Icelandic two-part paralell fifth polyphonic singing

Traditional Icelandic Folk Song, Ísland, farsælda frón, performed by Voces Thules

Ísland, farsælda frón - Voces Thules

The origin of the Icelandic Tvísöngur

Why do we label this type of two-part polyphonic singing as a traditional Icelandic invention? Throughout time historians have researched where this phenomenon originated. It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the moment where and when Tvísöngur originated and who was the originator, as of course no single person invented it by themselves. There are many different stories as to where, when and how Tvísöngur came to be what it is now. These stories intertwine and make a whole but there is always something that doesn’t really add up. We are going to thread the history and take a look at how this wonderful oral practice came to be.

The origin of something called “Harmonie”, more than one voice, is said to have come from an old traditional way of playing instruments in Scandinavia. [1] There was a wide range of old norse instruments such as the lyre, tagelharpa, rebec, flute, panpipe, jaw harp, etc.

Einar Selvik, 1979, Wardruna, playing the old Viking Lyre [2]

When playing music on these instruments, there was an underlying pulse, some kind of a bass pattern. Either playing the root, another note which was the fifth above, or both, either at once or alternately. People started mimicking this pattern with their voices, slowly forming the simplest form or Tvísöngur or fifth-singing. [3] Originally this ancient type of singing was called “Organum”. [4] Historians have considered a Benedictince monk and music theorist from Flanders, Hucbald, the originator of the Organum chant singing. Organum is a melody line with one or more voices added to enrich the harmony. The second voice is not an independent line, but a replica of the melody merely transposed, usually by a perfect fourth or fifth, making two melodic lines moving note by note.

Reliable facts state that fifth-singing was practised in Northern-England and Scotland for many years, imported there by Norwegian and Danish vikings. An English historian by the name of Giraldus Cambrensis wrote about this in Descriptio Cambriae. [5] He stated that in Wales in the 12th century they used to sing polyphonic melodies, the voices were as many as the people singing; but in Northumbria there were fewer voices, two to be exact. The lower voice was hummed, whilst the upper voice was sung softly and gracefully. This way of singing seemed to be so deeply rooted that it seemed it originated in the area. But Giraldus believed that it was indeed the vikings that brought this way of singing into the country. This indicates that the simplest form of fifth-singing was deeply rooted in Scandinavian societies long before the 12th century.

Bjarni Þorsteinsson, 1861-1938. Author, priest and composer. Best known for his accumulation of Icelandic Folk songs, which he later received the title of Professor for.

According to the author of Íslenzk Þjóðlög, 1909, Bjarni Þorsteinsson, these are the reasons why we consider Tvísöngur an Icelandic tradition: “It is my conviction of the foregoing and from all that I have researched and read about the issue, that the fifth-singing originated in the Nordic countries, that it had become a tradition there during our settlement age, that the Vikings carried this way of singing with them everywhere, that our settlers brought it to Iceland, that long after it became extinct and disappeared in the Nordic countries as elsewhere, but lived a good life in Iceland century after century, that the same goes for the fifth-singing as our Nordic language, which we call Icelandic; both were common throughout the Nordic countries 1000 years ago, both transferred here with the settlers, both deformed first and then disappeared throughout the Nordic countries, but both were preserved, surprisingly little changed, in our remote motherland to this day. For that reason, we have the same right to call Tvísöngur Icelandic and our genuine property, just as we call our language, which we write and speak, Icelandic.[6]

The book Íslenzk Þjóðlög by Bjarni Þorsteinsson, 1909, contains more than 40 written out Traditional Icelandic Tvísöngur songs, a true national treasure.

Characteristics of Tvísöngur

Tvísöngur is fundamentally polyphonic two-part singing in parallel fifths distinguished by multiple voice-crossings. Polyphony is when two or more tones or independent melodic lines are played/sung simultaneously. [7] Tvísöngur literally translates to “two-song”, which is a fitting and descriptive name for the vocal practice.

The song itself in Tvísöngur or the main voice was called “Vox principalis” and the accompanying voice was called “Vox organalis”. Later on this changed to “Tenor” for the main voice and “Bassus” for the accompanying voice. These two voices cross over each other at some point in each song, meeting at the same note. The traditional way of writing Tvísöngur is that the main voice (Vox principalis/Tenor) is notated on the lower notation line and the accompanying voice (Vox organalis/Bassus) is notated on top of the main voice.

My mother said” is an Icelandic poem written by Egill Skalla-Grímsson when he was just a kid.

These songs are most often notated in the time signatures of C (4/4), ₵ (alla breve/cut time) or 3/4. They usually don’t have any key signatures, just accidentals indicating the key they’re in. They’re most commonly in the key of F lydian scale or D dorian scale.

