When wrestling with the question of what choral music is, a good rule of thumb is that if it features a choir, it's choral.
That said there’s a lot more to it than just that. So let’s explore; what is choral music?
Definition: What Is Choral Music?
For the layperson, the definition of choral music is any composition with two or more vocal lines. Typically, these lines get distributed so that there are multiple voices per section.
However, the size of the choir can vary. An operatic chorus, for instance, is necessarily larger than a chamber choir. That said, as long as you have two or more voices to each vocal line, the rules say it fits the definition of choral music.
It’s also worth noting that although many people talk of chorales, choruses, and choral music interchangeably, they are not necessarily the same thing.
As different as these musical styles are, they fit the definition of choral music since all are sung by choirs.
Choral Music Characteristics
So, that explains what choral music is. But given the sheer breadth of the choral music definition, what characteristics are unique to the genre?
Since choral music spans all manner of genres, pinning down specific characteristics of choral music is challenging. However, one factor remains constant. When asked what is choral music, the answer is that each vocal line must be sung by multiple singers.
This is crucial. Sometimes in Renaissance groups, you will hear madrigals sung by seven or eight singers. Is this choral music? Only if some of those seven or eight singers are doubling up on vocal lines.
7 Examples of Choral Music
Now you know how to recognize choral music when you hear it. But, what is choral music? These examples will help illustrate the adaptability of choral music through history.
Coronation Mass in C: Credo, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
When it comes to the question of what is choral music, you soon find it played a key part in early church music. This is still true, but at the time Mozart was writing, it was noteworthy because it went a long way to put music, especially church music, in the hands of the people instead of limiting it to monks and priests.
While there remained a lot of what a friend affectionately calls ‘secret parts’ of the Catholic Mass, an integral part of the choral music definition when Mozart was writing was that there were some parts of the Mass everyone sang, including:
- Kyrie Elision
- Agnus Dei
As you listen, it’s immediately apparent this is a celebratory Mass. It’s jocund, the rhythm bounces, and the choir is almost always in unison, a musical metaphor for the Holy Roman Empire’s restored unity.
The Armed Man: Hymn Before Anger by Karl Jenkins
Masses don’t have to be ancient. Welsh Composer Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace is the perfect example. Written in 1999, it incorporates all the usual parts of a Mass setting. But it also features:
- Muslim call to prayer
- Medieval French folk song
- Rudyard Kipling Poetry
- Poetry by Dryden
In Hymn Before Action Jenkins uses choral unity to accentuate Kipling’s poetry.
Locus Iste by Anton Bruckner
When exploring what is choral music, and especially its evolution through history, motets play a significant role. Motets are texts, often in Latin, and always A Capella that is not part of the Ordinary Mass.
Bruckner’s motets are some of the best-loved by church choirs. Locus Iste is particularly well-suited for celebrating communion because it exalts the holiness of the church building. But it’s also an excellent example of a slow, floating motet with rich choral harmonies.
Oh Thou The Central Orb by Charles Wood
If you are new to choral music, then the difference between an anthem and a motet might seem a bit like hair-splitting.
But anthems are another arm of the choral music definition. Both are integral to the choral music tradition, but the Anthem is typically considered the protestant cousin to the motet. It’s sung in English, and to the horror of many of Tallis’s contemporary audiences, the text isn’t necessarily religious.
That’s not to say the music is secular. But whereas motets must take their inspiration from Biblical texts or canticles, anthems have more choice. They can talk about God using the original language. Famous examples would include:
- Stanford’s Oh For A Closer Walk With God
- Campion’s Never Weather-Beaten Sail
Charles Wood’s Oh Thou the Central Orb is another excellent example of an anthem. It has a hearty organ accompaniment that typifies the style of the period. It also has a variety of dynamics and intervals that allow the choir to show off how much it can do.
Listen as the soprano lines soar into the stratosphere almost raucously before dropping down to a slower piano section.
Joan to the Maypole by Felix White
When answering what is choral music, it’s important to remember not all choral music is sacred.
Joan to the Maypole is an excellent early example of secular choral music. While there’s debate about the composer, scholars date it to approximately 1600.
In this recording, there’s a contrast between the soloist on the verses and the choir, who come in on the chorus.
Unlike in the madrigal, another key example of a secular choral music definition, here, the choir moves in complete unison.
Choral Symphony Beethoven Nine
Better known to most listeners as the Ode to Joy, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is another example of a secular answer to the question what is choral music?
Usually purely instrumental, Beethoven’s final symphonic movement features a choir. And while they sing about religious subjects—angels and God both get mentioned—the movement is a jubilant celebration of love and life.
