Source: Ivan Lešnik


Slovenian Multipart Singing


The Slovenian saying “Trije Slovenci, pevski zbor” that means “three Slovenians make a choir”, shows how multipart singing is close to Slovenian’s music sensitivity. There are only few areas in Slovenia where people sing otherwise.

In the past, Slovenian multipart singing was different from the singing we know today. There are only few records and testimonies; however, these ascertain that in the Slovenian tradition it has always been sung in the form of multipart singing.

Historic Overview of Traditional Singing in Slovenia

The first historically proved written record on multipart singing among Slovenians dates back to the 14th century. It is a fragment of a thanksgiving hymn which was sung during a traditional rite of the crowning of a Carinthian Duke on a Duke’s Stone in Zollfeld (in Slovenian: Gosposvetsko polje), Austria. This fragment was preserved in a German manuscript (Vrčon 1998:187). Another fragment, namely a passage from an old Eastern song from the 15th century, is preserved in the Monastery of Stična. A stanza of a carol written by Primož Trubar, the third oldest written record, has been preserved from the 16th century. Thanks to counter-reformists’ records we can nowadays deduce how it was sung at that time. In the same period, first Slovenian song-books containing one-part liturgical songs were printed.

Further records on Slovenian singing dating back to the 19th century appear in the writings of Matija Majer, Stanko Vraz, Ludvik Kuba, Davorin Beranič and Stanko Vurnik (Vurnik 1931:177).

At the beginning of the 20th century some scholars supported the theory of an ancient form of unison folk singing, supposedly spread everywhere among Slovenians under the influence of Bavarian-German practice (Vrčon 1998:191).

Further research disproved this theory. There is, in fact, much more evidence supporting the opposite (Mav 1929:82, Tomc 1929:5) arising from investigations conducted at the end of 20th century. These investigations rejected previous folklorists’ claims about the influence of German-speaking culture on Slovenian folk singing. According to Vodušek that influence can only be observed in typical rhythms and metres, but not in melodic features (Vodušek 2003c:54).

Multipart Singing in Slovenian Traditional Songs

In Slovenian traditions, unison singing appears only in a few cases such as rare ritual songs as well as in Porabje (Hungary) and Prekmurje singing practice that has been influenced by the Hungarian folk song (Dravec 1957).

Slovenian traditional songs are performed mostly in two parts in parallel thirds or sixths (or octaves). The two parts move freely. It is often impossible to determine whether the leading melody is sung by the higher or the lower part. Women and men sing in separate groups. They sing together only during festivities. In two-part singing in thirds the leading part is the lower part, while in sixths the leading melody is taken up by the higher part. Singers often change the leading function of the two parts without knowing which part performs the leading melody. In those cases the melody ends in a third thus creating a sense of an unfinished musical thought.

Three-part singing is typically male. However, there is also female three-part singing is present. The middle part (the baritone part in a men’s group) leads the melody, the accompanying higher part is in a third on the top of the leading part, while the harmonic bases and the activity of the lower part (the bass) depends basically on the singers’ capacity to create the lower part.

Today, group singing is heavily influenced by organised choir singing and as a result, the leading melody is most frequently performed by the highest part.

In the Upper Savinja valley, three-part singing is called “co-peti”, meaning to add an accompanying part below. In the past, three-part singing was typical of young rural men, which gave raise to the so-called “young men’s singing” (“fantovsko petje”). It started with a leading soloist singer, usually one of the best singers of the group, who was then followed by an accompanying higher part and by the lowest part performed by the rest of the group.

According to Zmaga Kumer, four-part singing was once present everywhere among Slovenians (Kumer 2002: 79). In addition to three-part singing, a fourth part was added above the highest accompanying part. This singing style was also interpreted exclusively by men. In the 19th century, folk singing began to be influenced by choir singing in which the leading part was sung on the top of all other parts. The role of the leading singer, who used to start singing and thus determine the pitch and tempo, has gradually disappeared. Likewise, choral arrangements of traditional songs have gradually altered the sense for traditional multipart singing and today singers perform in the choral style even when they sing a folk song spontaneously.

