Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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:
Row, row, row your boat * gently down the stream;* merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, * life is but a dream!
Okay, now go find three friends (or the three nearest strangers), and give this round a shot. The leader begins singing ''row, row, row'' etc and when he/she finishes ''boat'', the first follower starts singing ''row, row, row''. When the leader reaches the second asterisk, the second follower starts singing. When the leader reaches the third asterisk, the third follower begins and you've got four people singing the same melody at different intervals. Notice how the melodies and countermelodies interact, and create a revolving composition.
In music, a round is a form of composition featuring multiple performers playing the same melody but starting at different intervals. The melody is introduced by the leader, with each follower restarting the melody when the leader reaches an asterisk in the sheet music. Composing a round requires a fair amount of thought, as the melody must overlap harmoniously with itself. Dividing the main line into a melody and countermelody is a good way to balance this. Rounds are perpetually repetitive, only stopping when the leader indicates. Until then, round and round and round it goes.
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