Choral music is defined as music that is sung by a choir with two or more voices assigned to each part. This is a huge umbrella term for all of the different ensemble groupings and techniques that choral music can encompass, and there are lots of styles and functions that can be performed within this definition.
Historically, the beginnings of choral music go back to the Medieval period which was between 500 – 1400 AD. Medieval music includes the beginnings of notated music for vocal ensembles that includes Plainchant and Gregorian chant. These styles were performed by monks as part of the Catholic Mass as unaccompanied monophonic pieces in Latin. In the church, it was believed the melody should be kept pure and unaccompanied and was a means to heighten spirituality. Today, Gregorian chants are still popular in Roman Catholic church choirs and even saw a commercial resurgence in the 1990s and 2000s, with the 2008 album ‘Chant – Music for Paradise’ topping the Australian charts as well as hitting the top 10 in the USA and UK.
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The Renaissance period saw the development of choral music throughout Europe. Masses, Motets, and Madrigals grew in popularity. During this time, while still unaccompanied and based on the same texts and melodies as Gregorian chants, the Renaissance Mass became very polyphonic in texture. With the creation of notation and the printing press, choral music developed a lot in this era. The Mass was split into five main sections and pieces such as Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass was written for a choir of six voice parts: soprano, alto, tenor, 2nd tenor, baritone and bass. Palestrina used techniques such as imitative polyphony, homophonic texture and cantus firmus, which are still widely used in all kinds of choral music today.
In the periods that followed, choral music accompanied by other instruments gained popularity. The Baroque and Classical eras saw harpsichord and piano accompaniment become the norm, a form that is still heavily used today. With the introduction of Opera, the Baroque period maximised on both polyphonic texture and orchestral accompaniment. Carissimi’s Jephte oratorio scored for SSSATB and continuo is an example of how sacred choral music was developing at this time.
Nowadays, the most common grouping for choir is mixed male and female voices of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, SATB. Sometimes these are divided into two parts, SSAATTBB, and sometimes the choir is divided into two independent groups SATBSATB. Other times a baritone is added and sung by the high basses, SATBarB. Male voice choirs can also keep SATB voicing by utilising boys in the soprano/treble parts, and men singing falsetto in the alto/countertenor parts. Women’s choirs tend to use high voices of soprano and alto parts only, and are most commonly arranged as two parts in each, SSAA, or as three parts for SSA. In most of these traditional choir groups, the highest line will sing the melody, while the other parts harmonise to support and reinforce the chords around the melody. While vocal parts do sometimes crossover, the melody generally stays at the top most of the time.
With choral music varying so much over time, groupings, and content, it does make sense in the present day to categorise choirs by genre. For example, a Bach Choir and a Gospel Choir will be vastly different, as will a Barbershop group versus a Jazz Choir, so it’s typical for modern choirs and vocal groups to define themselves by their style or institution.
Whatever genre of choral music you sing, PlayScore 2 can be an excellent tool for learning and practice means. Taking your printed scores, the PlayScore 2 app will playback your music and let you control the built-in features for an interactive experience. Whether you want to solo parts by changing the volume of staves, experiment with different instrument sounds, or loop sections slowly until you’ve got them, PlayScore 2 offers a new way of working.