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  • Writer's pictureemilytully

Making Sense of Ensemble and Choir Music

We all read sheet music at varying levels. When working on ensemble pieces, it’s much easier if we can all “sing from the same hymn sheet” so to speak.

In short, notes sitting higher on the lines are higher in pitch than those sitting lower. Notes taking up a lot of space are longer in length than lots of little, short notes cramped into small spaces.

The truth is, no matter how good you are at reading music, when singing, the patterns become second nature to us. We follow the ups and the downs, the short and long without thinking about it. Our natural aural ability takes over in order to adjust the notes we’re singing to make it “sound right”, and our musical memory soon kicks in as we start to learn the patterns.

Here are some pointers to help you on your way to following notation easily and staying on your line.

Singing (& Reading) Music Together

We read the lyrics on a piece of music the same way we read text in a book, from left to right, top to bottom.

When there are multiple lines of lyrics on a stave, we read them line by line, these are usually verses. In this example, we read all the red lines, then go back to the beginning to read the green lines, then yellow, then blue:

As you can see, there is a line of music above the lyrics, and a line below. On the top line of music, there are notes with sticks pointing upwards and downwards. This demonstrates the line sung by two different voices.

The lines facing up are sung by the higher voice (red), the lines facing down, by the lower voice (blue):

In this piece of music, there are four parts being sung at the same time. We are going to call each voice part a different name:

  • Soprano - high female voice (red)

  • Alto - lower female voice (blue)

  • Tenor - high male voice (green)

  • Bass - lower male voice (yellow)

When all of the voice parts sing at the same time, we are singing in harmony, as the notes blend to create a fuller sound.

To clarify when the notes are sung, you can see how each set of notes are in line with each syllable of the lyrics:

Each pink oval shows us which notes and lyrics are sung at the same time by each voice part. In the blue circle, the notes are long and are held and finished at the same time by each voice. In the yellow circle, you can see the soprano and tenor line sing two notes, while the alto and bass hold one note whilst singing “once”.

This is by no means a full, theoretical explanation of reading music, but hopefully it will give you confidence to follow the patterns. Allow your musical I tuition to flow, pick up on a few visual cues in the music, and you’ll soon be reading and following more than you think.

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