Sunday, September 02, 2012

Easy songs for your choir 2: rounds, chants, call & response

Last week I wrote about what makes a song ‘easy’.

Kew Gardens (73)

This week I’ll look at specific types of easy songs: rounds, chants and call & response songs.


The easiest songs to start with if you want to introduce harmonies are rounds. Everybody leans the whole song, there are no separate harmony parts to learn, everyone learns the same tune and words. Rounds are designed so that one group of people start the song and when they get to a certain point, another group joins in, but from the beginning of the song. In this way, different sections of the tune are being sung against each other creating harmonies, although every group is singing exactly the same tune.

When a song is said to be a “3-part round”, it means that up to three groups can be singing at the same time. Rounds can be anything from 2-part to 8-part and beyond. If there are too many parts, the overall sound can be quite muddy and confusing. So even if a song can be sung as a 4-part round, you might only want to have three groups singing.

Famous rounds include London’s burning, Three blind mice, Row row row your boat, and Frère Jacques.

(You might also come across the term canon. A canon is very similar to a round, but when the second and subsequent groups join in, they might sing a variation or imitation of the main melody. A round is a specific example of a canon where each group sings an identical part. One of the most well-known canons is Pachelbel’s canon in D major.)


A chant is another easy kind of song which may or may not include harmonies.

A chant is a type of song which uses a very small number of notes and words or syllables. We often associate chanting with religious practices such as Buddhist chants or Gregorian chants, but there are many chants with no religious associations.

There are chants from many different traditions: Taizé (France), Native American, Sami yoiks, Shona songs (Zimbabwe), and many more.

Nickomo has a number of ‘Harmonic Temple’ chants available in four part harmony using short texts from a broad spectrum of spiritual traditions.

Chants tend to be very repetitive so can be meditative when sung for long periods of time.

call and response songs

‘Call and response’ is when one musician sings (or plays or calls) a phrase and others respond with the same or a different phrase. It’s very much like a conversation between the caller and the responders.

Call and response is very common in sub-Saharan Africa, African-American music (blues, gospel, etc.), the Scottish church, sea shanties and children’s play.

Although call and response songs can become quite complex, the easiest versions – where the response is identical to the call – are very quickly picked up because there is no learning involved (you just sing back what the caller sings).

These kinds of songs are great for improvisation and the call can be nonsense syllables or rhythmic phrases which are good for warm ups.


If you want to begin to introduce harmonies to a group of singers who aren’t used to them, then drones are perfect.

A drone is a note that is held constant whilst other singers sing the tune. Many songs lend themselves to this treatment, but especially folk songs from Scotland and Ireland which tend to use the pentatonic scale (five notes). The simplest way to play with a pentatonic scale is to play just the black notes on the piano.

Choose a simple song of this type (Amazing Grace is a good example) and get half the group to drone on the starting note of the song whilst the other half sing over the top. You can then experiment with choosing different drone notes. Either hold the drone constant on a vowel sound such a ‘O’ or get the group to sing the words on a single note.

When the group become familiar with this, try splitting into three groups and have two drones going on at once. Enjoy the (sometimes unusual) harmonies. You can’t go wrong!

moving on

Having explored rounds, chants, call & response and drones, you can then move on to simple two-part harmonies and so on.

Do let me know if you have any other examples of types or sources of easy songs that can help start a choir. Leave a comment and share your experience.

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