Singing practises have changed hugely over the years, and The Night Watch presents each style: from the single line singing (monophony) of the middle ages and of broadside ballads which flourished in the 17th century; to independent parts being sung or played simultaneously (polyphony), which developed in the mediaeval church and flourished in renaissance madrigals; to the mediaeval, renaissance and baroque practise of everyone singing the same, but starting at different times to create harmonies and cross-rhythms (rounds).
There would have been great regional variety of singing styles in the middle ages and the renaissance, with people singing in 'their own' voices, accent and all, as folk singers do today and always have done. The classical voice hadn't been created yet (and wouldn’t have been of much interest to your average peasant, anyway), and neither had the penchant for trying to sound American, even if you do come from Wolverhampton. Many songs would have been passed on by word of mouth – the ‘folk process’ – from family, friends, or the local tavern; or, from the early 16th century onwards, learned from broadside ballads.
Broadside ballads were extremely popular across western Europe. They were essentially printed folk music, sold in the street by a ballad-monger who would sing his or her wares to get sales. Some of them were printed versions of traditional songs, but most were by anonymous writers who would take a well-known tune and write new words for it, according to the latest news, scandals, hangings, or simply whimsical amusement. (The tune was indicated on the sheet, but the music itself was not printed.) Many of these, in their turn, became widespread traditional folk songs.
In 1556, the English government required that printers be licensed by the Stationers' Company, London. The following year they required the legal registration of printed ballads at four pence each. This practice continued until 1709, and during this period the Stationers' Company registered over three thousand ballad entries.
The renaissance also saw the invention of the printing press and the rise of printed song books by John Dowland, Thomas Campion, Thomas Ravenscroft and others. They were hugely popular. John Dowland’s First Booke of Songs, for example, first printed in 1597, went into five editions, previously unknown for a song book. They were intended for household use by the mass of non-professional singers and musicians for their own private entertainment. Dowland’s books included parts for four voices (though they could also be sung by one voice) and accompanying lute tablature. This became a popular practice followed by others until this very day. Look in any sheet music shop, see the book of The Beatles Complete “with guitar tablature”, and give a thankful nod to Mr. Dowland.
2 voices singing Grene Growith The Holy with gittern, 16th century, attributed to King Henry VIII of England