Folk Music, the music with which the people of a nation or an ethnic group most specifically identify themselves. It consists of song or pieces taught through performance rather than notation (written musical notes), and learned by hearing. The original composers of folk music are anonymous or forgotten. A folk song does not have a standardized form. Instead, its words as well as its music exist in more than one and sometimes a great many variants, or in slightly different versions. Folk music is most commonly the music of the socially and economically lower classes and of rural populations. Although many folk musicians are accomplished artists who have fine technique and mastery of many pieces, folk music is generally simpler and more compact in style than classical, or art, music. Folk music exists in many different forms and under a variety of social and cultural conditions. Folk music—or some music that conforms to the definition just given—is found in most of the world's societies. The characterization given in this article applies best to the musical cultures of Western nations. Even so, the variety of folk music is so great that the statements made here can only outline characteristics rather than define the features of folk music.
II. Relation to the Community
Traditionally, folk performers have been amateurs within rural communities rather than professionally trained musicians, and their music is closely associated with everyday activities such as ritual, work, and child rearing. Different than the music of tribal societies, folk music is the music of small towns or villages, the music of people without a higher education in societies that have a more educated class. This economically and politically elite layer of society maintains the so-called classical or art music culture. Because folk music includes such great variety, the definition given here most accurately characterizes folk music of the 19th and early 20th centuries in Western Europe.
Although folk music has existed for centuries, it emerged as a distinctly defined form of music only in the 19th century. At this time European ethnic groups such as Germans and Italians began to unify the dozens of principalities in which they were living into the nation-states that became the countries of Europe. At the same time, downtrodden minorities in European empires, including Czechs, Romanians, and Finns, began to agitate for political and cultural independence. Nations on the outskirts of Europe such as Norway, Spain, and Hungary began to develop individual musical identities. In the context of these political and cultural developments, folk music emerged as an expression of national identity in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century in Europe.
The different words for folk music in various European languages illustrate the differences in attitudes toward folk music. The German word Volk, as in Volksmusik (folk music) or Volkslied (folk song), describes music that the German people have in common. The term for folk music used in Czech, národní písni (national songs), derives from Narod (nation) and thus emphasizes the importance of these songs not only to the Czech people's ethnic, or national, identity but also to their struggles for national liberation. The English word folk implies the rural origins of the music. The French term musique populaire associates the music with the common people as opposed to a particular group.
In one sense it is ironic that folk music should have played a part in establishing national identity. Unlike art music that is written down, a folk song is passed from singer to singer and tends to undergo change. Variants arise from creative impulses, faulty memory, the artistic values of those who learn and teach the song, and the influence of other styles of music known to the singers. A folk song sometimes changes beyond recognition and exists in many forms. New words may be attached or adapted to a different set of lyrics. Because many people participate in the shaping of a folk song, this process is called communal re-creation. Folk music also changes because it is affected by the art music of nearby cultural centers (for example, cities, courts of the nobility, and monasteries). In fact, it frequently functions as a kind of cultural backwater that retains characteristics of art music which has lost its popularity. However, folk music can also be used to resist change. Folk music flourishes among immigrants (such as Hungarian Americans or Swedish Americans), for example, who often maintain songs and pieces in particularly archaic variants as a way of preserving ties to their original homeland.
The characteristics of folk music, popular music, and classical music often overlap, and the boundaries between these categories can become blurred. For one thing, the folk culture sometimes adapts songs from classical and popular music. For another, popular music, even though it develops in urban cultures and is transmitted through the mass media, bears some characteristics of folk music. Folk music varies so greatly in its composition and transmission that it sometimes takes on traits of the other two categories. For example, folk cultures often do develop musical specialists, particularly instrumentalists and singers. Moreover, the words of folk songs may be passed on through written tradition as well as being transmitted orally. Folk music is not necessarily more functional than other kinds of music; it is as much a form of entertainment as it is a functional art form. In contrast, art music was first conceived as accompaniment to religious and courtly ritual rather than for the sake of art alone.
