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Trixi Field
from: Trixi Field
Category: Voicework

Creating Beautiful Harmony via the Humble Canon

For groups of singers, experienced or not, the humble canonis an ideal way into harmony singing. Though very simple, it’s still an interesting musical structure.

Its simplest and most accessible form is the "round" or "catch" - a melodic line sung first by one voice or group of voices, and then imitated, note for note, by more voices or groups of voices every few bars (measures), creating a harmonic and melodic echo effect.

Most people will have experienced, perhaps at school, singing “Frere Jacques” or “London’s Burning” – two very simple examples. There is, of course, a whole repertoire of more interesting rounds available for groups of singers to enjoy.

One of the reasons I frequently write canons for use in workshops, or else use examples from the rich treasure of canons that is already in existence, is that the singers can quickly experience harmony-singing without having to learn different parts.  They can all learn the same song or chant together, and once they are singing confidently, can divide into two, three or four separate parts. 

Canons also have an interesting effect on the listener:

-        The involvement of all the voices together gives, on the one hand, a feeling of motionlessness, since all parts of the melodic line are sung simultaneously for as long as all the voices are involved. The canon doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

-        Yet, at the same time, since each voice or group of voices is at a different point in the canon, the melody seems to swish around the singers in a kind of aural “Mexican wave”. Whilst the tunes may be simple, the effect of the constantly overlapping lines can be a complex-sounding contrapuntal texture.

The effect is one of both stillness and motion, and this can be most beautiful and meditative both for listeners and singer. 

 It is normal for singers/performers to stand in front of their audience. However, a different organization of singers and listeners can produce a most enchanting effect for the listeners: the latter stand in a group in the centre of a room, encircled by the groups of singers. Then the motionlessness/mexican aural wave effect can be more directly experienced. Rather than being sung at, the listeners are gently wrapped in the harmonic sounds.

In my ownworkshops, if there are sufficient numbers in each of the canonic groups,  I like to invite individuals into the centre of the singing circle to experience and enjoy the wonderful sounds that they and their fellow singers are able to make with these simple songs.


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