Choral Learning Aids

 

 

 

Choral Learning Aids

Choral singers today often use computing devices to help them learn their music. This page starts with an overview of the issues that arise in this endeavour. Then some good sites for learning files are listed and recommendations are made on the best approach.

File Format

The main issue in deciding the best approach is not the device: desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones may all be suitable. The most important consideration is the file format used to convey the musical sound.

Real musical sounds

We generally want music to sound like the real thing. By this criterion a good format is one that captures the sounds that players and singers make at a performance, whether in a concert hall, a recording studio or someone’s home. The results can be packaged in a variety of formats. Audiophiles will weigh the merits of WAV, MP3, M4A, FLAC, AAC, etc., where the different formats offer different trade-offs between sound quality and file size. The most widely used audio format on the web is MP3 and practically every device today is equipped with a suitable player to deal with this.

There are though some problems in using MP3 files for choir learning purposes. A commercial recording may be very fine musically, but it won’t normally be possible to hear each vocal line clearly enough to learn from it. For all but the simplest works it would be very troublesome to make a special recording with the lines enhanced. A standard SATB choral work would need someone to sing each of the four parts of each number. With split lines this could rise to eight parts. Furthermore, there may be copyright problems in adding these extra voices on top of an existing recording, and this would certainly prevent any such files being made available on the web.

Midi sounds

For choral learning there are advantages in using a format that doesn’t just give us the sound of a performance but allows us to exercise a greater choice in what we hear.

Files in midi format are particularly suitable for choir learning. These files are not recordings like files in the formats mentioned above. Instead they contain code which suitable player software can use to reproduce the intended sound. While the synthetic nature of the sound they produce is usually quite obvious, midi files have the advantage of offering great flexibility to the user.

Typically a piece of choral music will be represented by a number of channels with each channel carrying a particular voice part (soprano, alto, etc.). Up to 16 channels are available which is enough to give an 8-part chorus, and still leave room for soloists and accompaniment.

With a good midi player many aspects of the playback can be controlled. The playing volume of each channel can be adjusted to highlight a particular vocal part. The tempo of the music can be changed too, perhaps slowed down for initial learning and then brought up to performance tempo when ready. Bar numbers are supported so that a piece may easily be started wherever required. A passage may be played in a loop, from bar x to bar y, over and over again until stopped.

The choice of midi player is crucial. Most computing devices do not routinely have suitable players. To learn choral music effectively from midi files it is highly advisable to use a specialised player that can offer some or all of the facilities mentioned above.

Midi sound delivered as MP3

A hybrid approach is also possible. The choral music is prepared as a midi file but delivered as an MP3 file. This avoids the problems of making a new recording and of copyright issues and also removes the need to acquire a specialist midi player.

However, the desirable controls possible with good midi players are not generally available with MP3 players. Some MP3 players will allow the speed to be altered. Looping facilities are more rare and may be difficult to operate easily.

Altering the emphasis of a particular vocal line is just not possible in an ordinary MP3 file. Therefore, the only way to allow singers to hear their own part clearly is to provide multiple files with the appropriate enhancement for each vocal line.

Sources of Learning Files

There are a great many websites where choral learning files are available, often free of charge. Some of the best ones are listed here.

Choralia    https://www.choralia.net

In my view this is the best source of choral learning files currently available. It uses hybrid files as discussed above and has a powerful built-in player that provides all the playing controls needed. Further, it employs Virtual Singer technology to simulate the words sung. It has a very large catalogue of works and is free to use.

For further information, see Information on Choralia below.

ChoraLine    https://www.choraline.com

(Note the spelling: only one "l". And don't confuse with the unrelated Choralia above.)

This is a well-established commercial site. It has files for many major choral works, typically priced at about €12 per work. Files are made with midi sound and then delivered as MP3 files for streaming or downloading. Also, for a few works, there are versions with real voices singing over the midi music. Apps available for Android and iOS.

ChoralPractice    https://www.choralpractice.com

Real voices are used, singing over a midi accompaniment. The result is packaged in MP3 format and can be played in a good online player, which allows the balance of voices to be adjusted and has a good looping facility.

Judging from the free samples available on the site, the sound here is very easy on the ear. A sheet music view, whereby the music scrolls in synchronism with the sound is a feature that may not be to everyone’s liking. Sound and vision may not always be in sync and in any event the continuous scrolling may be a distraction to singers who are trying to read their own music.

Free for a limited number of short pieces, €8.99 /month for a wider selection including many standard repertoire works. Apps available for Android and iOS.

CyberBass    http://www.cyberbass.com

Large number of works available, prepared as midi with the highlighted part as a prominent piano sound. Some works called “major works” are packaged as MP3 and can be played with a very good on-site player. Others (called “miscellaneous works”) need a midi player on the user’s device. All online use is free; some works available for purchase on CD.


