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Middle School

composing for middle school choirs


  • Melodic Elements:

    • Upper voice parts especially should be given ample opportunities to exercise their full range.

    • Find moments to highlight male voices in the melody.

    • Altos: place the melody between C4 and C5, ideally. Full range: A3 to E5.

    • Sopranos: place the melody between E4 and D5. Full range: B3 to F5.

    • Be aware of the mix of changed and unchanged male voices:

      • Changed: can generally descend to Bb2. Full Range: A3 to F4.

      • Unchanged: full range may include notes as low as F3 or as high as C5 but generally resides in the A3 to A4 range comfortably.

      • Note that unchanged voices are sometimes placed in the alto section.

    • Include key phrases and measures that students can read at their level of notational literacy (Appendix Item 1). For example, having a key phrase composed of two or three basic note and rest values (sixteenth, eighth, quarter, or half notes) would provide students with the opportunity to put their rhythm reading into practice for the purpose of performance (Appendix Item 2). Stepwise phrases with skips and a few “challenge” leaps would be accessible to their melodic reading (Appendix Item 3).

  • Voicing:

    • One to three parts (depending on the level of the ensemble)

    • In “Problem Solving”, Judy Bowers offers suggestions for re-voicing SAB scores to suit the needs of a three-part middle school group due to the vast majority of scores in that voicing (Appendix Item 5).

  • Harmony:

    • Use of ostinato, descant, and/or canon are still recommended. Opportunities to strengthen root singing will help develop chord recognition. Three-part pieces with canonic or descant-like parts help an ensemble to begin dividing in such a way successfully.

    • More advanced middle school choirs may benefit from exposure to some moments of parallel chordal motion (Appendix Item 4).

    • Elements such as countermelodies motivate the group with healthy competition, support, and responsibility.

  • Form: Students are beginning to understand more complex musical structures. Contrasting sections and textures provide good opportunities for analytic class discussion.

Compositional Example 1 - Two Parts

  • The imitative nature of this piece gives each of the two parts equal melodic responsibility and similar range. This discourages the tendency to form a premature voice-part identity and unhealthy singing habits.

  • The piece's structure builds on the elementary school skill of canon singing.

  • This piece would be best suited for an ensemble of unchanged male voices and/or female voices. Know your vocalists!

  • Pitches and rhythms are at an appropriate reading level for younger middle school students. The melody includes pentatonic phrases with some leaps, and the rhythms include more complex note values such as the dotted quarter note.

  • This piece utilizes several markings that highlight phrasing and movement. As middle school students begin to read more complex choral octavi, their exposure to these markings will enhance the musicality of their performances and aid in their aural/visual connection.

Compositional Example 2 - Three Parts

  • This piece accommodates the range of changed voices by changing the key when transforming the score from two to three parts. This is a step often overlooked.

  • The baritone line allows vocalists to explore their full range and gives them moments of melodic importance without creating a texture that leaves their part fully exposed.


  • Don’t require nuance above the current musical level of the students. Ex: belting, requiring expert navigation of head and chest voice, requesting straight tone.

  • Don’t consistently place the alto line in the bottom of their range.

  • Don’t separate altos and sopranos to the extremes of their ranges for the entirety of a piece.

  • Don’t leave male voices out of the melody.

  • Avoid polyrhythms between parts. The students of the ensemble are developing skills to function as parts of a unit and may not be ready to divide in such a way.

  • Don’t write middle school music as though it is merely less sophisticated high school music. Build on elementary skills and encourage musicality.

  • Don’t default to parallel chordal motion. Including contrary or oblique motion helps students to more easily and confidently distinguish their parts.

Compositional Example 3 - Not Suitable

  • The use of “ah” and “oh” in all voice parts in the first 8 measures of this piece would be very difficult for beginning three-part singers to perform. Consonants may help to anchor the different pitches and rhythms in the ears of the ensemble, especially in measures 3 through 8.

  • Upper voices are not exercising their upper range.

  • Not all parts contain material that would be both challenging and rewarding for students to read.

  • As this piece is marked SAB, it would be more suitable for a three-part high school choir whose changed male voices have had some training. Measure 10 contains an entrance that is too low for the unchanged (and many of the changed) male voices in a typical middle school ensemble.

Compositional examples by Gala Flagello. Example commentary by Jacqueline Bouffard.

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