Despite the choir's short stint in the symphony, Beethoven makes them work hard. The sopranos glance off High B flats and often must choose between diction and accuracy. The basses plumb the depths of the extreme other end of the spectrum.
St Nicholas:The Birth of Nicholas by Benjamin Britten
Finally, yet another approach to the question, what is choral music, is oratorio.
Oratorio is an unstaged musical dramatization of a text. Usually, it’s religious. The most famous example is Handel’s The Messiah, but it isn’t the only oratorio.
Here we hear the combination of boy trebles, soloist, and choir combine in the second movement of Britten’s The Birth of Nicholas.
Benjamin Britten’s genius as a composer is widely recognized. Less so his brilliance at writing for children, especially young boys. St Nicholas showcases this skill.
In The Birth of Nicholas, Britten combines a children’s and an adult choir. He accompanies them with a variety of wild and juvenile instruments, including:
Set against the choir is the tender sound of the boy soprano who sings Nicholas. There’s terrific word painting here. The music crescendos almost drunkenly as it lingers on Nicholas’s youth but slows the more prayerful he becomes. Finally, the boy soloist takes over from choir and treble as Nicholas reaches adulthood and the adult soloist takes over.
Top 5 Choral Musicians
We wouldn't have a working choral music definition without the composers who wrote the music. Here are some of the most notable choral music composers.
Best known for Pomp and Circumstance, Elgar struggled for musical recognition in his own time. Despite this, he wrote an extraordinary amount of choral music.
Much of this is sacred and includes several Anglican Chants still used today. But he also wrote several secular choral music pieces.
Writing between 1935 and the late 1970s, Britten is another composer whose contribution to the definition of choral music is significant. Britten was born in Lowestoft, England in 1931.
Throughout his career, Britten wrote a range of music ranging from programmatic seascapes inspired by the coastal village he lived in, to opera and oratorio.
Britten also loved a choir and had a particularly good musical ear for children. To that end, many of his choral compositions include a children’s choir of boy sopranos. Much of this choral music was religious, and some of the most famous examples include:
- A Hymn to St Cecilia
- Festival Te Deum
But much of it was also secular. Britten loved choral music, and it even features in his operas, especially Peter Grimes.
Ralph Vaughn Williams
Ralph Vaughn Williams is another composer who affected the meaning of what choral music is. Like others on this list, his music was primarily for church choirs, and some of his best-known anthems include:
- O Taste and See
- Five Mystical Songs
- Fantasia on Christmas Carols
Vaughn Williams also devised many hymn tunes intended for choir and congregation and broadened the choral music definition. Some of these include:
- Come Down O Love Divine
- Hail Thee Festival Day
- For All the Saints (Who From Their Labours Rest)
Byrd wrote choral music at a time when the working definition of choral music was largely sacred. By the time he died in 1623, the choral motet had become an integral part of church worship.
In 1572 Byrd took over as Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. Part of his duties included organ playing and musical composition. Although his increasing interest in Catholicism diverted Byrd and stopped him from producing as much sacred music for the Anglican church as he might have, the music he did produce was inspiring.
Eventually, Byrd converted fully to Catholicism. Although he remained a devout Catholic, Byrd also contributed to the repertoire of Anglican church anthems, and many remain popular today.
Last but not least, it’s impossible to talk about what choral music is without mentioning Thomas Tallis. His many anthem settings include:
- If Ye Love Me
- Remember Not O Lord God
- Hear the Voice and Prayer
But Tallis’s most significant contribution to choral music was his settings of the liturgy in English. Previously, all Mass settings had been in Latin. By setting them in the vernacular, Tallis made them accessible to everyone.
History of Choral Music
The history of choral music remains deeply connected with the church. It grew out of the plainchant tradition, and many early choral pieces share the melisma and polyrhythms of those chants.
However, in the hands of composers like Tallis and Byrd, choral music ceased to be modal. Instead, it had fixed keys. The other thing that started to happen with the evolution of choral music was the introduction of English.
This was because, as part of its separation from the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion was said in English.
As time went on, the definition of choral music became more expansive and started encompassing secular music. It now ranged from settings of folk songs to operatic choruses.
These days, choral music continues to evolve, and we see in pieces like The Armed Man the blending of sacred and secular choral music.
What Is Choral Music? Final Thoughts
So, what is choral music? Religious or not, the common denominator is the number of voices that participate in choral music. And since, by definition, choral music features a choir, it also needs several competing vocal lines.
To truly match the choral music definition, these lines need multiple singers singing them.
So, what is choral music? Secular? Sacred? It doesn’t really matter so long as it brings people together in song.