Georgia has a wonderful and highly distinctive tradition of polyphonic singing that is at least 2000 years old, maybe 3000, predating Christianity which arrived in Georgia in 326 AD. It is a polyphonic tradition, which means that the voices sing in multi-part, usually unaccompanied, harmony.
Nearly all the songs are sung in 3 parts: top, middle and bass. The middle part holds the melody, the bass supports it harmonically often with little melodic change, and the top is more florid with ornamentation. In Christian tradition these voices are taken to represent the Trinity, with the three voices making an indivisible whole. Traditionally the top two parts are sung by soloists, while the bottom part is sung by a group. However, now that many choirs exist, there is a tendency for all three parts to be sung by groups without any additional ad-lib ornamentation in the top part. Many songs start with a solo introduction from which the other voices pitch themselves - this is usually sung by the middle part.
Georgia is one of the few places where the ancient Pythagorean scale and system of tuning has survived, and the 'well-tempered' Western tuning has had minimal influence, thus making the harmonies sound unusual and distinctive to Western ears but giving them a passionate intensity. Therefore modulations are rare in Georgian songs except in church music; this produces a rich sonorous flow of sound stabbed from time to time by startling disharmonies, often repeated, before returning to the smooth flow. Parallel firsts, fifths and octaves, long 'banned' in the West, still predominate in Georgia; minor and major thirds are both considered dissonant, hence the frequent use of non-resolving fourths and sevenths. However in recent years many songs have been adapted to classical scales using major or minor as considered appropriate. This is how they are sung in the West, although older singers in Georgia still use the original scale and it is being preserved and revived by many singers today.
Polyphony and harmony are both supposed to have existed in Georgia when both Orient and Occident were still monadic. It's easy to see the roots of polyphony in Georgian choral song, in which a single melody was supported by an organ-point or plain chant, to keep the lead singer in pitch; in Georgia the plain chant is usually sung by the middle or tenor part. This very strong drone may have evolved for the church acoustic. The 11th-century scholar loanne Petritsi explained the nature of the Trinity in terms of the harmonic and melodic functions of the three voices - the mzehekri or top, zhiri or tenor, and bami or bass. Georgian singing includes both sacred and secular songs. There are songs for all social occasions: weddings, funerals, horse-riding, war, working in the fields, table songs, including toasts, love songs, church songs etc. Songs are mostly in the form of a strophic rondo, with or without a refrain, with syllabic setting as a rule. Rhythmically, there's often a swift alternation of 3/4 and 6/8 in the same phrase, accounting for the 'bouncy' nature of Georgian secular song.
There are many types of dance songs: in the Perkhuli or round-dances everyone sings (in harmony) and dances in a circle with simple steps; in other dances individuals go into the centre of the circle to display their skills while the others continue the song. A particular tradition is the Georgian feast or supra, when songs are sung to accompany toasts made during the meal. It was this ritual that kept songs alive during the Communist period; sacred and secular songs were intermingled so that church songs, which were especially suppressed, could be disguised as folk songs. Traditionally men and women sing separately and have their own repertoire. The men's is considerably more extensive and includes the types described above as well as the sacred repertoire. Women's songs comprise lullabies for children and also healing songs in which the spirits thought to cause illness are very politely asked to leave the child's body.
There are considerable regional variations in Georgian singing, based on cultural and religious differences. The pre-Christian traditions have survived longest in the high Caucasus regions including Svaneti, Khevsureti and Mtiuleti and many songs from here are extremely ancient. Songs from Kakheti in the east are characterized by long table songs sung at supras (Georgian table feasts) in which one or two soloists sing highly ornamented parts over a drone bass sung on a single note with occasional changes to allow for harmonization. The most complex polyphony is to be found in the western regions, where Byzantine influence was strongest. The most difficult of all is found in Guria, where the composer Honneger was defeated trying to notate a seven-part song; every voice is given a special degree of freedom, with even the bass improvising freely and taking solos. Naduri songs (from nadi, voluntary co operative labour for harvesting or house-building) are unique to Guria, with two choruses of four voices alternating; the top voice or gamktvani simply indulges in wordless cries, the tenor or damtskebi carries the poetic text, the third voice or shemkmobari carries the organ point, and the bass or bani sings a wordless melodic counterpoint to the tenor and in addition many songs from here include a high-voiced yodeling part known as "krimanchuli". This is also found in the less developed form in the neighboring regions of Ajara to the south and Samegrelo to the north. Mingrelia is the only place where you may find mixed choruses of men and women. Songs from this region are especially noted for their melodious quality and are sung in the native Mingrelian language which is quite different from Georgian, as is the language of Svaneti in the High Caucasus. Svaneti has kept alive a primeval and ethereal style of three-part singing, with pentatonic harmonies (unlike the rest of Georgia ). This is often accompanied by the changi, the Svan harp, which looks as if it has come straight from a Greek vase, or the lute-like chianuri. Svaneti is also rich in round-dances, which gradually accelerate, and in female mourning songs.
Church music, which shows a direct line of descent from Byzantium , is slower and softer than secular music with harmonies and melodic patterns more interwoven, and a static rhythm. The neumas (musical notation) was gradually lost from the 17th century, and only deciphered in the mid-20th century, although local styles were passed down verbally. The Karbelashvili family contributed a lot performing research work in collecting and developing Georgian church & liturgical music. At weddings a hymn to the Virgin by King Demetre I (1125-56), “You are the Vine” (Shen Khar Venakhi) is still sung. For several days before Easter singers of songs known as chona (from the word for the skin masks they wear) go around villages; similarly on Christmas Eve (January 5) carols are sung around the village.
Church songs reached their peak of development in the 12th-13th century around the time of Queen Tamar, the Golden Age of Georgia, and there are many different settings of the important liturgical texts corresponding to the styles of the different regions of Georgia .
Despite the predominance of songs, instruments are also part of the Georgian tradition; the oldest yet found is a 3,000-year-old bone shawm (salamuri) from near Mtskheta. Nowadays you may come across the clarinet- like duduki and the oboe-like zurna (both Armenian in origin), the sazandari (like the Austrian Waldhorn), the chonguri (a four-stringed lute), the phanduri (a smaller three-stringed instrument), and the daira or tambourine. Racha is famous for the gudastviri, a sort of double-barreled bagpipe.
There's also a kind of modern folk music, known as 'urban music', which has developed in the recent hundred years and can now be heard in every car and bar of Georgia. It has catchy tunes and sentimental lyrics, sung in simple harmony to guitar accompaniment. The most famous of these songs is Suliko, which was Stalin's favourite.
In the communist period, the Rustavi Choir was the best-known professional ensembles of Georgia and produced some fine recordings, now on CD, which serve as a good introduction to Georgian song. Similarly the Tsinandali Choir produced an enjoyable collection, Table Songs of Georgia, in fact all from Kakheti.
Georgian singing is probably the oldest and best developed tradition of this type in the world, and was recently recommended for declaration as "Intangible World Heritage" by UNESCO.
In the field of classical music, the great bass Paata Burchuladze is Georgia 's main claim to fame; he's very much in the Western operatic tradition rather than the Russian, and is in great demand worldwide. Less well known are the conductors Jansugh Kakhidze and Evgeni Mikeladze, and the pianist Eliso Virsaladze. The Tbilisi opera house is named after the composer Zakaria Paliashvili, who established classical music in Georgia in the 19th century. It may be interesting to know that Stravinsky based Les Noces on Georgian harmonic and melodic patterns. Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859-1935), a student of Rimsky-Korsakov, was conductor of the Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra for a decade, and his Caucasian Sketches (1895) are based on Georgian folk tunes.