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Orchestration Basics – Understanding the Voice

More Than "Just A Singer" – Voices As Instruments

Manuel Nägeli, Konzertsaal Tonhalle Maag, Zürich, Switzerland The University Orchestra of Bern rehearsing with the academic choir of Zurich in the Tonhalle Maag in Zurich.
Manuel Nägeli, Konzertsaal Tonhalle Maag, Zürich, Switzerland The University Orchestra of Bern with Choir

In the last post, I introduced the four main voice types, as well as additional categories used to describe soloists. I also mentioned that singers are often held in the same esteem as instrumentalists. Often, they are described as "just a singer." Yet, this stereotype is unfair and unwarranted. In this post, I will show you why serious singers should be considered serious musicians, how to write vocal parts, and how voices can be used in orchestration effecitvly.

The Body Is Their Instrument

Vocalists during a stage performance
Vocalists during a stage performance

Experienced vocalists have musical "ears" that equal those of skilled instrumentalists. They train for years on their instrument, their voice. Although all performers and composers must train for many years to master their skills. Singer must also master stage presence, acting, poetic interpretation, diction in a various languages that they do not necessarily speak, as well as the musicianship skills that all musicians must learn. Many vocalists will say that their "body is their instrument." Maintaining their physical health and physical fitness is also an important part of their ability to perform at their peak to an extent that instrumentalists do not have to consider.

Similarly unfairly, songwriters are often not considered as skilled as "composers." Also, many songwriters are as skilled at their craft as composers are at theirs. Many of the top composers write songs as well. This includes contemporary composers like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and James Horner as well as "classical" composers like Beethoven, Handel, and Bach. In fact, the only difference between songwriting and composing is that songwriting includes text and composing does not. Both are skills that require practice to learn as well as a certain amount of natural musicality.

Often, singing and writing songs is considered a "low art." While composing for orchestra or other instrumental ensembles is considered "high art." However, a skilled and talented artist is a skilled and talented artist no matter the level of structured training they may have received. Listen to the singer and musician, Ella Fitzgerald and the composer and songwriter, Duke Ellington perform together in the video below. You will hear how the best singing and songwriting are equal (and even surpass) many mediocre "classical" music performances. Ellington described Fitzgerald: “Her artistry brings to mind the words of the maestro, [Arturo] Toscanini who said concerning singers, ‘either you’re a good musician or you’re not.’ In terms of musicianship, Ella Fitzgerald was beyond category."

Why Write For Singers?

Composer at work
Composer at work

If you are a budding composer, you have most likely begun writing for pieces for an instrument or instruments that you familiar with. This is very often the piano or the strings, but composing for brass, woodwinds, and percussion can be great starting point too. Some composers start out as songwriters and later write for the orchestra. Examples of this include Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame, Beatle Paul McCartney, and record producer and singer-songwriter Jon Brion.

I would encourage you to try writing for the voice, even if you do not consider yourself a "singer." Most people who do not feel comfortable singing can learn is they wish. A voice teacher adage is, "If you can speak, you can sing."

Almost everyone can sing. Singing is a learned, physical skill, like learning to ride a bike, write your name, or bake a batch of cookies. It requires training of the muscles in the throat and learning to control the breath. The only people who can not learn to sing are those who are tone deaf. Tone deafness is the lack of the ability to sense the difference between low and high sounds. It is related to the brain not being able to distinguish the differences between pitches. It is either congenital (meaning they are born with it) or caused by an accident later in life. Although you will hear people claim they can't carry a tune. Very few people are actually tone deaf. Researchers refer to this amusia, literally lack of music, and it only effects only about 4% of the world's population.

Using Singing with Lyrics in Orchestration

When including text in an orchestral work. It needs to be at the forefront of the arrangement. Human voices can easily be drowned out by loud, brash brass or large string sections. When choosing a text, be deliberate. Choose a text that sums up the meaning of the piece. One of the most famous symphonic works of all time includes one of the best uses of text in Classical music.

This year marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in Bonn, Germany. His famous chorale from his Ninth Symphony, known in English as “Ode to Joy,” has become a traditional holiday tradition in Japan. Every year on New Year’s Day, amateur and professional musicians come together to perform the work with its theme of unity and the brotherhood/sisterhood of humankind across the nation. The piece was brought to Japan by German POWs who first performed it in Japan during WWI. In Japan, the symphony is referred to simply as “Daiku” (Big Nine). The performances are quite large, with the largest having over 10,000 participants.

The ability of amateurs and professionals alike to perform the work is a testament to Beethoven's setting of the text. When setting a text for choir, especially if that choir includes amatuer singers, it is essential to make sure the melody is singable and that the text is intelligible. When composing such a line, try singing the line yourself. If you can not, there may be an issue with the sing-abilty. Beethoven’s melody is unmatched in sing-ability.

Listen to the "Big Nine" in a performance 10,000 strong.

Listen to a performance from BBC.

For those of us who are not native German speakers, it may be hard to understand how Beethoven's Ninth's text is singable. However, an English language example, may make that easier to comprehend. Listen to Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb which orchestrated by Imogen Holst. This piece is a setting of an English language text that was written by a schizophrenic in the 1700s. Britten does a masterful job at using unstable meters (⅞ in the example) along with rapid fire, unison lines to make the unusual text comprehensible, and sing-able.