All the sites mentioned below offer free midi files intended for choral singers. To play these a midi player is needed. For information on available players, click Midi Players.

The Silvis Woodshed    https://www.gasilvis.net

One of the first and still one of the best sites for choral midi files. It seems to be now moribund, not having been updated since 2012. But its extensive list of files is still accessible.

The Choral Public Domain Library    https://www.cpdl.org

This is primarily a source of free downloadable choral sheet music and therefore an invaluable resource for choirs. For some of the pieces it also provides midi files.

John’s Midi File Choral Music    http://www.learnchoralmusic.co.uk

Site with a large catalogue of works in many genres.

Don's Choral Midi Page    http://www.dontaylor.org.uk/midis

Moderately sized but well-chosen catalogue, some content from other sources.

Chorus Rehearsal    http://www.chorusrehearsal.co.uk/partsongs/partsongs.php

This site formerly sold learning CDs of major works. While it has ceased trading in this area, it still offers free downloads of many part songs. Some scores of these songs are available for free download too.

Some of my own midi files    SomeOfMyOwn

Finally some files of my own that can be downloaded directly from the present site. There are three works: a major oratorio, and two short pieces, one of them well-known, the other less so.

Information on Choralia

Choralia is a site that offers what are essentially hybrid files as described above, but also takes the idea of synthetic sound to a new level with the use of Virtual Singer. Now the vocal lines are not just distinctive instruments for each vocal line, but each line has the words sung by a virtual voice.

The voices are clearly not real but they are, to my ears, entirely acceptable and produce reasonable pronunciations of the words. With this important advance singers can learn, not just the notes, but the underlay, that is, how the syllables and the notes fit together.

The Choralia site provides learning files for a large number of choral works, currently over 1000 and steadily growing. All the standard choral repertoire is covered and much else besides. The site is accessible on any device with a web browser, though on small devices like phones the controls on the built-in player may require some dexterity to operate.

Choralia has evolved considerably since it was established in 2006 and several important advances have been made, both in the nature of the files provided and in the means available to play them. The site is very comprehensive and explains how users may use it in different ways; this flexibility is presumably so that established users may continue to use the site in the way that they first learned. Unfortunately this has the effect of causing complications for a new user. So I have written here a fast-track introduction to using Choralia, focusing on its latest and best manifestation and ignoring aspects that have effectively been superseded.

Fast-track introduction to Choralia

For demonstration purposes, let us assume you are looking for help in learning Mozart’s Coronation Mass, KV317.

In your browser go to https://www.choralia.net

Click on MP3 in the top left corner to open the MP3 catalogue.

In the search box enter the name of the work that you are looking for. The search process is very efficient and fast. As you type Mozart, all the available works by Mozart appear in the list. If you go on to type Coronation, the required work appears. If you know the KV number, then typing KV317 will find it too.

In the list entry for the required work, click on the icon under “Listen to or download MP3 files”.

In the page that opens you will see all the movements listed four times, for each of the chorus vocal parts: Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass.

For example the first line is for the Soprano line of the Kyrie. On the right there are three clickable buttons that will enable you to listen to three different files. Each of these provides a different kind of assistance. From left to right these are:

    • Featured choral voice only, with accompaniment and metronome

    • Featured choral voice emphasised, with other voices and accompaniment

    • All voices equal, with accompaniment

To help identify each option, descriptive illustrations appear on each button. In addition, tooltips (little text boxes) are shown when the cursor is moved over the icons. (Note that the tooltip for the first option says just “Voice with metronome”. In fact the accompaniment, if there is one, is heard here too.)

Let us concentrate on the second option. It is the most useful one.

Suppose you are an alto and are working on the Credo. Scroll down to the Alto area and find the Credo. Click on the centre button to bring up the required file. In this case we get emphasised Alto, with other voices and accompaniment.

The page that opens has at the top a play control with a time slider and under this four other sliders. A tooltip explains what each one does. They are, from the top down:

    • Section control (start, end, looping)

    • Tempo control

    • Amount of emphasis on featured voice

    • Left/right position of emphasised voice

Start by clicking on the arrow for play. Play can be controlled in the normal way for audio players by clicking the play/pause button and by dragging the time slider to different positions. As the file plays, the alto line will be emphasised so that it stands out clearly.

In a typical practice session the learner might wish to focus on a particular section. A section can be played by dragging the two handles in the section slider to determine the start and end points. (To help in defining sections it will be advisable to pencil into your score the times at key points in the piece..The time can be read from the play control.)

