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Project 8 Examples Research, Part 1: Rounds, Catches, and the Fuzzy Terminology

Rounds and catches are a secular type of canon, in which a given melody is imitated at unison in other voices after a given duration, creating a contrapuntal texture.

Rounds are often traditional, rural, pastoral, rustic or folk-like. They can be playful, sometimes literally involving actions of play or games. Catches on the other hand are bawdy, often containing plays of words, double entendre or an adjustment of meaning by arranging the words and silences so that their combination in different voices can lead to vulgar or humorous associations. (Callon, 2002: p. xviii)

From the above, the distinction of the terms canon, round and catch may seem pretty clear, however, there was much conflict in their use over the centuries. In fact, in the past, they were even used interchangeably. An example of this free use of the terminology of the song types would be Playford. In defining catches, he writes:


(Playford, 1658)

This definition obviously doesn’t separate catches from canons and rounds and limits them to three voices. Furthermore, as Spink (1968: 135) points out, what Playford calls catches are sometimes part-songs. For example, ‘Man’s life is but vain’ by Henry Lawes is named ‘The Angler’s Catch’ in his Musical Companion, despite there being nothing canonic about it.

Unlike Playford, Simpson distinguishes catches and rounds from the canons in three ways. First, he writes, catches and rounds are “of less dignity”. Second, imitation in catches and rounds is at the unison only, while canons involve imitation at other intervals. Third, catches and rounds are constructed by writing a short piece that has three, four or more parts of equal register, then connecting these parts together end-to-end, forming a single melodic line. This means that rounds and catches consist of a single melodic line, whose phrases, when combined, create a harmonious counterpoint. In other words, the melody combines with itself.

Looking at the latter, it can be seen that voices in catches and rounds don’t enter until the preceding part doesn’t complete an entire phrase. (Callon, 2002: p. xviii) This makes the distance between the entering of the voices in catches and rounds further apart than in canons, where voices enter more closely together.

However, in the short melodies, especially of the rounds, the parts can join in relatively near. For example, in the round “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, the new voice comes in at the end of every bar. (Fig. 1) Although, this depends on the notation as well, so that the below example may be notated in 6/8 with a distance that is visually larger. (Fig. 2)


Fig. 1. Voice entrances (marked *) in Row, Row, Row Your Boat


Fig. 2. Row, Row, Row Your Boat notated in 6/8

Simpson though doesn’t distinguish between rounds and catches, meanings of which, as I’ve written in the opening paragraph, are differentiated by their character and lyrics. While the term canon seems more general, with rounds and catches being its sub-sets, it should be mentioned that authors like Johnson (Grove Music Online, 2001), point out to the round as a more general term, with catches being comic, bawdy rounds and canons being rounds with religious texts. This is largely due to canon having different meaning in the music of the Continental Europe and the music of the British Isle.

As we’ve seen, with all this mixing of the concepts, none of the attempts at separation of the terminology is perfectly clear-cut. Moving on, in the next post, I will write about the earliest surviving round or rota, as it was called in the Medieval times in England (La Prade, 1947: 137), “Sumer is icumen in”, probably written mid-13th century, associated with Reading Abbey. (British Library, 2015) You can check it out here.

List of illustrations:

Fig. 1. Voice entrances (marked *) in Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Fig. 2. Row, Row, Row Your Boat notated in 6/8


British Library (2015) Medieval Music Mash-Up At: (Accessed on 15 May 2017)

Callon, G. J. (2002) ‘Introduction’ In: Lawes, W. Collected Vocal Music Part 2: Dialogues, Partsongs, and Catches. Middleton, WI : A-R Editions, Inc. pp. vx-xx

Grove Music Online (2001) ‘Round’ (By Johnson, D.) At: (Accessed on 13 May 2017)

La Prade, E. (1947) Broadcasting Music. New York: Rinehart & Co.

Playford, J. (1958) ‘To the Reader’ In: Hilton, J. Catch that Catch Can. London: John Benson and John Playford. At: (Accessed 13 May 2017)

Spink, I. (1986) English Song: Dowland to Purcell. (2nd ed.) London: Batsford Ltd

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