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What is a Choir?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A choir is a group of singers who perform together, with or without accompaniment from musical instruments. You may also hear a choir referred to as a chorus. Choirs around the world are incredibly varied, from casual secular groups which meet and perform periodically to highly organized church choirs featuring an array of very disciplined singers. Both secular and religious music is composed for the choir, and some choirs also adapt existing musical pieces for performance.

The history of the chorus is quite ancient. The Greeks used a chanting chorus to accompany stage performances, for example, and the medieval church also utilized chanted plainsong to accompany religious services. Gradually, the concept of a polyphonic or “many voiced” choir began to emerge, with musical compositions featuring multiple parts which could be sung together or individually, and modern choirs typically perform polyphonic compositions which showcase a range of voices.

There are many different types of choir. Mixed choirs feature both men and women, and it is also possible to find men's choirs, women's choirs, and children's choirs, including children's choirs divided by gender. The type of compositions performed varies considerably as well, depending on the members of the choir and the environment in which they perform.

Typically, a choir is led by a conductor, in much the same way that a conductor leads an orchestra. Singing in a choir isn't just a matter of opening your mouth and belting out tunes, either. The members of the choir have to be perfectly coordinated or the performance will sound “off,” although it may be difficult to pin down why the performance sounds wrong. A good choir is composed of people who sing together, perfectly on pitch, with voices and volume levels which complement each other.

When a choir is well-organized, their performances can be distinctive and very compelling. Some very famous works have been composed for choirs, including the oratorios of Handel. Choral performances are especially popular in the holiday season, and in classical music festivals, although choirs can also perform jazz compositions and works from other musical genres.

Some communities have casual community choirs which welcome anyone who wishes to join. Typically people who want to join such choirs must demonstrate an ability to sing and read sheet music, and they must be able to commit to a practice schedule. Choirs can also be found in educational institutions, religious parishes, and collectives of musical performers such as city orchestras and operas.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By wander — On Jul 01, 2011

I have always found music sung by choirs to be particularly beautiful. If you love choir music you can check out the best of the best by watching things like the World Choir Games, and national choir competitions.

There are a lot of free videos online, but there is nothing like catching these kinds of competitions in person. Usually admittance to the competitions is free, or the organizers charge a very small entry fee. Watching the competitions can be a great way to spend a weekend or introduce other people to the choir scene. If you have some favorite songs bring some sheet music along, as you never know when a choir might take requests.

By Sara007 — On Jun 30, 2011

I think being in a choir at church is a great way for children to socialize. My kids love singing so I made sure they were signed up for the children's choir. They love being part of a singing group and have made many friends through their involvement.

Our church children’s choir does more than just sing too, they also get together and raise money for local charities. While there is usually singing at their events, they incorporate a lot of games. This kind of activity at a young age can really teach younger children the benefits of being part of their community and how music, as an art, can help to benefit other people.

By seag47 — On Jun 30, 2011

@Oceana - You’re right - there is no room for music stands between lines of choir members. We have choir folders that we hold in our hands.

Specially made for that purpose, choir folders have a detachable strap, usually along the bottom, to allow us to hold the folder easily in one hand. Within the folder are elastic cords to secure loose sheet music and a three-ring binder with clear pockets so we can turn the pages easily.

These choir folders also have a handy space in which to put your pencil, a space for your name card for identification, and reinforced metal corners to prevent wear and tear.

By Oceana — On Jun 29, 2011

I wonder where choir members keep their sheet music while performing? Surely they don’t all have individual music stands. That would take up too much space! Especially since some choirs have choreographed movements to go along with their performances.

By wavy58 — On Jun 28, 2011

I went to a small church, and we never had an official choir. Members of the church who wanted to sing or who could sing better than others would volunteer to come up front to the stage area, fill up the three pews, and project their voices.

The only time we had official choir practice was at Christmas time. Our pastor had written a different version of The Twelve Days of Christmas, and we each had a part to sing out. It was a fun time with all of the kids trying to remember their lines and their order in the grand scheme of things.

By OeKc05 — On Jun 28, 2011

Though she never sang in a vocal choir, my sister played in a handbell choir in high school. For each performance, she would be assigned between two and four notes. This made it easy on the beginner players.

She had to watch for her notes by reading along with the sheet music. When she first started out, she would circle her notes with different colored markers to help her, because sometimes stage fright affected her performance. She would use a red marker to circle every F note, a blue one to circle every G, and so on, with a different color marker for each note.

Just like a regular choir, the handbell choir had uniforms. They all had to wear a white button-front shirt with either a navy blue skirt for the girls or navy blue pants for the boys.

By strawCake — On Jun 28, 2011

@KaBoom - I think the name given to the school singing group is probably a regional thing. When I was growing up our school called it the "choir" instead of "chorus". You may be right about the religious aspect though because I grew up in "the bible belt" where religion is a lot more popular than in some areas of the country.

I also sang in the school choir as well as the church choir. My favorite time of year to give performances was definitely Christmas time. I know it's a little cheesy but I just love Christmas music!

By KaBoom — On Jun 27, 2011

When I was in elementary school I sang in our school choir. I believe we called it "chorus" though. Maybe they decided to call it that because of the religious connotations of the word choir?

Anyway, it was a very rewarding experience. I remember we had practices a few times a week at set times. Also we gave seasonal performances. I think the choir went a long way to teaching me discipline at a young age. And of course it was fun to perform for an audience and get the applause!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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