According to written records, the old multipart singing, i.e. four- or even five-part singing, was once present in all Slovenian districts, while today it can only be found among Slovenians in Carinthia (Austria) and in Upper Carniola. Elderly singers from the three-part singing areas still remember that in the past people used to practice four-part singing. There are a variety of dialect expressions for four-part singing such as “na tretko”, “na drajar” (on the third), “v trek glas” (on the third voice), “iber” (above), “cvik” etc. If a singer is capable of singing the highest, i.e. the fifth voice, five-part singing is called “na firar” or “na četrto” (on the fourth). Older singers concur that only some old songs can be interpreted in four-part singing, but they cannot explain why.

The above-mentioned old singing style existed in Slovenia before choirs began to be organized introducing the choral manner and the western harmony into the traditional four-part singing. In Slovenia, four-part singing is considered to be typically male, although several females perform it as well. Another typical feature of some Slovenian traditional songs is represented by soloist singing accompanied by a group of singers.

Five- and six-part singing was recorded among Slovenians in Carinthia and in the Savinja valley around the year 1950 (Kumer, Strajnar, 1996). Here, parts doubling occurs occasionally. Nevertheless, the sound spectre has widened, creating a new dimension of timbre of the sound. This singing was considered typical for Slovenians in Carinthia even some fifty years ago, since a large quantity of Carinthian traditional songs were sung in the old multipart singing style (Logar 1996:127, Logar 1988). However, similar but isolated cases were also found in Slovenia[1].

Slovenian Musical Dialects

The division in musical dialects or “sound dialects” (“nazvočja”) as France Marolt named them is well applicable, but some ethnomusicologists find it risky (Kumer, 1988:260). Marolt determined the boundaries of individual dialects by ear and also by singing volume as well as by potential deviations from the Western equal temperament. His division was based exclusively on musical aspects and audible recognition of regional varieties.


Figure 1: Geographical overview of districts in Slovenia.


The first Slovenian musical dialect as defined by Marolt includes the western part of the Upper Carniola, the entire Lower Carniola, Inner Carniola, the Kras in the maritime province of Slovenia, Slovenians in central Styria (Austria) as well as the Venetian region and Trieste area in Italy. In these areas singers nowadays practice two- and three part singing and occasionally under the influence of choir singing they also sing in four-part arrangements and often in accordance with the western harmony system. In fact, choir singing teaches singers to follow western harmonic rules even when they do not sing western classical music.

The second Slovenian musical dialect includes Slovenians in Carinthia, in the basin of the river Soča, in the northern part of Upper Carniola, in north-western Styria and Carinthia as well as in the Kanal valley in Italy where people practice four-, five- (or more) part singing.

Today, the older Slovenian singing style can hardly be found with the exception of the Upper Savinja valley, in Haloze and among Slovenians in Carinthia. A group of Slovenian singers will seldom sing in unison.


Figure 2: Graphic depiction of old Slovenian singing (below) and newer three-part singing (above) (Vodušek 2003: 87).


Vodušek’s drawing (Figure 2) shows the older five-part singing and the newer three-part young men’s singing.

Theories that assume that multipart singing classified by Marolt as the second musical dialect was once present in all Slovenian communities are based on discoveries of such singing in the Soča valley, Haloze, Lower Carniola and elsewhere. Even the oldest phonograph recordings bear witness to the presence of the old Slovenian multipart singing in the western part of Upper Carniola and in White Carniola (cfr. Strajnar 1989: 30).

Engelbert Logar studied traditional songs among Slovenians in Carinthia in the context of bilingualism, acculturation, assimilation, discrimination and multiculturalism, arguing that the search for national identity through traditional song results in vigorous cultural activity. Nevertheless, the presence of the two nations and two different cultures can be felt everywhere, even in traditional songs (cfr. Logar 1996: 127-144).

The third Slovenian musical dialect encompasses the areas of White Carniola, Prekmurje (eastern Slovenia) and Slovenians in Porabje (Hungary) where people practice mostly monodic and two-part singing. Due to historic migrations a variety of old songs are found among people living in these areas.

Since all three areas are border areas they were classified by Marolt as a single musical dialect. In these areas, the interaction of different cultures comes to light, particularly in White Carniola where older Slovenian tradition is interwoven with older Croatian tradition on both sides of Gorjanci. In the 16th century, Slovenian and Croatian tradition began to interweave with the tradition of Uskoks that included elements of Bosnians, Montenegrins and Croatians (Terseglav 1996:115). Field research indicates that Serbs from White Carniola have added Slovenian traditional songs to their traditional song repertoire, but they interpreted these songs in a specific way that is reminiscent of traditional Dinar area singing. On the other hand, Slovenian singers in White Carniola sing Croatian and Serbian songs in the original language but in “Slovenian manner”.

