack of published Renaissance works in his lifetime, the method was only able to loosely approximate the Renaissance style.

    If you want to write 16th-c., yes. But:
    1. Why would you want to do that?
    2. Fux wasn't trying to teach how to write like Palestrina; he was teaching the prima prattica style of his own time, which is a different creature from Palestrina, even if it wore Palestrina as a skinsuit. And why would you want to write like Fux? (or like Bach, for 4-part chorale style) Well, you don't, but there are specific lessons in following these styles that can be extrapolated to different music.
    Thanked by 2LauraKaz MarkS
  • francis
    Posts: 10,701
    Fux and many other schools are good to study. They will ALL be a help in leading you to find your own voice as each becomes a building block toward mastery. If you are able to take in theoretical listening studies, it can be a much higher plane in the absorption of compositional technique. This means that you visualize the music manuscript as you hear it.
    Thanked by 1LauraKaz
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,775
    As Francis points out, one of the main objects is ear training. But one compelling reason to pay attention to Fux is the availability (in NMA) of Mozart's corrections to Atwood's exercises.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,701
    Wow, Richard.

    Can you give us a short synopsis of that?

    I would love to see what Mozart would do with some of my own chromatic writing… lol.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,775
    NMA is here, Attwood Studies is Ser. X, vol. 30.
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