Choral tranquility

When the Earth Stands Still

by Don Macdonald


Don Macdonald lives in British Columbia, Canada (born: 1966) and composes for classical ensembles, opera, theatre, dance, published vocal works and forays into everything from jazz and rock to contemporary electronic music.  This is what he says about When the Earth Stands Still:

I wrote this for my wife Allison Girvan’s small but advanced youth choir, Laline, the smallest of 3 ensembles that she directs. I decided to compose a song much as a contemporary songwriter would, with my own lyrics and a form based around repeating verse and chorus. This is probably one of the easiest pieces of mine to learn yet one of the hardest to perform since the long phrases require a great deal of attention to dynamics, breathing, and consistency of tone. (Donald Macdonald, 2017)

Listen For:

Time signature

  • If you find it difficult to identify the time signature or feel where the strong beat of the bar is, that’s because the time signature alternates between 9/8 and 6/8.
  • The effect of this is to give a fluid, effortless feel to the music and allows the composer to build up a real sense of momentum.
  • Notice how it’s easier to identify the time signature from “Cause there’s no use running”, as the music has settled into 6/8.


There’s a lot to say about the word-setting, and how the composer has brought the text alive…but just to get started:

How does the composer draw attention to particular words? (You may want to download the lyrics, above, and follow the music along)

  • “tall tree’s crown” – choir moves homophonically with longer note values, contrasting with the previous bars of quaver movement.  This perhaps portrays the majesty and strength of the trees in the wood.
  • “Heartbeat matching heartbeat” – tempo is quicker, reflecting a heartbeat.
  • “Storm’s still coming” – tempo speeds up and the pitch rises to create musical tension and anticipation.

Can you find any more examples of word-painting in the song?


  • Use of Dissonance (clashing notes) Notice on “list-en” there is dissonance created on the second half of the word.  Dissonance can bring musical tension, as it is waiting to be resolved.  Can you hear any other dissonances in the piece?
  • How would you describe the musical texture of this piece (Hint: are the vocal parts moving together or at different times?)

Things To Consider:

Can you find some other performances of this song on Youtube?  What are the differences in the interpretations?

Does this song need an accompaniment?  Or do you think it works well a cappella (unaccompanied)?

What considerations do you need to have in mind when composing for voices rather than instruments?