Tvísöngur is not supposed to be played with an instrument, it’s purely a vocal practice. It is said to sound the best when it’s sung by only two voices. The tradition is to sing it slowly and calmly, with a rather strong and loud vocal approach. The ending note is always a fermata and should be sustained as long as possible for maximum effect.

The oldest known Tvísöngur to have been notated in Icelandic was in 1473 in Munkaþverá. [8] Tvísöngur was most commonly sung at home, during feasts and celebrations. Sometimes in church, it depended on if the priest was a good enough singer. Many of the most respected politicians were the best of singers and it was considered the highest honor to sing one of these songs.

“Diabolus in musica”

The oldest Icelandic Tvísöngur songs bear resemblances to the Gregorian chants, Organum, as far as intervals and keys are concerned.

Most of them are in the D dorian mode, a diatonic scale from D to D, consisting of only the white keys of the piano | 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7, 8 |

On the other hand, the Tvísöngur songs dating from the 18th and 19th century are usually written in the F lydian mode, a scale going from F to F, consisting of only the white keys of the piano | 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7, 8 |

The lydian scale is very common in Icelandic Traditional Folk music. Dr. Angul Hammerich mentioned this subject and wrote: “But this is a question that won’t be answered for now, whether this mode should be viewed as a remnant from the Middle Ages Church Modes or if we have here before us an original Icelandic (or Norwegian?) scale/mode, which belongs to the nation, and has belonged to it before it was influenced from the outside.[9]

Drakk jeg í gær”, translates to “I drank yesterday”, is a song that was commonly sung during feasts and celebratory occasions.

The Lydian scale can be considered different from the other church modes, in the way that it has three whole tone intervals in the beginning. Thus forming an augmented fourth from the root, not a perfect fourth like the common ear seems to anticipate.

This was called “Diabolus in musica” [10] in medieval times. This interval was avoided like the devil in the Western world. In Iceland, the lydian mode had a safe haven. Icelanders weren’t afraid of this dissonant interval, they didn’t find it unpleasant or difficult to sing. This interval falls quite naturally into the songs of Tvísöngur. It wasn’t until about 1850 when this changed. Who knows why, maybe it changed with more knowledge and access to theory books or with a more modern approach to Western music.

Tvísöngur in modern Iceland

In modern Icelandic society, Tvísöngur is more commonly known as Fimmundarsöngur, which translates to “song of fifths”. This is very similar to the original word, “kvintsöngur” which means “quint-song”. History really does repeat itself. The most commonly known Fimmundarsöngur song nowadays is Krummi Svaf í Klettagjá.

Krummavísur - Voces Thules

Tvísöngur has never been taught with sheet music through the ages, always memorised and passed on through generations. Therefore it had developed and changed through the years. In the olden days there wasn’t a big range of sheet music and music notation papers for Icelandic people to choose from, so they had to make due with memorising and passing on to family members and nomads who wandered around the country.

Tvísöngur is a sound sculpture made by German artist, Lukas Kühne. It’s located in the quiet mountainside above the town Seyðirfjörður, east of Iceland. It was opened to the public in 2012.

The soundsculptures consist of five integrated domes of different sizes made from concrete. The height of the domes is between 2-4 meters and the area covers just over 30 m2. Each dome has its own frequency that corresponds to one tone in the Tvísöngur/Fimmundarsöngur and acts as a natural amplifier for that tone. A duet thus acts as a natural setting for the Icelandic duet tradition and is both a visual and an audio version of it. [11]

This sculpture is a celebration of the traditional Icelandic Folk music and the Tvísöngur that many thought might have been forgotten by this time. This is a testament of how deeply rooted this oral practice is in the Icelandic culture and how widespread it has become.


  1. H. Panum & W. Behrend. Illustreret Musikhistorie. 1905, p. 42-43, 867. ↩︎

  2. ↩︎

  3. Bjarni Þorsteinsson, Íslenzk Þjóðlög, 1909, p. 764-775. ↩︎

  4. Organum, weblink: ↩︎

  5. Giraldus Cambrensis. Descriptio Cambriae. 1194, lib. I cap. XIII. ↩︎

  6. Bjarni Þorsteinsson, Íslenzk Þjóðlög, 1909, p. 764-775. ↩︎

  7. Polyphony definition, weblink: ↩︎

  8. Tvísöngur, weblink: ↩︎

  9. Dr. Angul Hammerich. Studier Over Islandsk Musik. 1900, p. 9 ↩︎

  10. Dr. Angul Hammerich. Studier Over Islandsk Musik. 1900, p. 11 ↩︎

  11. Tvísöngur soundsculpture, weblink: ↩︎