Let's talk choir formations - Total Choir Resources

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.

Victoria Hopkins

Victoria is a founder and director of Total Choir Resources. She leads Total Voice Chamber Choir in the UK.

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Jason - last month Reply

For an octet of SSAATTBB, what formation would you recommend? Having heard a recording of a rehearsal, the basses are far too loud and the upper voices (SA) keep going sharp/out of tune. Would SSTTBBAA be better or make things worse as Sops can’t hear Altos?

    Victoria Hopkins - last month Reply

    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.

Carolyn - a couple of months ago Reply

What is the optimum balance of male and female voices over the four parts?

    Victoria Hopkins - a couple of months ago Reply

    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.

Michael - a few months ago Reply

Hello!

I was wondering if you had input on SSA formations.

Currently, I have inherited a choir and they sing S-S-A. I was wondering if you have any information about choirs aligned SAS instead. I am currently composing a choral work for them that would take advantage of this antiphonal arrangement, but also am rather found of the concept regardless. It’s much like how some string quartets will switch the viola and cello placement to be V1. V2. C. Vi instead of V1. V2. Vi. C.. Some orchestras, such as the OSM have done this as well. In theory I believe it would be similar to a STBA arrangement, in that you have the lowest voice in the middle with higher voices on each side.

We also recently were in a situation where we had a small stage and only 9 singers – 2 S1 and 2 S2, 5 altos! I wanted to place them with S in front and A in the rear, but they did not feel comfortable with that. Aside from changing the order of singers in rehearsals to build flexibility, what sort of exercises can I recommend for my singers to do outside of rehearsal to help build ‘hearing independence’ so that they can function in different positions better.

Thanks so much,
Michael
A Canadian MD

    Victoria Hopkins - a few months ago Reply

    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.

      Michael - a few months ago Reply

      Hi Victoria,

      Thanks so much for the validation. Our rehearsals started today and the first one was a bit of a disaster, but I think they will get better. They are in disarray! This is the time to sneak in the changes! ;)

      M

Virginia - a few months ago Reply

Please, can my choir seat this way( SBAT)? is this arrangement universal?

    Victoria Hopkins - a few months ago Reply

    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!

Thomas - a few months ago Reply

Hi Victoria, I find your article very useful. I have a further query on choir singing. Typically Indian music is passed on through ‘Riyaz’ which simply means ‘Practice’. Music is not written in notations. My choir is not musically literate in reading notes. Lately there are many pieces of music in Indian languages as well being done in SATB mostly sung by choirs which can read notes. Do you have any suggestions for learning and performing SATB with being able to read notes.

    Victoria Hopkins - a few months ago Reply

    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!

Karin - a few months ago Reply

My upcoming high school student choir will have 22 female voices and 3 male voices. I still have yet to hear who is a soprano, alto, tenor and bass. However, with such few men, would you recommend choosing SSA or SAB pieces?

    Victoria Hopkins - a few months ago Reply

    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

Errol - a few months ago Reply

Hi, I have a peculiar question. Our (small) church choir, of around 10, sings in two voices. It has become a habit for sopranos to sing on the left side of the pianist/organist and altos on the right (probably due to space constraints). Is this an advisable formation? I am generally the only “conductor” and I find it difficult to give directions on two sides and understand the balance. I’m fairly a beginner at this, so I’d like to hear your thoughts.

    Victoria Hopkins - a few months ago Reply

    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.

izzy - 7 months ago Reply

Hey, wanna ask, whats the best formation for two bass, 6 tenors and lot of alto and suprano? i am newly elected Vice President, so im a bit worried, thanks!

    Victoria Hopkins - 7 months ago Reply

    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.

Tatum Blatteau - 10 months ago Reply

im in 6th grade and im in chior my chior teacher always says im in the perfect pitch with every song im singing and im singing i got a shoes right now and he just arranged us for a concert the 25th i was put on the far right if you look at it from the perspective if your just looking straight ahead there are four levels i was put on the top level right beside the corner edge why?

    Victoria Hopkins - 10 months ago Reply

    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.

Sarah - last year Reply

My school choir stand on a two tiered platform ( platform with two levels). Should I stand the tallest students on the ground and the shortest at the top?

