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Carol Composing Tips

Thinking of writing a carol but not sure where to start? Read our guide to getting started

Getting to know the poem really well - read the 2024 poem

  • Read and re-read the poem many times to uncover as much meaning from it as you can.

  • Think about the overall atmosphere and meaning of the poem.

  • You may perhaps notice parts which remind you of other lyrics.

  • Look out for any particularly powerful images.

  • Familiarise yourself with the rhythm of the words by reading or chanting them out loud.


Generating musical ideas and creating a mood 

  • Experiment with different ways of saying/chanting the words to discover how you want them to fit against a pulse and what different rhythms you could use when you write your melody.

  • Think about whether your carol should be fast or slow, major, minor, or something else

  • Should it have lots of tight harmony or be more spaced out?

  • If you choose to add an accompaniment, how will that relate to the words and to the voices?

    If you're looking for inspiration for musical mood or texture, our curated playlist of carols might be a good place to start.


Some different ways of working 

  • Chanting then singing the words is a good way to begin – maybe concentrating on particular phrases or lines, or just starting at the beginning.

  • Another method is to work at the keyboard -  playing chords for what all the singers will sing.

  • Or you might find it useful to try improvising a melody by singing or playing and recording your improvisations to listen back to.

  • Sometimes you might want to repeat important words or phrases to bring attention to them and make sure the listener has heard them.

  • You can emphasise an important word in various ways – e.g. Try using the length of the note or the shape of the melody to highlight the most interesting bits - less important words can be on shorter notes, on weaker beats or maybe on lower notes

  • Remember that you are writing something for people to sing! Try singing or chanting bits of your piece to make sure it makes musical sense.

Developing your ideas and putting them together in a structure

Writing SATB harmony
  • We are after choral music set for Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass voices with or without a keyboard accompaniment. If you're unfamiliar with SATB voices you may wish to double check the ranges of each voice to make sure you're not writing anything too high or too low for someone to sing.

  • There are lots of different kinds of choral textures you could use within your piece. Some examples include four-part harmony, melody with sung accompaniment, call and response, upper or lower voices only, solo voice or tune and descant. Changing from one texture to another can be a useful way of introducing contrast to your structure.

Structuring your piece
  • How might you use the poem’s shape, drama and meaning to help you structure your setting?

  • It is easy to forget when you are writing your piece that the listener will be hearing it for the first time. Therefore, you are constantly walking a tightrope between too much repetition (becoming boring to the listener) or too much change (leaving the listener bewildered). As you are growing the piece, you will be constantly making decisions about how much to change and how much to keep the same.

  • Check the musical element wheel for inspiration of elements to vary

Musical elements wheel
Download PDF • 498KB

Making sure your score is clear

Notating your piece
  • For this competition we are asking you to notate your piece using Western notation through software like MuseScore or Sibelius First

  • Think about ways to communicate your musical ideas to the people singing your piece. Dynamics, tempo markings, key signatures, slurs and other expressive markings will help you make your intentions clear.

Proofreading your piece
  • It's useful to proofread your composition in the same way you might proofread an essay. Do the words in your piece match Moyra's poem exactly without any mistakes creeping in? Have you used an appropriate key and time signature? Have you added any dynamics or expressive markings to every part (not just the top part)?

Top tips!

  • Don't feel you have to settle for your first musical ideas - you could challenge yourself to think of at least three different melodies for the same words before you choose one.

  • Remember that you are writing music for people to sing - have you tried singing through each line and making sure there's time for singers to breathe? This can also be a good test to make sure your melody lines are not too difficult to pitch or sing.

Credit: Janet Wheeler & Sarah Cattley

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Carol Competition

Granta Chorale run a carol composition competition for students in school years 7-13 with an initial submission date in early September. Spread the word now to help as many young composers benefit from this scheme as possible.

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