With the start and end handles in place, playing takes place just between these points. However there is a control at the left end of the section slider which allows the handles to be ignored and the entire file played with the handles still in place. At the right end of the section slider there is a control which determines whether or not the section or complete file is automatically repeated when it finishes. In my opinion, it is best generally to leave both these buttons in their default positions, so that the section handles always determine what is played and playing automatically loops until stopped.

Use the tempo control to slow down difficult passages if necessary. It is just a question of dragging the tempo slider as required.

Similarly the amount of assistance can be adjusted by dragging the emphasis slider. In the Alto part of the Credo, for example, there is a passage at bar 12 where the alto line does not stand out very well with the basic settings, because the sopranos and tenors are weaving around the same notes as the altos. By dragging the emphasis slider to the right the alto line can be made more prominent.


Some further tips about Choralia that may be helpful to a prospective new user are offered next.

  • Things that the newcomer need not bother with:

    • Anything to do with CMS and VS files

      These are described as “discontinued” and have no attraction for new users. Stick to just the MP3 files. (These, it is true, employ VS technology in their construction, but only when accessed in their MP3 form can they utilise the features of Choralia’s online player.)

    • Downloading files

      Downloaded MP3 files would need to use a player on the user’s device. There are no MP3 players available that can match the facilities of the Choralia player. Some players allow the tempo to be adjusted, certainly. Looping facilities may be found too, though often with cumbersome controls. But as regards the ability to change the degree of emphasis of a line, this is just impossible with an ordinary player. It is possible with the Choralia player only because this has access to data other than the basic MP3 file. Other complications with downloading arise because the download options behave differently with different browsers.

      Further issues would arise in downloading CMS or VS files. These require more complex download processes, and/or more specialised players, with no guarantee that the end product would be any better than with the recommended MP3 approach.

    • The “legacy” version of the site at legacy.choralia.net

      Coming in by this route avoids advertisements. However it brings a serious disadvantage. The chosen MP3 file will be played by the default player of the user’s browser, not by the Choralia player with its powerful control facilities. One of the strongest features of Choralia is therefore lost.

Keyboard shortcuts

No keyboard shortcuts are mentioned in the Choralia documentation. There are however some keyboard options that, though they may be unintentional, can be very useful.

They involve the space bar and the left/right arrow keys.

Pressing the space bar has the same effect (subject to the limitation mentioned below) as clicking the play button, that is, it toggles between play and pause. This is convenient because it allows the user to pause and restart without having to look up from their music. The limitation however is that this does not work on the first attempt to play after a file has been opened or, later, if any of the sliders have been moved. That is, clicking on the play button is the only way to start play initially or after any movement of the sliders. Subsequently tapping the keyboard will toggle between play and pause.

Holding down the left or right arrow key will move the play point rapidly forward or back, within the limits set by any loop that may be in place. For example, if operating within a loop you can move rapidly back to the start of the loop by holding down the left arrow key. Again, this works only after play has been initially started by clicking on the play button.

These keyboard shortcuts have been found to work in Windows with three different browsers: Firefox, Chrome and Edge.

Score Details

A welcome feature of the site is that the score used for each file is clearly specified in the Scores and Resources page, reached from the drop-down list on the Home Page. Since there are often differences between editions of a work, it is useful to know which one is being used.

Donations and Advertising

Everything on Choralia is free. Users are invited to make donations to help defray costs and if you find the site useful, I would urge you to so do.

However you will encounter ads on the page with the playing controls. The advertising can be distracting and for new users may be troublesome. Some of the ads are invitations to download software products and may have large buttons with names like “Download” or “Start”. It is possible that someone who is new to the site could mistake one of these for a Choralia function. So be careful not to click anywhere outside the rectangle bounded by the play bar and the four sliders beneath it. The products are probably quite reputable but a mistake could lead to some confusion and waste of time.

You might wish to use an ad blocker to eliminate these distractions. If you do so, please be extra generous with your donation to Choralia.

Some of My Own Midi Files

Here are midi files for three works: two short pieces and a major oratorio.

For each work there are two clickable icons: for PDF and for ZIP.

By clicking the PDF icon you can view the Info document for that work. This gives information about the work and about the contents of the download package. Depending on your browser you may see this Info document either directly in the browser or in a default PDF viewer. Your browser settings may allow you more specific choices. In any event it shouldn’t matter for this purpose: all you need is to be able to read the Info document to help decide if you want to go for the download. Click your browser's back button when you are finished reading.

Clicking the ZIP icon will cause the download of a ZIP folder containing all the files for the work. This will include the midi files and any other relevant files. It also includes the Info document that you may have already viewed; this will be useful again when you come to play the midi files.

The downloaded files will need to be extracted from their ZIP folder. They should be saved to an appropriate location, ideally to a folder in a structure where you keep your choral music.

Bruckner
    Locus iste     

Janacek
    Kačena divoká (The Wild Duck)     

Mendelssohn
    Elijah