Stanko Vurnik argues that White Carniola is the Slovenian area that brings Slovenian culture closest to other South Slavic peoples. According to Vurnik this is the “musical folklore that represents the oldest phases of the Slovenian rural song and is also the most fascinating and most interesting issue in Slovenian musical folklore” (Vurnik 1931: 172). White Carniola has become the area of contact between Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian and possibly some other cultures as well. There are nevertheless several hypotheses about the eventual oldest layers of Slovenian traditional music (Vodušek 2003a:253). In White Carniola the first sound recordings were made by a Slovenian indicating that at the beginning of the 20th century singers in this area usually performed in multipart singing, mostly in three- or four-part, or even more (Strajnar 1989:34). After the year 1950, singing practice in White Carniola was mostly represented by two-part singing in thirds. Famous White Carniola “overtaking” (“zatekanje”) must be mentioned here as well. In the past, it was considered typical of White Carniola only. Later a similar way of singing was found also in Prekmurje (eastern Slovenia) and in the area between Gorica and Trieste (on the border between Slovenia and Italy) (Vrčon 1998:195). The “overtaking” technique itself is a complex practice where music has a secondary role, since it arises from people’s belief that uninterrupted singing of bonfire songs brings happiness to the house in which it is sung. If the singing is interrupted it is believed to bring misfortune. In such antiphonal singing where two groups of female singers alternate their performance without interruption, casual two-part singing takes place on the last or the first syllable respectively. This performance is called “catching” (“loviti se”) or “running after one another” (“pretekati se”).

There is a large variety in folk tunes of Prekmurje. Noteworthy is the millennial Hungarian hegemony in this area that nevertheless influenced melodic features to a lesser degree than expected (Dravec 1957). These tunes reveal relations to other neighbouring areas such as Medjimurje, Slavonia>, Srem, Croatian Zagorje, the Drava region and also to Croats in Burgenland (Austria) and even in Slovakia. Pentatonic tunes are still present in Prekmurje. Its specific characteristic is a pentatonic two-part singing that spreads on the Croatian territory up to the Drava region. According to Vodušek, its purest form is nowadays preserved in Prekmurje (Vodušek 1999:105). Pentatonic two-part singing can be also found in traditional songs of Prlekija and on the opposite bank of the River Mura. It is typical of Prekmurje pentatonic two-part singing that the lower accompanying part is dynamic and independent from other parts and that it does not always perform in the range of a third or a sixth. At the end parts frequently overlap.

Traditional singing among Slovenians in Porabje is similar to that in Prekmurje. Usually it is two-part singing. Three-part singing is performed rarely. In the course of time, Slovenian singing in Porabje has reduced the number of parts influenced by Hungarian traditional songs. Also tunes are often borrowed from Hungarian traditional songs.

The fourth Slovenian musical dialect comprehendsSlovenian and partly Croatian Istria. This is a specific area heavily influenced by an unequal temperament system or many tone scales/ untempered intervals or scales. Music in the Croatian part of Istria is referred to as the Istria scale but there is actually a variety of such scales. The well-known term Istria scale is thus a compromise used to note down traditional tunes more or less accurately in the classical notation system. In reality, almost every Istrian tune has its own specific pitches/tonal relations. We can thus speak of a generally recognizable Istrian untempered melody/tuned in a non-equal-temperament, rather than a static tone system. There is a general agreement among Istrian traditional song researchers that the Istrian scale system cannot be referred to as the only system to be used in Istrian folk music notation.

From the historical point of view, Istrian traditional songs can generally be classified into two groups: the older and the newer. Older Istrian music tradition includes singing in the so called Istrian scales that is nowadays present mainly in Croatian Istria, while in former times it was also present in some villages around Koper (Marušič 1995:13).

In Slovenian Istria, the Italian minority is still vigorous, particularly in cultural activities. They mostly sing in Italian, the repertoire is reminiscent of the Italian “canzonette”. Elderly folk singers and fiddlers as well as records from the 1950’s testify that this practice has not changed much in the last hundred years. A number of songs that originated in Croatian Istria were adapted by Slovenian singers to the Slovenian Istrian singing manner. Music borrowing went both ways and it partly still does. Considering Istrian traditional music as primitive, regressive and inferior, inhabitants of Slovenian Istria preferred to look up to the Italian culture. Due to their better economic situation, Italians were considered progressive.

