Monday, August 09, 2021

Can only singers lead choirs, only music readers arrange songs and only musicians be songwriters?

Many choir leaders demonstrate and teach songs by singing them. But can you lead a choir without being able to sing? Similarly, do you need to be able to read music to be a song arranger, or be a musician to write songs?


The simple answer to these questions (I believe) is “No.” Here’s why.

choir leading

Personally, I don’t use sheet music when I teach songs. I don’t audition and I don’t assume any musical knowledge from the participants in my choirs or singing events.

In order to teach songs, I sing a section and ask the singers to repeat (some call this “rote learning”, but I call it “learning by ear” – see Why ‘learning by rote’ can be an insult).

But that’s not the only way to teach songs or rehearse a choir. You could:

  • play the parts on a musical instrument
  • work with sight singers only and use sheet music
  • ask a choir member to sing the parts for you
  • play a recording and ask the singers to copy
  • get half the choir to teach a song they know to the other half

In short, you don’t need to be a singer in order to lead a choir. It may help, but it’s not necessary. It’s certainly not necessary to be a ‘good’ singer (see Do you have to be a good singer to lead a choir?).

song arranging

To arrange a song you need some understanding of how harmonies work. This doesn’t have to be a formal understanding though. It may be the result of years of harmonising along with the radio. It can be an innate skill and understanding.

Many song arrangers sit down at an instrument and work out harmonies which are then transcribed into music notation.

But neither instrument nor music notation are necessary. You could:

  • use a recording device (even on your phone) and work out a single harmony part against a tune played on another device
  • get a bit more sophisticated and use a multi-track recorder or simple piece of software (on your computer or phone) and work out several harmony parts together
  • work with a friend and play with a harmony whilst singing against them doing the main tune
  • get two or three friends together and work out harmonies jointly, with each singer singing a different harmony part
  • pass on your finished arrangement by recording the separate parts

song writing

Similar to song arranging, many song writers sit down with an instrument and a blank music manuscript.

Again, neither instrument nor music notation are necessary to write a song. Instead, you could:

  • use a recording device to sing snippets of melody as and when they occur to you – a mobile phone is perfectly OK for this
  • ask a friend who can write music to notate a melody that you sing to them – it’s a good way to keep a record so you don’t forget
  • speak lyrics into a recording device on the go, or jot them down on scraps of paper, whether it’s in a cafĂ© or on the bus
  • learn to use a digital audio workstation (DAW), I.e. a piece of software that allows you to record and edit audio files – you can sing your ideas into this and then change them and move them around later

let nothing stop you being creative!

You may have hesitated about becoming a choir leader, song arranger or songwriter because you had preconceptions about what skills are needed. Yes, it might be a bit easier if you can sing or play a musical instrument or read music notation, but none of these are vital.

Don’t let anything prevent you from being musically creative. If you have a burning desire, just get out there and do it. Good luck!

further reading

You might also find these other posts useful.

Do you need perfect pitch to lead a choir?

Fit the song arrangement to your singers and not the other way round

Arranging songs for your choir 1: choosing the right song

Arranging songs for your choir 2: the basics of arranging


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Chris Rowbury




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