The Choir Primer

The Choir Primer – The Unity of Many

The human body is the oldest musical instrument. The clapping of hands, stamping of feet – all produce sound and, when matched with intentionality, “the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs”, are capable of representation, through mimicry, rhythm and repetition. But greater still than the limbs is the human voice, capable of sounds as mundane as coughing, yawning, and clicking, to more amazing ones, like whistling, speech and, for the purposes of this article, singing.

It cannot be determined for certain when music began, and certainly not what that music sounded like. The best theory is that it was vocal and percussive music, indicated by the fact that these two elements exist in folk traditions the world over.
The variant of vocal music within the western music world would be impossible to discuss fully in a thesis, let alone a 3,000 word article, and so, for the sake of brevity, we will focus on one type of vocal music that has found prominence in the western world: the Choir. First recorded in Ancient Greece, it has remained a staple of western canon to this day. It is a tradition that involves many diverse voices coming together to sing as one, with different vocal colours being brought together time and again, wishing to break free and give voice to their own unique tones.
Choir and chorus, are roughly synonymous terms. Both mean a body of singers who perform together as a group. The difference comes in venue. A choir would sing in a church or, traditionally, as the name suggests, from the choir (or quire), a part of a church that provides seating for the clergy or choir. The chorus would perform in a theatre or concert hall.
Although beginning, as a form, consisting almost exclusively of vocalists, other instruments did join in, particularly from the Baroque period on.

Ancient origins

The Greeks did not possess a monopoly on music, nor did they record the first music in today’s notation. Ancient India, Egypt, China, and Mesopotamia all had musical systems. In fact, the oldest music recorded in writing is Mesopotamian (West, 1994). However, the Greeks, as far as we can recognise from archaeology, were the first to place emphasis and create a notion for singing as a group, as a chorus. The chorus extrapolating the themes and emotions of the principle players is most famously associated with Greek theatre. Even Homer’s The Iliad would have been performed in such a manner, although no recorded notation of it exists.
However, some examples do exist. The one’s believed to be the oldest composition where we know the composer’s name, the Delphic Hymms.

What you will note is that the works are monophonic; that is a single musical line sung by all individuals. Although Opera was a conscious effort to reinvent Greek Drama, the Choir was an artefact that had been passed through the generations. The turning point from the ancient music of Greece and Rome can be found in the Oxyrhynchus Hymn, dating from the 3rd century AD. Here is a modern arrangement, although it doesn’t vary greatly from the original score.

The text, in Greek, is a poetic rendition to silence for the Holy Trinity, and thus is one of the latest examples of Ancient Choir music but one of the earliest found pieces of Christian liturgical music, which would develop the choir to new levels.

Chant music

Chant music (sometimes referred to as monophonic or plain chant, and sometimes mistakenly as Gregorian Chant) as it would be recognised today, began in the time of St Ambrose in the 4th century. That style of chant is – appropriately – called Ambrosian Chant, although it is sometimes referred to as Antiphonal chant. This is because of its call-and-response method of performance (anti- against, and phony- sound; basically, sound against sound). The choir was often divided into two, each half singing one section, with the other singing in response to it. Gregorian chant, which is a distinct style of chant created around 900 A.D, lacks this distinct style of call and response. Here are examples of both styles doing the kyrie.

Although Gregorian and Ambrosian chant are the most famous permutations of this style, the full history of monophonic chant is a great deal richer, with developments occurring across Europe. These developments were local, based on local liturgies, and thus, different regions produced different styles of chanting.
One style that still exists that is markedly different is the Mozarabic Chant of Portugal and Spain. What characterises this style are the microtonal inflections that give the piece an oriental feel. Listen to this rendition of the same part of the mass we heard done in Gregorian and Ambrosian chant before:

Those with a knowledge of the history of the Iberian Peninsula most likely realise the reason for the this particular variation: Al-Andalus, also known as Islamic Iberia, which lasted from 711 to 1492, which, at its peak, ruled much of what is today Spain and Portugal. In the same way churches had adopted Islamic architectural elements, so too did the music, with microtonal inflections more characteristic of Middle Eastern or Indian Classical Music than western modal tradition.


Although there were numerous rich traditions developing throughout Europe, those that gained prominence in the Church had a different goal: standardisation. The attempts were made by Pepin III the Short, and were continued until fulfilment in the time of Charlemagne. This was not only with chant, but the mass and liturgy. The result was Gregorian chant, derived from mixing the chant styles of the two main European centers: Rome, the center of the church, and Paris, the political center. This came to replace almost all local forms of chant. Here, again, listen to Gloria, but done as Gregorian chant.