The fifth Slovenian musical dialect is in the valley of Resia (in Slovenian: Rezija) in Italy. The fifth musical dialect can be referred to as the Rezija singing technique. According to some researchers (such as Julijan Strajnar and Marko Terseglav) the isolated geographical position of the Rezija played the crucial role in the preservation of a particularly old folklore. Other experts on Rezija disagree with this theory. According to them the valley has always been open to various influences.[2] Nevertheless, the characteristic music of Rezija still remains rather authentic.

The first systematic ethno-musicological research into Rezija was conducted in 1962. Both Slovenian and Italian researchers participated in this field work[3]. A year later, Slovenians took over completely and continued the research work on Rezija on their own[4]. Rezija folk music was also studied by Alan Lomax, Diego Carpitella, Roberto Leydi and Pavle Merkú, an ethnic Slovenian from Italy, a Slavist scholar and a composer who investigated the Slovenian cultural tradition in Italy (Merkú 1976, 1981).

Traditional songs from Rezija are remarkably distinctive from other Slovenian songs. During the 1960’s the researchers of the Institute for Ethnomusicology studied deviations from equal temperament on the basis of auditory perception (Vodušek 2003:245).

Recent measurements support those findings on spontaneous musical practice in Rezija. The Rezija singing manner is rough and sharp. Singers produce it from a tightly squeezed throat. All songs are sung in the same manner, i.e. very loudly and without dynamic gradation (Kugy 1925:87, Strajnar 1988:82).

The examination of the beginning of each song shows that the intonation is led by the leading part which is tuned according to an internal feeling for the correct pitch. Entering glissandos can very often be heard which are in fact a way of searching for optimal tuning. The drone voice is present in almost every song. In some cases it is not strictly linked to a particular tone and it moves freely. Some intervals are quite typical such as unstable seconds and thirds, and a partly diminished fourth is sometimes present as well. Stanzas often end in unison. Melodies are oligotonic/ the ranges of melodies are narrow, usually consisting of few tones. The performance usually ends with a shout.

Today, organised choirs are present in Rezija as well. They sing in four parts using the music scores and temperament system (Maiero 1991). They are aware of their peculiarity and they strictly separate folk music from notated arrangements.


It is obvious enough that today’s singers sing under the influence of choir singing which does not allow for the freedom of traditional music-making. The popularity of choir singing among Slovenians brings about various combinations of singers in singing groups.

In the 1980’s the Institute for Ethnomusicology of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts conducted research on varieties of singing in Slovenian rural areas and districts. The findings confirmed the Slovenian districts’ diversity and colourfulness resulting from geographical characteristics and historical facts (Cvetko 1990). This diversity, established exclusively by auditive perception, coincides to a large extent with Marolt’s division of Slovenian traditional music into five musical dialects in the 1950‘s. The research I conducted in the years 2003 to 2005 verifies Marolt’s concept of music diversity as well. The changes established by this research are relatively small; nevertheless, they indicate the direction and the intensity of changes in folk singing, which is today – more than ever – subject to the influence of other musical genres (Lešnik 2005). This is particularly evident in areas where four- or five-part singing is practiced. In this multipart singing, singers “play by ear” and simultaneously they adapt to other singers.

Multipart singing has a great tradition in Slovenia and I believe it is going to continue in the future as well. Changes brought about by the time and are felt as different singing are usual and must be accepted as a part of life, constantly adapting to new technologies and cultures. Nevertheless, Slovenian traditional music is still recognized as typical multipart singing.


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[1] The comment on »Koroška Evening« in Luče in the CD-booklet »Glasbeno izročilo Luč ob Savinji (musical heritage in Luče of Savinja)«, Luče: Luče Municipality, 2002.
[2] According to Robert Dapit the valley of Rezija was not exactly isolated and local people used to commute to surrounding areas for work and personal affairs.
[3] This fieldwork in 1962 was carried out by Giorgio Nataletti, Valens Vodušek, Uroš Krek, Marija Šuštar and Milko Matičev.
[4] In 1966 Julian Strajnar and Mirko Ramovš also joined the research team.