This project explores wordless choruses and simple part singing. The introductory activities build vocal confidence through group improvisation which does not require the matching of pre-determined pitches. The second section practises singing a major triad in parts and vocal improvisation, based on a major scale, as an introduction to the composition of simple rounds. The activities integrate listening, playing and composing skills and there are suggestions for appropriate use of ICT.

A Wordless Chorus

There is something about voices that can give a very special character to a piece of music. A wordless chorus, used Hollywood style, creates an intense romantic ‘glow’. Yet, Vaughan Williams was able to use the same resource to depict the frozen wastes of the Antarctic. Other composers have used it to create a haunting, ghostly, atmosphere. A lot depends on the timbre, or sound quality.. A carefully selected voice, or voices, can that special mood a composer seeks without recourse to words. A songwriter usually has very definite views about the type of voice appropriate for a particular song. Sometimes a beautiful sound is required but this is, by no means, always the case.

A Starting Point

Singing in parts is as rewarding for performers as it is for listeners. Being able to sound a pre-determined pitch and hold it while someone sings something different takes practice. The class can begin to explore the vocal sounds available by trying this little exercise on random pitches:

At a signal from the teacher, or other leader, everyone sings a sustained note, at a pitch of their choosing. (It’s important to start immediately, at the signal, so as not to be influenced by what other people are singing.) Each person should try to keep to their own pitch, repeating the same note after taking breath.

Repeat the exercise but this time everyone walks around the room. After holding the initial pitch for a while, the note can be changed to blend in with that being sung by whoever is closest at the time.

Small Group Work

When everyone becomes accustomed to vocalising, in this way, the class can be divided into smaller groups. Each should improvise a wordless chorus as a soundtrack to a film. This could be about

a) ceremonies for the newly-constructed Stonehenge

b) crossing the Sahara Desert

c) following whales & dolphins

or something else suggested by the group.

Recording and Evaluating

Record the improvisations and discuss how well they conveyed the mood of the film. If sound processing hardware is available, it would be interesting to experiment with different kinds of Reverb, Pitch-Shifting, etc. and discover how some of the effects heard on commercial recordings are achieved.


Exploring a Major Triad

A chord consists of two or more pitches combined together in harmony. The most basic type of chord is the triad. This takes three alternate notes from a scale, sounding them simultaneously., e.g. C E G or D F A, etc.. The first of the three notes can also be sounded an octave higher, so we have C E G C or D F A D. Divide the class up into four groups, each to sing one of the notes C, E, G or the upper C. (At first, each pitch can be sounded on a keyboard, or other instrument. The idea, though, is to internalise the four pitches and to be able to produce them, at will, without this instrumental support.)

First, the bottom C group sing and sustain their note. Group 2 then adds the E, and so forth, until all four notes are being sounded together. Repeat using a ‘conductor’ to determine the order of entries. If confident volunteers are available, individuals can try improvising over the chord being sustained by the class.

Creating Simple Rounds

Where a single chord is used to harmonise an entire song, it is very easy to construct rounds and part-songs, using the notes of the scale associated with the chord. With our C major chord we will use the scale of C major ( C D E F G A B C). For the moment, the notes that fall on an accented part of the bar should be chosen from the chord notes. If several songs are based on the same chord and time signature, they can be sung/played in any combination. The pupils' sheet provides some words and a rhythmic framework with which individual pupils can create a round (It is expected that most pupils will need to try out their ideas on an instrument, prior to singing.):

Because every bar has the same harmony, voices can enter at any point. If software for score-writing and playback is available, pupils can experiment with the number of voices and the timing of entries. This is very appropriate use of ICT because it enables the individual pupil to work in a way that would be otherwise impossible. Using the ‘copy and paste’ facility will speed up the writing of the music. (This activity could be used as a class introduction to the software.)

When everyone is confident at singing one of the rounds invented by class members, it can be given an eerie quality by adding sustained notes that do not always harmonise with the melody. This can be done, very simply, by having a group accompany the round by singing the scale, up or down, holding each note for two full bars.

© Copyright Audrey Podmore, 2003

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