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What are the Songs Called Rounds?

Songs called rounds are captivating musical pieces where multiple voices sing the same melody but start at different times, creating a harmonious interplay. This technique, dating back centuries, adds depth and texture to music, making each performance unique. Ever sung "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" in a group? That's a round! Curious about how rounds shape musical experiences? Let's delve deeper.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Rounds are carefully constructed songs for multiple performers who each sing the exact same words and melody. This single melody line, when sung at equally spaced intervals, creates its own harmony.

Rounds may be sung by two, three, or four singers. Beyond that, several variations are possible. The ending of the song may come from each voice stopping in turn, so that the song shows the effects of addition at the beginning and subtraction at the end. Alternatively, all the voices can stop at a particular chord. Also, some rounds have instrumental or vocal accompaniment provide by performers other than the ones who take the single melody that makes the round.

Beethoven wrote rounds and included them in his opera and a symphony.
Beethoven wrote rounds and included them in his opera and a symphony.

Rounds in English date back to Medieval times. A mid-thirteenth century round that is still sung today is “Sumer is icumen in.” The name round is thought to date from the early 1500's. The term catch was used in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries to designate a comic round.

Rounds are often used in teaching music. While simple to learn, because everyone sings the same part, they still allow participants to have the feel of singing in harmony. Also attractive for younger students is not needing to see the music, and rounds are great for developing independence and the ability to stick to one’s part.

Popular rounds include:

• the 2-voice rounds “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Music Alone Shall Live” and “Shalom Chaverim”;
• the 3-voice rounds “Chairs to Mend,” “By the Waters of Babylon,” and “Dona Nobis Pacem”; and
• the 4-voice rounds “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree” and “Frère Jacques,” called “Are You Sleeping?” in English.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote several dozen rounds, and Ludwig van Beethoven wrote some, too, as well as including round structure in more substantial works, such as his opera Fidelio and his Sixth Symphony. Gustav Mahler also used a round in a symphony, his Symphony no. 1. Benjamin Britten included a round in his opera Peter Grimes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a round in music?

A round is a musical composition where two or more voices sing the same melody but start at different times. This creates a harmonious and interlocking pattern of music that is both simple and complex. Rounds are a form of canon, which is a contrapuntal compositional technique that employs a melody with one or more imitations of the melody played after a given duration. The most famous example of a round is "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

How do rounds differ from other types of choral music?

Rounds differ from other choral music in their structure and the way they achieve harmony. Unlike a typical choir piece where different voices sing different parts simultaneously, in a round, all singers perform the same melody but start at different times. This staggered entry creates overlapping phrases that harmonize with each other, resulting in a rich and layered sound from a single melodic line. Rounds are also typically easier to perform than complex polyphonic compositions, making them accessible to singers of various skill levels.

Can rounds be performed with instruments, or are they only for voices?

Rounds can certainly be performed with instruments as well as voices. Any melodic instrument capable of playing a tune can participate in a round. The concept remains the same: each instrument plays the same melody but starts at a different time, creating a harmonious interplay of the melodic line. Instrumental rounds are a great way to teach ensemble playing and listening skills to musicians.

What are some well-known songs that are rounds?

Some well-known rounds include "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," "Frère Jacques," and "Three Blind Mice." These songs are recognized around the world and are often used as teaching tools to introduce singers to the concept of rounds and harmony. They are celebrated for their simplicity and the beauty of the resulting polyphony when sung or played in a round.

Are there any benefits to singing or playing rounds for musicians?

Singing or playing rounds has several benefits for musicians. It enhances listening skills, as performers must listen to others to keep in time and tune. Rounds also improve timing and rhythm, as each entry must be precisely timed. Additionally, they foster a sense of teamwork and ensemble cohesion, as each part is crucial to the overall sound. For educators, rounds are an excellent way to introduce concepts of harmony and counterpoint in a fun and engaging manner.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

AnswerMan

I remember hearing a live concert by folk singer Don McLean, who got an entire audience to participate in a round called "By the Waters of Babylon". The first run-through was a little rough, but he started over again and it was beautiful. Once all of the different sections got to the middle of the song, the harmonies were just amazing.

One of these days I'm going to convince my church's choir director to find an appropriate round and let us sing it for the congregation. I just think the sound of different melody lines harmonizing with each other is breathtaking when it's done well.

Buster29

We used to sing rounds in my elementary school music classes, like "Row, row, row your boat" and "Frere Jacque". My problem was learning how to sing my own lines without getting distracted by the other parts. Once I stared singing my part, I had to stop listening to what anyone else was doing, or else I'd start singing along with them instead of my own group. I'd have to say when it worked well, singing a round was a lot of fun.

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    • Beethoven wrote rounds and included them in his opera and a symphony.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Beethoven wrote rounds and included them in his opera and a symphony.