By 900 A.D., there was sufficient notation for the music to become fully standardised. Some regional styles remained, such as the Mozarbic style, despite the church insisting quite stringently that the standardised form should be adopted. Charlemagne was appointed the official overseer of the dissemination of the style, and prevented regional styles from developing. This is why, despite the rich history of regional Monophonic chant, only a handful of styles remain, and Gregorian chant is thought to be synonymous with monophonic chant.

Early Polyphony

After several centuries of monophony, more voices were being added. What the church did not expect was that, within this new standardised form, individual voices began to develop.
Gradually, more lines were introduced to the music. Organum is plainchant where at least one other vocal line is added to increase the harmony of the music. But this was not ‘harmony’ as understood the word today. The earliest example of Organum involved a Gregorian plainchant, with a second voice singing the same melody, transposed to by either a fourth or a fifth. The third, which is the fundamental building block of tonal harmony, was considered a dissonant, that is, an unstable interval, requiring the solidity of a fourth, fifth, or unison.
Once again, different regions experimented in different approaches to organum. Each contributed something. Although the most famous and most significant stylistically on later organum was the Florid Organum of St Martial and the famous Notre Dame School, the English organum, with it favouring the interval of the third, would be the path through which modal music would lead to major/minor tonality and harmony.
Although creating many musical forms, one that greatly demonstrates the transition between the medieval and renaissance music was the motet. In the Medieval motet grew out of organum, in particular that of Léonin and Pérotin. The basic idea is that there is a cantus firmus, a fragment of a plainchant melody, above which a discant, or counter melody, would move in contrary motion. This is where counterpoint (developed from the Latin punctus contra puntcum, or point against point) began. Léonin’s characteristic was having the two melodies move in different rhythmic modes. For example, he would have the discant moving in mode 2 (two long beats) and the cantus firmus in the first mode (one long, one short). This created a sound of independent voices that moved in opposition. This is what is now known as modal rhythm, with these irregular patterns applied regularly as an organisational tool. This unifying technique allowed composers to be freer and bolder in other categories, as Pérotin, Léonin’s successor, would prove. Listen to this example of a two-part Viderunt Omnes by Léonin, and then four part one by Pérotin.

Pérotin work was based heavily based on Léonin. This is not to discount Pérotin as a mere copier or elaborator. His developments were substantial to the development of choral music, in particular his addition of even more voices. Where Léonin composed for two voices, Pérotin utilised four, a key feature that would be vital in the music of the next generations. Through his study and adoption of Léonin’s modal rhythms, Pérotin found ways of introducing more voices, creating a richer sound and fuller texture that would be the hallmark of the next generation of music and composers.

The Golden Age of Polyphony

The richer techniques heralded by Léonin and Pérotin would characterise the golden age of polyphony. As before, the structure of parts of the Catholic Mass provided the principal organisation for the music. This is fitting as it was also the churches’ involvement that saw how the music would develop. Particularly vital was the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent. Two sessions of the Council were concerned with polyphonic music in the Catholic Church. The first was to do with contrafactum, the substitution of texts with little change to the music, where popular songs would be taken and used in mass, with a religious text added. These would not be straight out copies of the music, but would act as a cantos firmus around which the music of the mass would be organised.
The second issue was with polyphony as a form in itself and the concern that the imitations made it impossible for people to discern the all important words, the sacred texts so important to the mass. Some believed it should be banned outright, issuing texts to that effect. Others were less extreme, although believed that it would be important that the music contain a strong element of clarity. Here is the Kyrie from a famous Mass, so that you can judge for yourself if the music is capable of this.

The legend goes that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina heard about these debates and the rumours of banning polyphony from the church and that he sought to reform the music to be clear, while maintaining the rich textures of the form. He composed the Missa Papae Marcelli, or Pope Marcellus Mass. The story goes that on hearing it, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo, was convinced not only that polyphony could be a intelligible for the mass, but that to ban this beautiful music would be a sin. Although some texts remain from this era, purporting that it was Palestrina’s mass that made those in authority see the potential of the style exist, it is disputed to what extent the realities of the story are actually interlinked.

Common Practice Era

With the rise of instrumental music and secular music as the predominant styles, the tradition of vocal music has continued in a muted form. When it was revisited, it was with significant instrumental accompaniment. Several examples exist within the Baroque, Classicist, and Romanticist eras, from W.A. Mozart and Berlioz’s famous requiems, to Beethoven’s triumphant use of the chorus in his Ninth Symphony. But two examples, relatively early in the tonal harmony common practice era, are perhaps most notable.
The first has already been discussed in a previous article. J.S. Bach, now considered the most accomplished of all art music composers, was, in his lifetime, better known as an expert on the organ than as a composer. This, perhaps, allowed him to explore musical ideas in his works that were not needed to compete with the newly formed competitive musical market that proved to be a reality for his son C.P.E Bach, and Mozart, and later generations. The primary difference with Baroque choir music is that it places an instrumental accompaniment alongside the choir. The adoption of tonality made this possible as the centrality of the tonic key as an organising technique meant that you could have the choir still performing the rich imitation of polyphony while having a strong harmonic grounding. In earlier examples, imitation provided this cohesion.
Bach was exceptional in this area, and really explored the possibilities of mixing these two elements. A strong example are the choruses from the St John Passion.