    Victoria Hopkins - last year Reply

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

Cherub - last year Reply

I use S – B (back) – T (front) – A so all of the guys are in the middle. This gives the S & B a connection since they anchor the choir, lets the S also be near the T, and let’s the inner voices be next to each other also. I also arrange each section according to voice timbre. You can change the sound of a section or choir just by moving a few voices around.

    Christine Mulgrew
    Christine Mulgrew - last year Reply

    Thanks for this Cherub, sounds like you have some well organised systems in place to create a great sound.

Georgina - last year Reply

When I was 11 years old an outside teacher came in to form a choir out of the sixth graders in my school. I remember she said the Altos had the lowest vocal range and arranged that section of singers to her right.
I was always puzzled as to why they were all boys and yet she said the Alto singers were there to sing the lowest range of the music being performed.
Was this because a children’s choir is comprised of Alto singers to perform the lowest ranges rather than Bass or Baritones? We were all 11 to 12 years old at the time.

    Victoria Hopkins - last year Reply

    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!

Oneshuagbe Ebenezer - last year Reply

This article has been helpful to a lot of choirs. myself, I have been a choir conductor for two yrs in a local church in Nigeria but I have problems with identifying the voices, that is I don’t even know how to identify each voice. please I need help here.
Ebenezer.

Ben Lamb - last year Reply

I believe in having basses central and behind the other voices where possible – if everyone tuned against the fundament it should help with the global tuning. This typically gives me TBBT on the back row with SAAS on the front row (assuming a double choir set up with potential duplications within each voice). With tenors in scarce supply I have sometimes opted for ABBA in back row with STTS in the front to aid projection. Whilst I prefer singing scrambled when I sing, I find this isn’t always preferable from an audience perspective as it doesn’t have the same directional qualities that can be beneficial when listening to a performance.

Tom - last year Reply

Hi,
Thanks for this! Great presentation, super informative for me.
I’m a composer and i’m writing a piece for a choir in motion – singers walking about and spreading in space.
Are you familiar/ encountered these types of compositions?
I’m really interested in finding information about contemporary composition implementing this type of thing.

    Victoria Hopkins - last year Reply

    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.

      Tom - last year Reply

      Thanks anyway, will send a link once recorded!

    Libby - 7 months ago Reply

    Hello Tom! just reading your post….. did you find info on choir in motion? how did it go?
    Were they literally walking around,,, or just doing actions?

lionorah - a couple of years ago Reply

thanks vic, i have head that sopranos should be on the right side of the choir director, is that true

    Victoria Hopkins - a couple of years ago Reply

    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

Geo - a couple of years ago Reply

I lead a church choir here in New Zealand split into 8 voices (2 S1, 5 S2, 3 A1, 3 A2, 3 T1, 3 T2, 2 B1, 2 B2). Since not all churches have choir lofts and we just occupy two pews, our go-to formation is this:

first pew: T2 T1 T2 A2 A1 A2 A1 S2 S2 S1 B1 B2
second pew: T1 T2 T1 A1 A2 A1 S1 S2 S2 S2 B2 B1

I always make sure that the two Soprano 1’s are not seated beside each other because they are both classically trained with powerful operatic qualities and (to the trained ear) the sound of their voices sitting together are so strong that they unintentionally drown the Soprano 2’s out. Separating them gave a more balanced sound.

    Victoria Hopkins - a couple of years ago Reply

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

    ian louie - a couple of years ago Reply

    can i ask you about how to handle a choir in church.. i really need i ideas.. im a new of this field

      Victoria Hopkins - a couple of years ago Reply

      Hi Ian. I’m afraid church choirs are outside my area of knowledge.

Michael - 3 years ago Reply

I’ve tried using James Jordan’s “altos in the front,sopranos row 2, tenors row 3 and basses row 3 approach ( The Choral Rehearsal, James Jordan) and have been impressed with the mix acheived. There is some literature, however, that sounds better with approaches that you’ve listed in your article. The “altos in the front” approach definitely improves their part accuracy and intonation, not to mention, blend.

    Victoria Hopkins - 3 years ago Reply

    That’s interesting Micheael. I might experiment with that myself.

