Monday, November 01, 2021

Why rounds aren’t the best way to introduce singing in harmony

Rounds are often seen as a simple way into harmony singing.

photo by Hyacinth, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But I would argue that they’re not that simple and aren’t a good way to introduce harmony. Here’s why.

Rounds are very easy to teach to a group. Everybody gets to sing the same melody and the same words.

When different groups start singing the round at different times, harmonies are automatically introduced without anybody having to learn a separate harmony part.

However, there are downsides to rounds:

  • it’s easy to get lost – since everybody has the same words and same tune. You only have to zone out for a second and you can lose your place.
  • difficult to pick out harmonies – because everyone’s singing the same thing (just not at the same time), it’s quite difficult for a beginner to pick out the harmonies that are created.
  • you don’t practice learning a different part – true harmony singing involves each part learning a different melody. This is then sung against the other parts. Singing a round doesn’t give this sort of practice since everyone’s singing the same thing.

When a singer encounters harmony singing for the first time, they will often be drawn to the main tune regardless of what part they’re supposed to be singing.

Quite often, when there is block harmony, each part will be singing the same words at the same time as the main tune. It is hard at first to hold your part under these circumstances.

A better introduction to harmony is to have each part sing a completely different melody and set of words.

A good example of this is a quodlibet: songs which can be sung at the same time as each other. For example: When the saints/Swing low sweet chariot/This train is bound for glory.

Each group has its own words and melody which they can focus on. They shouldn’t get distracted by the other groups. When the song is up and running, they can begin to notice how the harmonies work.

Every group can learn each different melody and practice singing it against the others. This will give a different perspective on the harmonies each time.

When singers can do this easily, you can progress to simpler songs in which each harmony has a different melody and different words.

further reading

How to introduce harmony to a group of novice singers

How to help singing groups harmonise even if it seems they can’t

10 golden truths I have learnt from 20 years of choir leading


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Chris Rowbury




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