The Versatile Voice

The human voice is a versatile instrument. And, it is always available to anyone that is able to vocalize. The vast range of sounds of the human voice can be heard in the diversity of languages. For example, some languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, depend heavily on the pitch inflection that the speakers use to portray meaning. Otherlanguage, such as the Xhosa language, use percussive clicks as part of the language. Listen to Miriam Makeba's Qongqothwane (The Click Song) below.

As composers, I encourage you all to experiment with a wide range of vocalizations, not just poetry or prose, but sounds for the sake of sounds. In the following examples, we will listen to some pieces where the composers used voices, not to sing songs, but in ways they would write for instruments.

The composer “Akira" soundtrack, Shoji Yamashiro, created music for the film that included many elements Indonesian gamelan, synthesizers, traditional Japanese Noh music, European classical, progressive rock, and more. His very large ensemble, Geinoh Yamashirogumi performed that music. Geinoh Yamashirogumi has hundreds of members from all walks of life, not just professional musicians. This blend of styles and diversity of musicians combined together created a "futuristic" effect for a film that was set over 30 years in the future. (It was released in 1988 and takes place in 2019.) Also, Yamashiro used voices to create atmosphere. Listen to the examples of gamelan and Noh theater below and then listen to Yamashiro's score. Pay attention to how the juxtaposition of human voices with other sounds creates an otherworldly effect.

Noh Theater Example

Gamelan Example

Shoji Yamashiro, Geinoh Yamashirogumi, Akira Soundtrack,"Dolls' Polyphony"

In this piece, listen to how Yamashiro uses rhythmic vocals, as well as panning to create a texture.

Shoji Yamashiro, Geinoh Yamashirogumi, Akira Soundtrack,“Shohmyoh"

In this piece, listen to how chanting is used to create a trance-like mood.

Film composer John Williams composed the music for each of the nine Star Wars movies. For Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Williams wrote “Duel of the Fates” for orchestra and chorus to accompany a lightsaber duel. The words are from a Welsh poem that Williams had translated into Sanskrit. Then he took that text and rearranged the syllables to make into a non-sensical chant that has a sacred sound of an ancient mystic text.

John Williams, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace soundtrack, "Duel of the Fates"

Compare this chant to the example from the Akira score.

Ambient Vocals

Due to the diversity of the voice, it can be used as an effective orchestration tool even when the vocalists are not singing a text. Vocalizations add richness to instrumentation and can be a great way to humanize a score. Both composers and popular music creators will use oohs and ahhhs to add richness and fill in instrumentation.

Listen to the choral texture in Stevie Wonder's Pastime Paradise, famously re-sampled by Coolio's Gansta's Paradise. Like Fitzgerald and Ellington before him, Wonder is a prime example of a songwriter who is as much a master as any "high art" composer. He uses the voices like he would a synthesizer to add textural depth and harmonic support to the arrangement.

Stevie Wonder, Pastime Paradise

Voices provide textural depth and harmonic support.

Yamashiro used ambient vocals as well as percussive and chant-like vocals in the Akira score. Listen for the somber mood the voices create at the beginning of this track.

Shoji Yamashiro, Geinoh Yamashirogumi, Akira Soundtrack, "Requiem"

A capella (unaccompanied) choir creates a somber mood.

Gustav Holst's The Planets is one of the, if not the, most popular British orchestral work ever. This is most likely due to the fact that he was a direct composer. He used music to say what it needed to say concisely. His daughter, the composer and orchestrator of the Britten work above, Imogen Holst described his music:

“Directness of expression was Holst’s chief characteristic in his life and in his music. He aimed at clear thinking and clear feeling. And, he took it for granted that is audience would be just as objective and as free from self-consciousness.” – Imogen Holst

The Planets have influenced many composers, including John Williams, who borrowed from it when he composed the music to Star Wars. In fact, many sci-fi film scores owe much to Holst's work. Holst, himself, regretted how popular the work became and is quoted as saying, "Every artist ought to pray that he may not be "a success". If he's a failure, he stands a good chance of concentrating upon the best work of which he's capable." Holst's orchestrations for the entire The Planets are worth studying, and we will look at them again when we discuss writing for brass, percussion, and more. Right now, we will listen to how he uses voices to create an ethereal effective in the last movement, Neptune: The Mystic.

Heidi Hammel, planetary astronomer and the executive vice president of AURA, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy described this movement:

"Being an astronomer who has studied this planet, this movement is one that is actually aligned with my mental interpretation of the planet. When I listen to the movement I hear mysticism through and through. It's quiet, it's very questioning, it's sensitive."

Holst wrote the movement to sound "spacey." It is not firmly attached to any key and is written in 5/4, an unstable time signature. He added to the otherworldly sound by adding a two SA women's choirs. The choirs fade in and out singing lines that could be easily written for woodwinds or strings but sound angelic when orchestrated for women's choir.

Gustav Holst, The Planets, Neptune: The Mystic

Listen to the celesta. The word for celesta comes the word "celestial." Listen to how including it in the orchestration adds to its heavenly mood.

Listen to how the women’s choirs seamlessly integrate into the orchestration and fade out to a whisper.


Further Reading

Greenberg, Robert. Music History Monday: Ella Fitzgerald Singer and Musician. . (Accessed 19 October 2020).


Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



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