«On Thin And On Fat»

Two-part Singing and Playing in the Istrian Scale

By Croatian National Tourist Board

Shore of PulaCroatian National Tourist Board

In Istria

Two-part singing and playing of music in the Istrian scale is the rather long name of a culturally unique form of folk music found only in a region of Croatia and neighboring countries on the Istrian peninsula.

Istrian traditionCroatian National Tourist Board

Within Croatia, the traditional music form is concentrated in Istria—the northwestern triangle of the country surrounded on two sides by the Adriatic Sea—and within the Croatian littoral—the portion of the mainland closest to the Istrian peninsula. In these regions, the music is performed at special events both public and private, folk festivals and religious services, and informally in taverns and at social gatherings.

Sopile or roženiceCroatian National Tourist Board

The singing and playing is distinguished by the intentionally nasal tone of the singers, their two-voice singing in different keys, and the unusual—and unusual-sounding—wind instruments that accompany the singers. The music is played in the Istrian scale, a six-tone musical scale closely identified with the region.


The sound of sopile

Sopila playingCroatian National Tourist Board

Occasionally, one singer, instead of singing lyrics, may sing or hum a series of syllables — always in the same melody — that mimic the sound of musical instruments. A fixed rule of the singing style is that no matter the lyrics or the keys, the singers always end the song in unison, either in the same key or just an octave apart from one another.

What is two-part singing and playing in the Istrian scale?

Two-part singing and playing in the Istrian scale has a distinct sound created by the combination of voices and instruments. It’s traditionally performed by two singers, each singing the same lyrics or melody but in different keys—one high and one lower on the scale.

SopilaCroatian National Tourist Board

Sopile or roženice

The singers are accompanied by musicians playing traditional woodwind instruments, most often two sopile (also called roženice), which are long wooden horns similar to oboes.

Two players playing sopileCroatian National Tourist Board

A larger sopile, referred to as the “male” and of lower pitch, is accompanied by a smaller, “female” sopile. Other instruments may include a flute, a smaller, higher-pitched fife, and bagpipes made from animal skins. Tambura string instruments may also form part of the ensemble.

Istrian Scale Playing

"Ode to Joy" by Beethoven, performed in Istrian scale

Two sopila players from the distanceCroatian National Tourist Board

Two-part singing and playing in the Istrian scale has distinct characteristics, including its use of non-tempered tonal intervals.

Sopile closeupCroatian National Tourist Board

Non-tempered tonal intervals are central to the Istrian scale as is one or both singers intentionally “nose singing” to further restrict their tone. The result is the odd, somewhat off-key sound characteristic of two-part singing and playing in the Istrian scale.

Two sopila players from the distanceCroatian National Tourist Board

Much of Western music has tempered intervals—essentially meaning that instruments or voices have the same tonality, which is why they sound "in tune".

A girl looking a boy playCroatian National Tourist Board

Two-part Singing and Playing in the Istrian Scale in History

The Istrian scale was first identified in the early 20th century by Istrian composer Ivan Matetić Ronjgov, who documented the unique scale of the regional folk music he grew up with and went on to compose more than 100 songs using the scale and form.

A couple singingCroatian National Tourist Board

Regionally, two-part singing is called na tanko i na debelo, which translates to “on thin and on fat” — referencing the two distinct keys of the voices and instruments.

A couple in traditional clothes singingCroatian National Tourist Board

Based on its tradition, uniqueness and increasing rarity, two-part singing and playing in the Istrian scale was added in 2009 to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Man playing an instrument while woman watches and laughsCroatian National Tourist Board

There are variations of the musical form within Istria and the Croatian littoral, but the nasal off-key sound is consistent throughout. Singers may be male or female or mixed groups, and they are often accompanied by dancers who perform a type of circular step-dancing in couples.

A man in a folk costumeCroatian National Tourist Board

Today, two-part singing and playing in the Istrian scale is practiced and preserved by roughly 100 or so musicians, singers and instrument artisans, who learned the art from their predecessors and impart the tradition to folklore groups across the region.

Ethnographic Museum

The Ethnographic Museum of Istria in Pazin, together with the nearby Centre for the Intangible Heritage of Istria, is an important center for the preservation and proliferation of this traditional folk music form.

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