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.