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A round is a musical composition in which two or more voices sing exactly the same melody (and may continue repeating it indefinitely), but with each voice beginning at different times so that different parts of the melody coincide in the different voices, but nevertheless fit harmoniously together. It is one of the easiest forms of part singing, as only one line of melody need be learned by all parts, and is part of a popular musical tradition. They were particularly favoured in glee clubs, which combined amateur singing with regular drinking (The Aldrich Book of Catches (1989) introductory essay, pp 8–22, especially at p 21: "Catch-singing is unthinkable without a supply of liquor to hand...").
"Row, Row, Row Your Boat" is a well known children's round for 4 voices. Other examples are "London's Burning" and "Three Blind Mice". However, not all rounds are nursery rhymes. Serious composers who turned their hand to the round format include Thomas Arne, John Blow, William Byrd, Henry Purcell, and Louis Hardin.
The oldest surviving round in English is "Sumer Is Icumen In" Play (help·info), which is for 4 voices, plus 2 bass voices singing a ground (that is, a never-changing repeating part), also in canon. The first published rounds in English were printed by Thomas Ravenscroft in 1609... "Three Blind Mice" Play (help·info) appears in this collection, although in a somewhat different form from today's children's round:
- Three Blinde Mice,
- three Blinde Mice,
- Dame Iulian,
- Dame Iulian,
- The Miller and his merry olde Wife,
- shee scrapte her tripe licke thou the knife.
Many of the rounds printed by Ravenscroft also appear in a 1580 manuscript (KC 1), and several are mentioned in Shakespeare's plays, so these little ditties seem to have been quite popular.
What makes a round work is that after the work is divided into equal-sized blocks of a few measures each, corresponding notes in each block either are the same, or are different notes in the same chord. This is easiest with one chord, as in "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" Play (help·info):
A new part can join the singing by starting at the beginning whenever another part reaches any asterisk in the above music. If one ignores the sixteenth notes that pass between the main chords, every single note is in the tonic triad—in this case, a C, E, or G.
The texture is simpler, but it uses a few more notes; this can perhaps be more easily seen if all four parts are run together into the same two measures:
Many different chord progressions are theoretically possible in a round, but it can be very challenging to keep each part sounding different and yet still melodic as they trace out the appropriate chords.