Although Bach is considered the master of this era, it was George Frideric Handel (born as Georg Friederich Händel) who composed the most famous piece to utilise the choir: The Messiah. One of the key features of the work Händel’s is the orchestral restraint. It aids the voices rather than tries to compete with them. Although the work does possess sections that are entirely instrumental, beginning with slow, quiet instruments, leading to a gentle introduction of the voices.

Another element of note is the fact that, although well within the era of tonal music, the Messiah does not possess a tonal key. Although, Anthony Hicks tells us that it has “an aspiration to D major”, with several key sections, most notably the triumphant ‘trumpet’ movements and the ending. Additionally, Rudolph Steglich places great importance on the ascending fourth throughout the work a a unifying device. Although there is some contention about whether either of these is the case, with others attributing unity to Händel’s diligence to his text and consistency of imagination, it shows that it has this tonal ambiguity, owing something to the early choral works.

George Friederich Handel

Georg Friederich Händel

Modern examples

With the advent of minimalism, several composers adopted the techniques into choir music. Arvo Pärt, along with John Tavener and Henryk Górecki, have been dubbed, the Holy Minimalists. Pärt is, as stated by Minimalist Steve Reich, “completely out of step with the zeitgeist and yet he’s enormously popular, which is so inspiring. His music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.” Testament to the growing interest in his work is his being awarded a grammy for his 2009 work Adam’s Lament, earlier this year. But what makes Pärt’s works stand out is his technique of tintinnabuli. This technique divides the choir into two voices: the one arpeggiates the triad (the tonic, third, and fifth of the scale), while the other voice moves stepwise along the diatonic scale of the outlined chord. This technique is not exclusive to choral music, and has been used extensively in his instrumental work, most notably Spiegel Im Spiegel. But it takes on a certain relevance when performed by a choir, as the technique was developed by Pärt in response to his mystical experiences with Chant music.

His work, Magnificat, is perhaps the most relevant example, and is considered by Pärt biographer, Paul Hiller, to display “the tintinnabuli technique at its most supple and refined.” Additionally, it introduces other techniques utilised in chant music, such as drones which Hiller suggests reinforces the “sense of timelessness or a continual present” often found in Pärt’s work.

Of modern choir music, György Ligeti’Requiem is perhaps the most famous. I’m sure we have all heard this one:

Ligeti’s fame owes a great deal to his music’s extensive use in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, and more recently the paratrooper scene in Godzilla. It is his Requiem that has gained such strong attention, but he has composed numerous vocal works. But to claim that this is the only reason would be misleading.
The strength of Ligeti’s music is in texture. A great deal of music, particularly choral music, focuses on melody, a clearly articulate sequence that the ear follows. As discussed earlier, as much choral music is modal, it relies on melodies working either in conjunction with or against other melodies, sometimes becoming intertwined and indiscernible, creating a rich texture. Ligeti does this in extreme fashion. He forgoes the idea of distinguishable melody entirely, focusing instead on the texture of numerous voices. The compositional technique he uses to achieve this is micropolyphony. As the name suggests, it is an example of many very small, incredibly dense canons all sounding against and with each other. The effect, as Cope reveals, is the sound of cluster chords but the movement of the different lines creates “a simultaneity of different lines, rhythms, and timbres”. It is an extreme example of polyphony, where all the voices sing seemingly against each other, but in actuality create a rich, beautiful and haunting sound.
This is what makes Ligeti and Pärt such interesting conclusions to this article. In both cases texture is predominant, but their approach differs enormously. Ligeti creates rich, dense lines reminiscent of some of the most musically rich polyphony of the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance period, and with Pärt focusing on the narrative, creating a work just as rich and lush. Pärt and Ligeti echo the history of chorale music in their works, while creating unique additions.

More than one voice

The history and variety of choir music is wide and diverse, and this article introduces you to a small number of the works and composers that have created music in this tradition. Enjoy these examples, but please seek out some of the other music, from other early pioneers like Guillaume Dufay, Josquin des Prez, William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis, to Baroque composers like Claudio Monteverdi and Henry Purcell, to modern composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten. The tradition is a great deal richer than a single voice.


Cope, David (1997). Techniques of the Contemporary Composer. New York, New York: Schirmer Books.

Hillier, Paul, Arvo Pärt, Oxford Studies of Composers (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

West, M. L., ‘The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian Melodic Texts’, Music & Letters, lxxv, no. 2 (May 1994), 161–79.

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The Choir: The Unity of Many