Carol Composing Tips
Thinking of writing a carol but not sure where to start? Read our guide to getting started
Choosing or writing your lyrics
What makes good lyrics for a carol?
A distinctive mood and flavour, perhaps with some atmospheric images
Fairly simple ideas – which will still be easy to understand even when sung
An element of repetition can be very helpful – e.g. a chorus or a shorter repeated refrain of one or two lines can be good
A verse structure with a regular rhythm pattern and/or rhyme scheme is also very helpful
How to find non-copyright lyrics to use
You may find words in a carol book, a hymn book or online. Remember that even if you choose a well-known text your music needs to be totally new – we are not looking for an arrangement of an existing melody.
Here’s a useful site to browse online. You will find Christmas poetry and the words of many well-known or little-known carols: https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/
Make sure you check that all words you are thinking of using are out of copyright. Usually this means that the writer will have died at least 70+ years ago (up to 1952 or the first part of 1953) but occasionally copyright lasts longer so you should always double check.
Writing your own lyrics
You are welcome to write your own lyrics for this carol competition. Some things to think about:
Can you find a new angle? Or your own way of creating a distinctive Christmas atmosphere?
Rhyme can be great – but you may like to try avoiding rhymes that are over-familiar from existing carols e.g. mild + child, meek + weak etc.
Aim for several verses – 2 or 3 at least, but probably no more than 4 or 5
Each verse should ideally have the same word rhythm and a matching rhyme scheme.
If different verses have slightly different atmospheres that helps to give light and shade to the whole carol
Generating musical ideas
Setting your chosen lyrics to music
Think about the rhythm of the words when you say or sing them. Experiment with ways of saying/chanting the words to discover different rhythms you could use when you write your melody.
Sometimes you might want to repeat important words or phrases to bring attention to them and make sure the listener has heard them. This could be especially helpful if the text you are setting is very short.
What are the important words or phrases in your text? Try using the length of the note or the shape of the melody to highlight the most interesting bits - less important words can be shorter notes on weak beats.
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.
Choosing the musical mood
You might find it useful to try improvising a melody by singing or playing and recording your improvisations to listen back to.
What is the atmosphere of your chosen text? How you could bring this atmosphere to life? Think about whether the music should be fast or slow, major or minor - or something else, lots of tight harmony or more spaced out? You don't have to stick with the same thing through the whole piece, it can change to reflect the words.
If you're looking for inspiration for musical mood or texture, our curated playlist of carols might be a good place to start.
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
Where is the climax or turning point of your words and music - and how can you make this moment special? This often comes about 3/4 of the way through the piece.
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
Making sure your score is clear
Notating your piece
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 the original text you have chosen? 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)?
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
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.