Composing Music Part 3 – Rounds, descants, polyphony

The diatonic scale is the basis of so much of our music. There are well known composers of the 20th century who broke away from the diatonic or tonal, but did so from a traditional basis. The most radical modern influence was Arnold Schoenberg, and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern they all wrote early compositions which demonstrated a though understanding of tonality. Ot her composers all pushed the boundaries of tonality, whilst retaining a firm foundation of diatonic tradition. These include Franz Liszt, Charles Ives and Igor Stravinsky

Project 8 Rounds and Catches

Round Catches

Henry Purcell

Purcell was responsible for over sixty rounds or catches. Composers would invent their own words and with careful placing of words and rests produced humorous double meanings which only became apparent when all the parts came together.

Research Point

Here are some interesting Rounds by Henry Purcell which I have found

The Nut Brown Lass

The lyrics in this are as follows:

A Health, a health to the Nut-brown Lass with the Hazel Eyes, She that has good Eyes has also good Thighs, let it pays, let it pays. As much to the livelier Gray, They’re as good by night as day, She that has good Eyes has also good Thighs, Drink away, drink away. I’ll pledge, Sir, I’ll pledge, What ho some wine, here some wine to mine, And to thine, to thine, to thine, And to mine the Colours are Divine. But Oh, the black eyes, the black give me as much again, And let it be Sack. She that has good Eyes has also good Thighs, And a better knack.Show less

It is sung beautifully but I cannot hear anything which has any double meanings but you can hear the Good thighs quite often!!

Under this Stone

This was a little more melancholy, but it is telling the story of someone buried. It is beautifully sung and the parts work beautifully

I gave her cakes and I gave her ale

This is an amusing song because it seems like this was a drinking song from what I can hear and the way in which it is sung.

The Miller’s Daughter

I couldn’t quite catch all the lyrics but I do believe she was rather unhappy on a horse without a saddle. Very amusing.

I looked at IMSLP and found a whole list of Purcell rounds/catches, I have screen grabbed them for future reference so I can easily find them if I need to refer back to them.

Whilst looking on the internet I also realised that I had some experience of rounds/catches. As a child we often sang Frere Jacques, London’s Burning and Row Row Row Your Boat, with different groups coming in at different times. I also recall very recently that our Trefoil Guild Group tried to work out a round for Po Kare Kare Ana (the Maori song) however it was a total disaster so we ended up doing it in two vocals , alto and soprano and making it sound beautiful like that. Oh and we won!!

Exercise – creating a perpetual round
Round in F major
Round in C major

Project 9 – Descants

Going as far back as the 12th century vocal improvisations known as descants were added over an existing tune sung by another singer. Composing a variation over a well known tune is a successful technical resource for a composer and a step towards creating independent melodic lines that can be heard together in a complimentary manner.

The descant should be have some rhythmic independence from the chosen tune, so it can be heard clearly but it must not be overpowering over the tune that it is intended to enhance.

It is effective to allow the descant to. move when the chosen tune is less rhythmically active (and vice versa) and take some opportunities to move in an opposite direction to the tune

Two well known Descants above a melody that are well known in school are “Morning has Broken” and Happy Birthday


In this exercise we are asked to devise an intersting descant for three out of five given tunes. Here are my three choices. I have included the originals we are asked to work on and how they sound and then will follow these with the versions that have my own descant over the top.

Descant versions of the chosen pieces

Project 10 – A contrapuntal trial


Definition of polyphony

Research Point
Elizabethan composers

William Byrd (1543-1623)

Thomas Campion (1567-1620)

John Dowland (1563-1626)

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625)

Robert Johnson (1500-1560)

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)

Thomas Morley (1557-1602)

Please refer to listening log for my listening responses

Listening Log


I found this a little hard to grasp at first and have gone with something I think sounds polyphonic but maybe with the rhythm following too much of a staged pattern.

I have uploaded this but before I proceed to the assignment I am going to refer to Chapter 16 in The AB Guide to Music Theory by Eric Taylor just to see if I can better grasp the technicalities before I proceed with composing the assignment.