So, what are unisons? Why do we play them? And where did they even come from?
“Unisons”, also known as “chips”, “fortes”, “ins and outs” and many other names, have not always been played the way we play them today. Like most things, they have evolved with the times, the music and the instruments. They have evolved into an effective way to add more dynamics and “musical texture” to a performance.
So what are “unisons”? Why do we have them and where did they come from? Keep reading to find out.
What are Unisons? Unisons are selected sections of the first time through a part of music where all the snare drummers are required to plays as one, in “unison” with the lead drummer. This highlights particular areas of the score for added musical effect.
Short answer: for musical effect.
Just like there is a verse and a chorus in choir music, pipe band drum corps create the same volume change effect using solo and multiple drummers. When the solo player is playing it is soft and when the whole corps joins in it becomes loud. This principle is used in most pipe band performance pieces to enhance a tune.
The amount of “switching” between soft and loud can differ from piece to piece and the switching style, if you will, has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. To get a good grasp of how unison can be fully utilised, let’s look back at how it has evolved.
Starting with the basic structure of pipe band tunes, tunes are broken into equal chunks of time called “parts”. These “parts” of music are further split into two. The first time through and the second time through the “part”. When we play a “part” of music, the first time through each part is thought of like a verse. The second time through each “part” like a chorus.
In the early days, one snare drummer would play the first time through a part as a solo. The whole corps would then join in on the second time through for the repeat. Thus creating the soft first time through and loud second time through the part. Below is an example illustrating this verse and chorus effect within a part of music. The unisons are indicted by these orange brackets and highlights: .
In these earliest of days, drum scores were very simple with little embellishment. Drum corps began looking for ways to add more musical texture to their performance. By having the complete snare corps join in with the leading drummer coming in on the fourth phrase, it would lift the whole band:
The next evolution for the band was to have the corps snare drummers play the second phrase of each part as well as the fourth:
As drum corps began to experiment, the parts played in “unison” with the lead drummer became shorter than full phrase sections:
Then to further change up the chorus effect, the unisons also began to be played throughout the whole part rather than just the second and fourth phrases:
Today, unisons go by many names – chips, ins and outs, lifts, fortes – and there are many types of unisons which we will cover off in another article, so stay tuned!
There is your answer to “what is a unison”. Experiment yourself and see what interesting effects you can create. Often, you may select the unison passages based on the tune character within that part. Alternatively, based on the phrase to reflect the mood of the melody. You can also vary the unison with different degrees of shorter lengths in combination with longer lengths.
Have fun experimenting and let us know how you go in the comments below – the sky is the limit!