Let's talk choir formations

Choirs come in all shapes and sizes.  They could include a handful of voices or a hundred, comprise men, women, children. Pretty much any choir you can imagine exists and they all have one thing in common. They make music and they want that music to be heard. And that leads us to the subject of choir formation - in what order should the singers in a choir stand to make the best sound?

Any decision on choir formation, whether for rehearsal or performance, is going to be based on several criteria: the size and position of the platform or room, the size of the audience, the acoustics in the venue, the number of singers, the position of the conductor. The formation of the choir in performance is going to affect not only what the audience hears, but what the singers and conductor see and here - in other words, the experience of everyone involved. No pressure then!

I've been experimenting lately with different formations for my chamber choir and I've discovered a few things. There seems to be no right or wrong way to arrange your choir. There are so many different variables involved that it's impossible to create reliable guidelines. However, there is some research on the subject, which we'll have a look at later.

What choir formations are available to us and how should we select the best formation for a particular space? Let's break the decision down into two sections: position and spacing.

Position

In a traditional "classical" SATB choir (for want of a better term) the singers usually stand in sections according to voice part. The most common arrangement of voice parts is, in my experience, STBA, which looks like this:

One advantage of an STBA arrangement is that the higher (soprano & tenor) and lower (alto and bass) voices are next to each other. The men are in the centre which can be helpful for choirs with a greater number of women than men. It's also useful to have the tenors and basses together if the choir is singing any SAB arrangements.

Another common arrangement is SATB. Personally, I like this formation less than STBA. In most choirs I see, there are many more SAs than TBs and having the men over on one side looks unbalanced, even if it doesn't sound unbalanced.

Less favoured, but still quite common is SA at the front, TB at the back. I've seen this formation when choirs are singing in spaces that are deeper than they are wide. It makes sense in terms of the sight lines of the choir as the men tend to be taller than the women, on average, but it's pretty terrible sound-wise as the lower parts have to travel over the top of the upper. I also know from experience (being tall, I always get sent to the back!) that being at the back of several rows of bodies can be pretty unsatisfying for the singers.

With antiphonal music (effectively two choirs in one, an example is Belshazzer's Feast by William Walton), you might arrange the choir so as to maximise the effect - STBAABTS.

You could also opt, for example, for SSTTAABB if you were singing a two-choir piece in a programme of other stuff. You just won't get the "call and response" effect that antiphonal music often exploits.

All of these formations are variations on a theme - each voice part huddles together and creates a block of sound. The blocks are arranged in whatever way the conductor sees fit. The advantage of these formations for the conductor is that he can direct specific sections of the choir easily. If he turns to the sopranos to give a lead, it's clear to the rest of the choir that the lead is not for them. The singers have the comfort of having others around them singing the same thing. The downside is that singers become reliant on each other and mistakes can have a "ripple effect".

A completely different approach is to mix the voices up so that each singer is surrounded by singers of other voice parts. A variation on this idea is having singers in pairs, so they're mixed up, but have a 'buddy' of the same voice part.

I've experimented with these formations and have had fantastic feedback from the choir. They report that they feel more involved in the music as a whole and get a much deeper understanding of a piece. They also tell me that being mixed up forces them to take more responsibility for their own performance and to rely less on the their neighbour. A mixed formation certainly affects the sound the choir makes. This is purely anecdotal, but my perception from the front of the choir is that the sound is fuller and richer and that the choir is more responsive.

A mixed formation is more challenging for the conductor because you're directing a mass of singers and giving leads and gestures to the whole group all the time. This takes some planning. If one part has a crescendo and everyone else is piano, how are you going to give that direction?

Spacing

Some interesting research has been done on the spacing between singers in a choir. A study found that both singers and listeners significantly preferred a formation where the choir was spread out (so their upper arms were about 18 inches apart) to a formation where they were close together. The authors of the study speculate that this may be the result of the different ways in which sound moves around when the singers are spaced out. Interestingly, the research also identified that listeners to the choir significantly preferred female singers to be more spaced out (pardon the pun) than male singers.

The overall message is, I think, that choir formation is something that's well worth experimenting with. Apart from anything else, switching things around every now and then will keep your singers on their toes and prevent them from getting too reliant on being in a particular position in the choir.

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26 comments

Victoria Hopkins Staff

Thanks for the comment Daniel. That's really valuable feedback. My chamber choir is made up of about 28 singers, of which about 10 are men (actually, I shouldn't say that - one of our tenors is a woman, but you know what I mean). With those numbers, it doesn't really work to have a double row of Ts and Bs in a STBA formation, so we usually rehearse with a double row of Ss and As, and a single row of Ts and Bs. Fortunately, we have the space to spread out laterally. I really think that any experimentation with formations is valuable, even if you merely find out what doesn't work. I haven't paid any attention so far to the effect on intonation. I'll keep an ear out for that.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

