What Is Choral Music?

Choral music refers to music which is written for and sung by a choir.

Each different part in a piece of choral music is sung by two or more voices. Since the size of a choir can vary, the structure of a choral composition also will vary. A piece can be written for as few as a dozen singers or for a group large enough to sing Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8 in E-Flat Major also known as "Symphony of a Thousand."

Choral Music in Medieval Times

In medieval times, the rondeau was often performed as part of a choral piece. In this form, the lead singer sings the verses while a small choir sings the refrain. During the 14th century, choral music evolved from the monophonic style of group singing, such as Gregorian chants, to polyphonic arrangements involving multiple singers and different melodies.

By the 15th century, there was strong support for choral music, mostly for religious and worship services, and it was in such high demand that composers wrote many vocal works. Many of these works were intended to be a capella, meaning they were written for voices unaccompanied by musical instruments.

The Renaissance and Choral Music

In Europe, composers wrote music meant to be sung by four different yet equally important voices; the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

The Latin Mass became one of the most important musical forms of the Renaissance. Hundreds of liturgical pieces of music were written by composers during this time.

In addition to a capella pieces, other structures of Renaissance choral music included the anthem, cantata, motet, and oratorio.

Anthems in Choral Music

Modern music listeners may associate anthems with patriotic songs, but during the Renaissance, an anthem was typically written in a call-and-response style between a soloist and a larger group. Most anthems were short and dealt with sacred religious themes. They were especially popular in the Anglican Church. 

Choral Music and the Cantata

A cantata (from the Italian word "to sing") is a short piece with a solo vocalist, a choir, and musical accompaniment. One composer closely associated with the cantata is Johann Sebastian Bach (although his works would have been written slightly outside of the Renaissance period).

Difference Between Oratorio and Opera

An oratorio is a more fully-fleshed out musical piece, with multiple singers, a choir and musical accompaniment and a plot with characters. Although it shares similarities with an opera, an oratorio always has a religious subject matter.

Motet from Medieval to Renaissance

The motet form of choral singing evolved from Gregorian chant style compositions during the medieval period, to more sophisticated and elaborate arrangments during the Renaissance. The term motet generally refers to a piece of music that is mostly sung, with or without musical accompaniment.

Post-Renaissance and Romantic Choral Music

In the 18th and 19th centuries, choral music enjoyed something of a revival, with orchestras more fully established in large cities. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed several choral pieces, among them his famed Requiem in D minor. Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Haydn were other composers of this period who wrote choral pieces, although neither wrote exclusively in this format.