Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Finding songs for your choir

This is a revised version of a post which first appeared in February 2007 as Where did you get that song, where did you get that song?

I’m often asked by concert-goers and choir leaders alike:

“Where do you get all your songs from?”

Music cassette

Well, here’s the short answer to this simple question:

“From everyone and everywhere.”

Now for the long answer!

When I started my first choir back in 1997 I reckoned I had enough songs to last me for one term (about 10 weeks) after which I was seriously thinking about panicking or retiring. But now, somehow, after teaching in excess of 500 songs over the last ten years, I have another 600 waiting to be taught!

Like most things, when you become seriously involved in something new, your radar begins to pick up signals from previously unnoticed sources. Here are some of the sources that I use:

  • radio
  • CDs
  • workshops
  • songbooks
  • learning tapes
  • internet
  • arranging yourself

In what follows, I’m focusing on my own special interest: harmony singing from different cultures across the globe.


I listen to a lot of music in the car (all that driving between Coventry and Stamford!). As well as CDs I listen to the radio a lot – both live, and MP3s of programmes I’ve recorded on my digital radio at home.

I often tune in to Late Junction on BBC Radio 3. I also used to listen to World Routes on a Saturday afternoon on my way over to Stamford, but now that they’ve moved it, I have to miss it. But these days, for those in the UK it’s possible to listen to programmes you’ve missed on the BBC iPlayer.

I might hear a wonderful track that might be suitable for the choir, so when I get home I use the internet (a wonderful tool!) to look at the playlist for the programme. Then I track down the CD on the web (using Google) and try to listen to a few more tracks before possibly buying the CD (again, usually over the internet).


I have ended up with loads of world music and roots CDs in my collection. If I want to teach one of the songs I can often work out the parts from the recording (if it’s already in a harmony arrangement) or I work out the tune and put my own harmonies on.

I usually do background research on the internet to try and find the lyrics (I will never teach a song phonetically from a recording unless I can find the proper lyrics in the original language, and preferably a translation or a rough meaning).

Sometime I might stumble across a written score or existing arrangement which I can buy or copy (anything for an easy life!).

You have to be very careful when searching for lyrics and song information on the internet. Never believe everything you read! Rather like finding a builder, I always look for at least three independent sources. I stress independent, because some sites just copy and paste information from other sites! I have sometimes found the background to a song which seems a bit suspicious and have ended up tracking down the individual who wrote it and asked them for their source. Often it’s just hearsay!

You can also try contacting the record label. I emailed Angelique Kidjo’s label and they kindly sent me written lyrics to some of her songs, together with a translation. Also permission to do an arrangement.

I’m going to write about this at some point, but do make sure that you have permission to arrange a song. Copyright is a tricky subject. Don’t always assume that because a song appears to be in the public domain that it isn’t in copyright.


I learn a lot of songs by attending workshops. Not only is it a great place to collect songs, but as a workshop leader I also think it’s important to be a participant sometimes. It also counts as professional development. We choir and workshop leaders are giving out so much that it’s nice to be on the receiving end for a change!

Sometimes I record the workshop whilst I’m there (although increasingly I just want to be a punter and enjoy the workshop), but sometimes I can get the written score or a recording from the workshop leader (or at least they might point me in the direction of a useful source). Do check with the workshop leader that it’s OK to record and also to use their arrangement. They will usually be very pleased, just make sure you credit them as arranger.


I collect many written scores and songbooks. I buy books from a variety of sources (again the internet is a good place to start) as well as sheet music for individual songs.

A good place to start is the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network (NVPN) website which has a resources section of members’ stuff divided into Songbooks, Teaching CDs, etc. The NVPN have recently published a fabulous book of short and easy song by its members: To Grace the Earth. Highly recommended!

Nickomo’s books are particularly useful and he also transcribes songs taught by a range of people at the Unicorn summer singing camps. Also Nick Prater (focus on gospel and New Zealand) and Ali Burns (focus on traditional songs from the British Isles), both prolific arrangers and song writers.

Northern Harmony books and recordings can be bought from their website (they take sterling cheques as payment). They have lots of songbooks and CDs of African, Balkan and Georgian songs.

Two women’s groups in the US also produce songbooks: Kitka and Libana.

There are various world music publishers out there (e.g. World Music Press), publishers of particular genres (e.g. Bulgarian: Voxbulgarica) and general acappella publishers (e.g.

learning tapes

Some people out there do wonderful acappella arrangements for choirs, but don’t write music or choose to make their work available for people who don’t read music. This ranges from the wonderful Dee Jarlett (of the Bristol Gasworks Choir) to Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock (‘Singing in the African American Tradition’). Some arrangers make both available, i.e. written score accompanied by a CD with all the parts on. This is the case with most of the books you will find on the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network website.


The internet is a wonderful resource if used properly. I’ve managed to stumble across lots of free harmony arrangements (e.g. Choral Public Domain library), beautiful songs collected by other choirs (I found the most amazing Russian orthodox song on the website of a male voice choir in the Netherlands), songbooks that you didn’t know existed (I was searching for ‘Mbube’ when I came across a German book of South African songs), and interesting people and choirs who I’ve ended up swapping songs with.

I also use which is a free music streaming website with a huge catalogue of music from all over the world. I go to their Radio service and pick a group/ artist (e.g. Kitka, Ladysmith Black Mambazo) or genre of music that I’m interested in (e.g. Bulgarian, gypsy) and the service creates a temporary radio station playing just that kind of music. Often something strange and unexpected pops up and I’ve found a new song to teach!


Over the years I have started to write (and sell!) more of my own song arrangements. I might find a lovely tune in a old music book (I get lots from second hand shops) or hear an old folk song on a CD that I’ve borrowed from the local library. 

Fortunately I read music so can usually pick out the tune on my guitar, but some traditional music has fiendishly difficult rhythms or harmonies so I really need to hear a recording first and then use the score as an aide memoir and basis for teaching and harmonising.

Being a pretty poor musician, I often type the score into the notation programme I have on my computer (Finale PrintMusic about £70) simply so I can transpose it (lame, I know!). There is a free cut-down version that you can use called Finale NotePad, but it doesn’t do anything fancy like transposition.

Sometimes the transposition is not straightforward (the bass becomes too low, or the tenor part is no longer suitable for women, or the top part becomes too high for a community choir) and I need to tinker around and move parts about (which means sometimes the bass get the tune for a change!).

I’ve even been known to actually write the odd song for a particular occasion!

other sources

So there you have it. A mix of listening to CDs and the radio, going to workshops, buying songbooks and written scores, going to the local library, and also receiving suggestions from choir members.

I’m sure there must be loads of other useful resources for finding songs for choirs. Do let me know your favourites.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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