That's interesting Micheael. I might experiment with that myself.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Elizabeth. I'm not sure whether Matthias will see your question after several months, but perhaps you'll be lucky. I was reading his comment and your question, and wondered if perhaps he was referring to the formation of the choir from the choir's perspective rather than the audience's. That would explain the left/right thing. Then again, that wouldn't explain the piano keyboard comment.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Geo. Thanks for telling us about your choir formation. I agree about separating the two trained voices.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Ian. I'm afraid church choirs are outside my area of knowledge.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Lionorah. There aren't any rules about the arrangement of vocal parts within a choir. Different conductors have different preferences. The most common SATB formation is probably S-T-B-A (from the conductor's point of view), but there are many variations on that. Best wishes, Victoria
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Tom. Thank you for your kind words. I've never heard of a piece designed for a moving choir - it sounds amazing! I don't know what to suggest in the way of resources, but keep in touch. We'd love to hear how you get on and perhaps promote your piece.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Georgina. I think 'Alto' is a term traditionally used to described boys' voices that are below treble but not as low as tenor. In a chilren's choir comprising solely unchanged voices, it would be the lowest voice. When we use the term 'Alto' to describe women's voices, we're really using it as an abbreviation for 'Contralto'. I'm very happy to stand corrected though - I don't know much about children's choirs except that I was once a child and sang in a few!
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Sarah. I’d probably try both ways in rehearsal and see which looks and sounds better.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Tatum. Well done for singing in a choir. It will help you to become a confident singer and a good musician. There are all sorts of reasons why choir leaders place their choirs in a particular formation, so I can’t tell you why your teacher has chosen your placement. Why not ask him? Best of luck with your singing.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Izzy. Depends a lot on the venue and acoustic, but those things aside, I'd put the tenors and basses in the middle, probably in a single row or two row with the basses in the second row, then the sops and altos either side.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Errol. I can imagine that it is a challenge to rehearse with the choir in two blocks either side of the piano. Apart from the difficulty for you, the choir members might struggle to hear each other. Perhaps you could experiment with some different formations. You can be completely open with the choir. Explain that you're experimenting to find out what works best for you, the choir and the accompaniment in the space you have available.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Karin. I think with so few chaps, it would be a good idea to either source some SSA repertoire where the boys could sing the middle or lower part down an octave (unless any of the are altos, of course), or have a look at some repertoire that doesn't specify male or female voices. If you go to musicroom.com, you'll find scores for 2 or 3 part songs. Best of luck
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Thomas. I don't have any experience of the kind of music you're talking about, but I think any music can be taught by ear. Just break it down and teach it in small chunks. It might take longer than teaching a choir who can read music, but there's no reason it can't be done, plus you'll have the pleasure of performing with a choir who are all looking at you instead of their scores!
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Virginia. You can seat your choir in whatever way works for you and your singers. I probably wouldn't use SBAT because it could make a bit of a weird balance having the basses next to the sops, but if it works for you, go for it!
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Michael. My view is that it's really beneficial and rewarding to a choir to experience singing in different formations, so if I were you, I would experiment. Different formations will suit different performance spaces so it's a good idea to get everyone used to the feeling of being somewhere new, surrounded by 'new' voices. You say your singers were uncomfortable with the altos behind the sops, but it sounds as though that was a sensible formation for the space you were in and the singers you had, so I think I would have gently insisted on what I thought was best in that situation. You've hit the nail on the head - mixing up your singers in rehearsal will build flexibility. I can't think of any solo exercises that people can do at home to build what you call 'hearing independence'. That is by nature something that requires multiple voices. You will always get a few moans and groans when you try to do things differently, but stick with it. Your choir will have a better experience in the long run.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Carolyn. It depends a lot on the type of voices and repertoire, and where you're singing. I guess you can using 50/50 as a starting point, but most mixed choirs don't have that and can still achieve a good balance of voices.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Jason. It's always best to experiment if you can. A lot will depend on the space you're in, including how much space you have between the singers. However, as a starting point, my hunch would be to try sops to your left, altos to your right, with tenors in front of basses in the middle. It might help your sops and altos hear better if you can bring the choir into a semi-circle rather than a line (although you might already be doing that). It's also great listening practice to mix them up occasionally, or do some rounds where you mix up the parts rather than each vocal part singing together.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

I don’t know Victor. When you have two choirs, it’s known as ‘antiphony’. I don’t know about four.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Cristina. Rounds, rounds and more rounds! Mix your singers up so they don't always sing next to the same people, then sing some more rounds :-)
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Sorry Sally, we don't understand your question.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Matt. It might be a good idea to experiment a bit and work out what gives the best sound, but I'd probably start with the altos on one side in a couple of rows, and the sops on the other, with the men behind the sops.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Raymond. I always try to make sure that singers are staggered so they can see between the people in front, but a lot of the time we don't have that luxury and we just have to do the best with what we've got. You can have an ideal formation in mind, but you then have to adapt to circumstances.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Toscar. Ideally, you'd have roughly equal parts across the board, but you can definitely get away with greater numbers in the sops and altos, as many mixed choirs do.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

No idea! Sounds like it's probably a performance thing.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Sounds like it was an artistic decision to make the audience feel really involved in the performance. We've done a few performances where the choir has entered through the audience, singing as they walk. It can be very effective.
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