Juanita Cucinotta - 3 years ago Reply

Again, another excellent article. Thank you!
Cheers Juanita

Sarah - 3 years ago Reply

This caught my eye because one of my singers keeps saying that he thinks it would be better for the singers if I separated them all into voice types and they need to know what their voice type is. He belongs to other singing groups who do this and I believe it’s what he’s comfortable with. I disagree. We are a community singing group and people tend to move around to find their own optimal ‘hearing’ splace, unless I occasionally place them to sing in different parts. But, these parts may contain a combination of voice types – for example when all the men are singing the main part and the women are singing the chorus, or vice-versa, or where one group is singing an upper or lower harmony (still with different voice types.) I do experiment with moving people around but was very interested to read your comments about mixing your choir up and the effect on the overall sound. We often have to squeeze into awkward shaped spaces because of the environments in which we perform and this impacts in a practical sense on our formation. However, the singers are amazingly good at adapting and working with whatever ‘is’ and I know many would recoil from or feel intimidated by a more formal arrangement by voice types at this point in time, so thanks for some reassurance!

    Christine Mulgrew
    Christine Mulgrew - 3 years ago Reply

    Hi Sarah, thanks for your comments, I’m pleased the article has given you food for thought. Getting the balance right often takes some trial and error so trying out different formations in rehearsal is a great way to see what works best for your singers and for the overall sound and balance of the music.

Matthias - 3 years ago Reply

This is the article that appeared when I googled “choir formation” yesterday. Thank you, Victoria, for the great ideas in the article.
In my community choir, there are 25 people, and for 2 years now I have rehearsed with them in a BTAS formation in 2 rows. We also have used that formation for performances a lot.
The interesting thing about placing the lowest sounding group to the left and the highest to the right is that it corresponds to a natural physiology of the human sense of hearing. I once read about a research on human perception where scientists found out that we tend to hear low sounds better from the right and high sounds better from the left. I have no idea why our brain seems to organise sound that way, but why not experiment with it? When I first placed my singers like that, it sounded logical and natural. Plus, it corresponds to the placing of the low and high notes on the piano keyboard in front of me. ;-)

Greetings
Matthias

    Elizabeth - 3 years ago Reply

    Matthias-
    I am very late to reading this thread, but I was wondering if you could clarify the formation you speak of – BTAS in two rows. So does that mean you have two rows each that start with B, then continue on with T, A and S from left to right? Also you say that the article you read that people hear low sounds better from the right and high sounds better from the left, but you have the low voices on the left and high voices on the right in your formation. Could you clarify?
    Thanks,
    Elizabeth

      Victoria Hopkins - 3 years ago Reply

      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.

    jennifer - a couple of years ago Reply

    It was fascinating to read Matthias’ reply about physiology, human perception and how we hear things. I’ve just launched a community choir in my small town in Ontario, Canada and went with my gut on placement of singers. I ended up with the BTAS arrangement Matthias writes about. It works for us so far…and allows singers to support each other in their own vocal group – especially at this point in the choir’s development. If someone had asked me a ‘why’ about the choir formation I wouldn’t really have been able to give much of an answer. At least now, I can share this information and give them something to chew on.

    Thanks!

    Jennifer

Performance skills: arranging your choir on the platform | Total Choir Resources - 4 years ago Reply

[…] are numerous choir formations you can experiment with (see this article for ideas), but fundamentally, you’re probably going to have your choir arranged either in […]

Daniel Spreadbury - 5 years ago Reply

This is a very interesting and timely article! In my experience, choir formation not only has an effect on balance and blend, but also on intonation.

Another factor that is important is where in the overall performance space the choir is positioned. My chamber choir rehearses in a medium-sized school hall, which while somewhat resonant is not particularly supportive to the overall sound. I typically position the choir in two rows (SA in the front, TB in the back, though I will certainly try the STBA formation you recommend!) as close to the most solid wall in the hall as I can, so that the sound travels a short distance before bouncing off the wall and returning to the singers.

This past week we formed up in more of a semi-circular fashion (still with two rows, as having a single row of 20+ people makes the singers halfway around the circle too far away for me to hear them clearly) singing into the corner of the room, with me basically standing in the corner. This did seem to have a beneficial effect on intonation.

Although I do occasionally use the “scrambled” arrangement, I haven’t yet tried using the “lots of quartets” approach that you outlined in your podcast on this subject, and I’m looking forward to trying that and the STBA formation in coming rehearsals.

    Victoria Hopkins - 5 years ago Reply

    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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