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Duet: Definition, Singers & Songs

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

This lesson will define and examine several types of vocal duets. At the end, take a quiz and also consider exploring the songs in the Suggested Listening section to further test your knowledge.

What Is a Duet?

You might think the word 'duet' should have a fairly basic definition. After all, you've heard them on the radio, seen them on TV, and maybe even performed one or two on karaoke night. It seems obvious that a duet is a musical work for two performers. Simple, right? Maybe not. There are actually several kinds of duets in the musical world.

Most people think of a duet as one part being a melody and a secondary part that harmonizes with that melody. Another way to think about it would be that each part is really separate and independent, yet they still harmonize when presented together. Or, they can be more of a dialogue. Duets can be for voices, instruments, or a combination of the two. This lesson will focus on vocal duets and explore three basic types.

Duet History

As long as there has been singing, there has probably been some kind of duet music. Perhaps one the earliest documented examples can be found in the 9th century. The predominant type of music was chant, a single unaccompanied melodic line, which is an example of monophonic texture. When monks began to experiment with traditional performance practice by adding a parallel melody sung simultaneously with the original chant, it became the earliest example of polyphonic texture. Even though there were several singers on each of the two chant parts, you could think of it as the first type of duet. This early two-part music was called parallel organum.

Parallel organum
Parallel organum

The earliest vocal duets, as we think of them today, began with opera in the early 1600s. Composers quickly discovered that vocal duets work best with some kind of high voice/low voice combination. The most popular pairings are soprano and alto, soprano and tenor, and tenor with bass.

Isorhythmic Duets

The simplest type of vocal duet is a melody sung by one voice harmonized by a second voice, with both parts moving together in pretty much the same rhythm. The majority of notes are harmonized one-on-one in a fashion similar to the parallel melody invented in the 9th century. An excellent example of this kind of duet is 'Evening Prayer' from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. Brother and sister are lost in the woods, and darkness is fast approaching. In preparing for sleep, they sing a comforting prayer about the angels who will watch over them during the night.

A more recent isorhythmic duet is 'Somethin' Stupid' from 1967, sung by Frank Sinatra and his daughter, Nancy Sinatra. 'Islands in the Stream' by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers (1983) is sung in a similar fashion. The 1981 duet 'Perhaps Love' with John Denver and Placido Domingo features voices alternating on the verses and then moving together as melody with harmony on the refrain.

Counterpoint/Partner Song Duets

Another type of duet is when each singer has their own independent melody. These are often called partner songs or counterpoint songs. Usually one part contrasts by moving at a slower rhythm, and each part has its own text. Each singer generally presents their song alone, and then they are presented simultaneously. These are the most challenging types of duets for composers to write, for singers to perform, and for listeners to track.

Irving Berlin prided himself on the creation of counterpoint songs. An early example dates from 1914, although many artists have recorded it. One version features Bing Crosby and his son Gary, each representing two different musical generations. Bing sings a smoother, older style tune about a 'simple melody,' and Gary sings a syncopated, younger style tune about a 'musical demon'.

In the mid-1960s, Irving Berlin produced a revival of Annie Get Your Gun, for which he wrote an additional song. It begins with the character Frank singing a slower tune about wanting a 'simple old-fashioned wedding'. Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley enters with an upbeat song about wanting a big wedding with all the trimmings. In these examples there are two different songs, each with different words, yet both fit together when combined.

Barbara Streisand and Judy Garland also successfully combined two familiar songs. Garland sings 'Get Happy' and Streisand sings 'Happy Days Are Here Again'. Both tunes are normally sung at a brisk pace, but are presented together immediately at a much slower tempo in their version.

Call and Response/Dialogue Duets

The third category of duet types are characterized by more of an alternation and/or echo between the voices to create a sense of vocal dialogue. The 'Laudamus Te' from Vivaldi's Gloria and 'Sound the Trumpet' from Purcell's Come Ye Sons of Art are good examples from Classical repertoire.

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