Choral Arranging in 10 Steps

Have you exhausted your budget for new music but find yourself in need of a few more pieces to round out the upcoming choral season? Have you been unable to find a choral setting of a hymn you love? Have you always been curious about how the creative process works? Now could be a great time for you to try writing your own music! Follow the 10-step process below, mix in a little inspiration, and you may be pleasantly surprised with what you’re able to create.

1. Determine why you want to arrange a piece for choir and make sure it’s a very good reason—while this process is rewarding, it’s not easy! Has someone asked you to write something special? Are there no settings of the text/tune already in print? Are you trying to save money? Is this a hobby that brings you pleasure?

2. Choose a text, then get to know it intimately. How does the text divide formally and grammatically? Is there any arcane language you would like to change? What possible meters (time signatures) could work with the text? What musical form does the text suggest: ABA, strophic, through-composed? Are there any words or phrases that seem like particularly good candidates for text-painting? How will these words be set: as high or low notes, over a chromatic chord, after a sudden dynamic shift?

3. Consider the tune. Do you want to use the tune that is already paired with the text, or do you want to use an alternate tune? Can/should you alter the meter and/or the tune’s rhythmic gestures? (Example 1: a tune in 3/4 can seem refreshingly expansive when adding a beat and placing it in 4/4. Example 2: a tune that begins with a half note can be given added vitality by changing that to quarter rest – quarter note.)

4. Think about voicing/accompaniment. Do you hear unison mixed voices, men, women, 2-part mixed, or SATB choir singing these words? Will there be accompaniment? If so, what instrument(s) will play, and what does the accompaniment sound like? Is it hurried, sustained, rhythmic, chorale-style? What is the general shape of the accompaniment: Alberti bass, arpeggiations in l.h. with chords or octaves in r.h., waltz-style? Keep in mind the basis of a nice accompaniment, whatever the pattern, is good SATB voice-leading.

5. Settle on a form. Here’s an easy approach to handling form: choose a piece you like and copy its form. Hymns with repetition (a refrain or an “Alleluia”) can be relatively easy to structure formally.

6. Find the right key. Does the tune need to be set in a different key, either higher or lower? Is a mode shift (major to minor, or vice versa) or modulation appropriate for any section or verse?

7. Begin (rather, continue!) to write. A potentially paralyzing reality is the blank page. In order to overcome this, fill your manuscript paper with as much detail as possible before you write a single note. Write out the title, author’s and composer’s names, and your name; group the staves; write out the clefs, key signature, and time signature. Some composers/arrangers feel like they need to include everything and the kitchen sink. Instead, stick with your initial musical ideas, repeating and developing them throughout the entire piece. Remember, it will take much less time to perform your piece than it will to arrange and edit it. In other words, your audience will not tire of a musical idea as quickly as you might think they will.

8. Do this, and then do it some more: revise. 90% of writing is rewriting (it’s true!). Remember, you are setting a text—as you work on the vocal lines, constantly sing them back to make sure they are musical and free of any awkward syllabic emphasis.

9. Now, the not so fun part: transcribe and print. Use Finale® or Sibelius®. Enough said!

10. Finally, the really fun part: practice and perform. Don’t be afraid to make changes to the score after hearing a choir rehearse or even perform your music—composers have been doing this for centuries! Enjoy and take pleasure in your work. You’ve worked hard and done well.

Tim Shaw

Timothy Shaw studied theology and music as an undergraduate and graduate student, and he has enjoyed a multi-faceted career as composer, college professor, music engraver, and church musician. He has presented workshops, academic papers, hymn festivals, and reading sessions at numerous conferences, churches, and universities throughout the United States. His publishers include Augsburg Fortress, Beckenhorst, Choristers Guild, Concordia, Hope, Kjos, MorningStar, and Shawnee.


  1. avatar Pat Stanowski says:

    I remember being so focused on music when I was younger that I was starting to compose my own melodies. Thank you for bringing those memories back! This is a GREAT guideline for musical composition! Bravo, Tim, as always, you are an inspiration!

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