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Combining Instruments and Voices in Ballads, Madrigals, Medieval Music, and Rounds

At Pennsic last week, Aaron attended a class on performing medieval music. I didn’t go because I was learning how to use my new inkle loom, but I did get to look at the handout afterward, and Aaron told me what was discussed during the class. The point I’m going to discuss here is combining instrumental music with vocal music. On the whole, most SCA music groups don’t mix instruments with non-ballad vocals. Madrigals are sung strictly a capella, and medieval music doesn’t tend to get sung or played at all. Cynnabar is no exception, and I’d like to see that changed.

Aaron, me, and some other people in our camp did some brainstorming on ways to incorporate instruments into Medieval and Renaissance vocals, and here’s what we came up with. Maybe you can use these ideas in your group(s) as well.

Ballads Sung with Accompaniment

Yes, I know this is done fairly well in the SCA, but it’s worth mentioning anyway since from what I’ve seen it tends to be more of an individual endeavor rather than something a singing group would do. I mean, why would a singing group want to do solo ballads when there are plenty of madrigals out there?

The answer to that question is another post by itself, so lets just say your group would be interested in learning ballads. First, I’d suggest having each member of your choir learn enough verses of the ballad so they can sing a complete song. You could make it easier and assign one or two verses per person, but then if that person is around a campfire by him/herself, they’ll have a really short song to sing. If it’s a song with a story (example: The Twa Sisters), make sure everyone knows enough verses to tell the story. If it’s a ballad with infinitely many verses, than pick enough so that each person can be able to sing a satisfying song on his/her own. Three or four is probably about right.

For your instrumentalists, have the guitarists, mandolinists, and other chord players learn the chords for the ballads, and then have them practice accompanying the soloists. You can also make an arrangement for the non chord instruments that doubles as multi-part choir music. Again have the people playing the non-melody parts practice accompanying the solisits.

For performance you then have a wide variety of options:

  • Soloist a capella
  • Choir a capella
  • Soloist with chord instruments
  • Soloist with non-chord instruments
  • Choir with chord instruments
  • Choir with non-chord instruments (Probably not as satisfying as some of the other options)
  • Choir with bass line played on bass instrument
  • All instruments together
  • Solo-instrument accompanied by chord instruments
  • Solo-instrument accompanied by singers (Could be weird)

And that’s with just dividing instruments into chordal and non-chordal. You can get even more by dividing instruments by pitch (lower instruments versus higher instruments), by type (winds versus strings versus percussion), and by family (recorders versus viols versus guitars). It all depends on your mix.

Cantigas and Carmina Burana

The Cantigas de Santa Maria and the Carmina Burana songs are similar to ballads in that they have a melody line and lots of verses. The main difference is the harmonic structure. Chords as we know them either don’t make much sense or are inappropriate for medieval music. At least that’s the impression I’ve gotten from the classes I’ve taken. This makes performance a little bit different than ballads.

For the vocalists, again have them learn several verses and practice the pronunciation. Nothing’s in English, so pronunciation will take a bit of work. If you can, record the lyrics ahead of time. That should make things simpler.

Instrumentalists and vocalists can take turns soloing, and instrumentalists have the option of playing the written music or making up their own solo. Vocalists have the improvization option too, but I imagine that singing the verses straight is quite a bit an accomplishment as it is. ^_~

While instrumentalists are accopanying have them make use of the drone, specifically have them drone in rhythm. Not only is droning in rhythm much less boring than just holding one note a long time, it also reinforces the pulse of the song. It’s both true to the music and sounds really awesome.

With so many different instruments soloing with different volume levels, you’ll need to practice shifting accompaniment styles to accommodate different instruments. For instance, you might have only percussion accompany some solos, only lower pitched instruments accompany others, etc. Of course you don’t have change accompaniment style just because of volume level. If you have 5 soprano recorder players each taking a solo you might change the accompaniment to add some variety. There’s a lot work on.

The trick with making songs with many identical verses interesting is variety. It keeps the listener from zoning out and keeps the instrumentalists from going insane because of the monotony. Repetition doesn’t have to mean the same thing as boredom.


Many madrigals were also written for solo and lute, and these are best suited for collaboration between instrumentalists and vocalists. Every Dowland madrigal I’ve sung, I can easily imagine having instrumental accompaniement or having an instrumental verse or having a solo and lute verse. As a rule, I’d say that mostly monophonic madrigals are best suited for this. That is, songs where there’s a clear melody while the rest of the voice parts have supporting roles. Most Dowland songs fit this description, as well as Ravenscroft and some Thomas Ford. Not to mention many non-English composers.

I know of at least some oratorios that were rescored as Madrigals, and those could make for some very interesting vocal/instrumental combinations. The one I’m thinking of at the moment is “Lasciatami Morire” by Monteverdi. You could have a basso continuo playing for a soloist and then break into the Madrigal version with or without the basso continuo playing. Then you could have an all instrument arrangement, where either the instruments play the madrigal or one instrument does the solo and others accompany. Awesomeness!

Now there are some madrigals like “Il est Bel et Bon” or “Fair Phylis“, which may be a bit more difficult to effectively incorporate instruments and voices together. There’s no clear melody, and the words are just as important as the notes. A thought for these songs would be replace voices with instruments or double the voices with instruments and see what happens. Another option is discussed next.

Transition to Different Songs

Some songs sound great together as a medly. On the album “Johnny Cock Thy Beaver” by the Dufay Collective tracks 14 and 15 are a medly of “Jamaica” and “Godesses”, both Playford tunes. First there’s a vocal version of Jamaica and then it jumps into an instrumental version Godesses and back to Jamaica, but this time an instrumental version.

This performance technique would be good for any of the types of songs listed above including those madrigals that are hard to voice on instruments.


The last type of song I’m going to talk about is the round. The easiest way I can think of to combine instruments and voices is to have the voices start singing the round and then start replacing the voices with different instruments. You can go back and forth with different voice/instrument mixes to make for a very interesting performances and make the rounds sound less… incessant.

Hopefully this post has given you some ideas on how to combine instruments and vocals in performance. Often you’ll find that many of your vocalists are also musicians, so combining vocals and instruments may encourage some of your singers to bring their instruments to rehearsal. Similarly you may find some shy musicians more willing to give singing a try since they’re at rehearsal anyway. So not only does combining instrumentals with vocals make for more interesting performances it may increase the number of participants as well. Always a good thing.

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