What is a Round in Music?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many forms of musical composition, each of which has unique sounds. In this lesson, we will talk about the use of round in music, and see how this style of song is composed.

Music Go Round

Merry-go-rounds are popular carnival attractions. Yes, they are a pleasure to ride, but they're just a fun to watch. Each horse follows the same path as the others but is slightly different, going up and down and round and round. From inside the merry-go-round, you just see your own path, but from outside you can see how they all interact. This same sort of logic is applied to music. A round is a form of composition in which each singer or instrumentalist carries the same melody, but begins and ends at different points. Rounds are sometimes technically referred to as perpetual canons, referring to music with structured repetition that can be repeated basically forever. Round and round and round it goes…

Elements of a Round

While this sounds pretty simple, there are some technical conventions of rounds that must be followed in order for it to actually make a composition that's enjoyable to hear. First, let's talk about the members. Rounds require a minimum of three performers and rarely have more than four or five. Traditionally, they are performed by vocalists. Since each vocalist sings the exact same melody, the composition of these singers is not a major concern. The person who begins the round is called the leader, or technically the dux. After the leader introduces the melody, the other singers come in at set intervals, starting that same melody from its beginning. These other singers are the follower, or comes.

The performers are one important element of a round, but the actual music is just as important. Despite what many people think, not every song can be sung as a round. Rounds are specifically written for this purpose. You want the round to still sound good, which means that you need to be aware of how the melody will interact with itself while overlapping. To ensure a harmonious composition, the repeated line is generally broken into two sections. The melody introduces a musical theme, then the countermelody presents a contrast that supports but is different than the melody. For example, if the melody feature ascending notes, the countermelody may have descending notes. The followers often come in while the leader is nearing the countermelody, so that melody and countermelody are constantly overlapping, which creates a synthetic, but still uniquely disjointed and dynamic composition.

17th-century round
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The Round in Sheet Music

One last thing we need to talk about is how to actually read a round in sheet music. Rounds are usually presented as a single melodic line, with asterisks denoting the places for the followers to begin. Let's look at this in perhaps the most popular round in American culture: Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Here are the lyrics:

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