Crafting the Perfect Set: A Guide to Choosing Music for Show Choir Competitions



Show choir competitions are a dynamic and exhilarating blend of music, choreography, and storytelling. As a director, your role is pivotal in selecting the music that will not only showcase the talent of your choir but also captivate the audience and judges. To help with this process, we’ve compiled expert tips on choosing music for show choir competitions, including developing a theme, telling your story, and navigating the complexities of music licensing.

Developing a Theme for Your Set

A theme serves as the backbone of your show choir set, providing coherence and a narrative thread that ties the performance together. The theme makes your set memorable and gives it a unique identity. When choosing a theme, consider the strengths of your choir, the demographic of your audience, and the kind of impact you want to make.

Start with a brainstorming session. Gather your creative team and discuss potential themes. Some popular themes include:

Broadway musicals: A medley of songs from a single musical or a mix from different shows.

Decades: Songs from a specific era, like the 80s or 90s.

Genres: Focus on a genre such as rock, pop, or jazz.

Storytelling: Create a narrative arc through your song choices, telling a story from beginning to end.

Cultural celebrations: Highlight music from different cultures or a specific country.

Once you have a list of potential themes, evaluate them based on feasibility. You want music that suits the vocal range and skills of your choir members. Ideally it will highlight their unique strengths. Consider the choreography you have in mind; some themes lend themselves to more dynamic choreography than others. Audience appeal—music that will resonate with the judges and audience—is another important factor. Finally, consider originality. Aim for a theme that stands out but isn’t so niche that it alienates your audience.

Telling Your Story

Structuring your set creates a cohesive framework for the show. A well-structured set should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Typically, a set consists of four to five songs. Here’s a suggested structure:

Opening number: Start with a high-energy song to grab attention.

Middle songs: Use these to build your story, alternating between different tempos and moods to keep the audience engaged.

Ballad: Include a slower, emotional piece that showcases vocal harmony and depth.

Closing number: End with a powerful, uplifting song that leaves a lasting impression.

Ensure your song transitions are smooth and logical. Use dialogue, short monologues, or creative choreography to bridge gaps between songs. This helps maintain the narrative flow and keeps the audience immersed in your story.

Visual storytelling plays an important role as well. You’ve worked hard to select the right music and practiced it for hours on end—nonetheless, your story isn’t told through music alone. Costumes, props, and set design play crucial roles in storytelling. Choose costumes that reflect the theme and enhance the narrative. Props should be used sparingly but effectively to add depth to your performance.

Music Licensing: The Legal Side of Show Choir

Performing copyrighted music without proper licensing is illegal and can lead to hefty fines and legal action. As a director, it’s your responsibility to ensure that all the music used in your set is licensed properly.

There are several types of licenses you might need:

Performance license: This allows you to perform the song publicly.

Mechanical license: This is required if you plan to record your performance.

Synchronization license: Needed if you will be syncing the music with video.

Arrangement license: If you are creating a custom arrangement of a song, you need permission from the copyright holder.

The first of these—the performance license—can usually be obtained through organizations like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. These organizations represent songwriters and publishers and offer blanket licenses that cover a wide range of songs. However, for specific songs or arrangements, you may need to contact the publisher directly.

For mechanical and synchronization licenses, platforms like the Harry Fox Agency and RightsFlow (owned by Google) can facilitate the process. These platforms provide easy access to licensing for a large catalog of music.

Getting an arrangement license can be more complex. You need to contact the copyright holder directly and explain your intended use. This can involve negotiation and sometimes payment of royalties.

Licensing can be expensive, but there are ways to manage costs:

Use public domain music: Songs that are in the public domain do not require licensing. Typically, music published before 1923 is in the public domain.

Seek permission: Sometimes, contacting the artist or publisher directly can result in lower fees or even free licenses, especially if you are a school choir.

Budget planning: Allocate a portion of your budget specifically for licensing from the beginning.

Bulk licensing: Some licensing agencies offer discounts for bulk purchases, so plan ahead and license multiple songs at once if possible.

Final Tips for Show Choir Directors

As you navigate these steps to select, secure, and make the most of your musical score, don’t neglect the basics. These include understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your choir. Choose songs that highlight their strengths and provide opportunities for growth. Avoid overly challenging pieces that might strain their abilities.

Keep up with trends in show choir music. Watch performances from other choirs, attend workshops, and participate in forums to get fresh ideas and stay inspired.

Rehearse diligently. Rehearsals are where your vision comes to life. Ensure that your choir practices regularly and with a clear focus. Break down songs and choreography into manageable sections and work on them systematically.

Foster a positive environment—not just leading up to showtime but throughout the year. A positive and encouraging environment is crucial for creativity and performance. Celebrate small victories, provide constructive feedback, and encourage teamwork and camaraderie among choir members.

If budget allows, consider hiring professional arrangers, choreographers, and vocal coaches. Their expertise can elevate your performance and bring a polished, professional touch to your set.

Choosing music for show choir competitions is both an art and a science. It requires a careful balance of creativity, legal knowledge, and practical planning. By developing a cohesive theme, telling a compelling story, and ensuring all necessary licenses are obtained, you can create a show that not only dazzles audiences but also adheres to legal standards. With dedication, creativity, and strategic planning, your choir can deliver an unforgettable performance that stands out in competition.

About the Author
Ed Bauer has been in publishing for over twenty years. In his early career years, he worked on the staff at Mount Union College and for the last twelve years as publisher and managing partner at Flaherty Media has been privileged to tour many private higher education campuses and talk with numerous staff members who manage these multiple building facilities. He can be reached at