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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.
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.
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.
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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