Although something like folk music exists in many cultures that also possess a learned musical tradition, including those of India, China, and the Middle East, its place in society and in relation to other kinds of music varies. Traditional Indian culture drew a sharper line between classical and folk genres than did Western cultures. In the Middle East, classically trained musicians are likely to perform both classical and folk music. In Iran, the word for folk music translates as "regional music." Iranians recognize each region's style of music as distinct, and the country's folk musicians often specialize in one genre or type of music.
III. Musical Structure
Although the folk musics of European cultures are extremely diverse, they share some general characteristics. The music is relatively simple, usually consisting of songs with a strophic form—that is, the music repeats in short stanzas with different words. The most common stanza type has four lines, sometimes with different words (abcd), but more frequently with some repetition (aaba, abba, and so on). The use of antiphony, or alternation between a leader and a chorus, each singing one line or stanza, is common throughout Europe. Much instrumental folk music presents successions of lines in which each line is repeated or varied once (aabbccdd or aa'bb', and so on). Epic songs that tell a complex story may repeat a single musical line many times. The ways of relating musical materials are often sophisticated. For example, in a typical Hungarian form, the second half repeats the first a fifth lower (a5a5aa). This technique of transposition (repeating a line at different pitch levels) is widespread in Eastern Europe.
The melodic material of European folk music is closely related to that of art music. Seven-tone scales, sometimes using tonalities and modes like those of medieval church music, were widely adopted. The Dorian and Mixolydian modes are common in English folk songs, and the Phrygian is common in Spanish folk songs. Especially common throughout Europe are pentatonic scales—scales with five tones. Simpler scales with three or four tones are found in children's ditties, counting-out rhymes, and songs of pre-Christian rituals.
Rhythm in folk songs is sometimes related to the metric structure of poetry. English folk song texts frequently use lines of four iambic feet, and the accompanying melodies are often set in one of three rhythmic patterns:
In Eastern Europe, complex rhythms such as 2+2+2+3 beats, as well as measures of 5, 7, 11, and 13 beats, may be found, particularly in the Balkan countries. Instrumental folk music tends to be rhythmically repetitive, a characteristic that may also be found in Western Europe, where complex structures are used. An example is the irregular alternation of four and three beats in Bavarian dances.
Most folk music is monophonic—that is, it consists of a single, unaccompanied melody. Instrumental accompaniment may provide simple chords or a drone (a single note or chord repeated under a melody). Polyphonic singing, with two or three voices pursuing independent melodies, is particularly prevalent in Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, and the Balkans and other Eastern European countries. Most frequently, singers relate their voices to one another by singing the same tune at different intervals or pitch levels—in thirds or sixths (Germany, Italy, Spain, the Western Slavic countries), fourths or fifths (Russia, Ukraine), or seconds (the Balkans). Drones (Italy), rounds or canons (universal), and more complex relationships (Russia, the Balkans) are also used. Polyphonic folk music is rare in Asia. In some countries such as Iran and Afghanistan, however, polyphony is more common in folk music than in classical music.
Folk and art music contrast strikingly in their use of the voice and the tone color of instruments. The trained opera singer's bel canto, or virtuousity of vocal technique, is rarely used. Each culture or area has developed a characteristic vocal sound that it favors. Folk music in areas of Spain, Italy, and the Balkans uses a tense, nasal sound and highly ornamented melodies. In Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Russia, a more open-throated, clear sound and unembellished melodies are preferred. A mixed style lying between the two occurs in industrialized areas, including parts of Britain, and in France. In American folk music, singing style is the primary element that distinguishes among eastern, western, southern, and African American traditions. The singing styles that reflect cultural identity have an instrumental parallel in the playing style of folk fiddlers who give each note a fresh stroke of the bow, in contrast to the concert violinist's vibrato or slurred method of bowing.
IV. The Songs
The style traits described above characterize regions and countries. Most folk tunes themselves, while spreading as variants, remain in their homelands. Occasionally, however, they pass from one country to another, their style changing in the process. For example, singers may perform a song solo in one country, but in a chorus in another. A tune may use a pentatonic (five-tone) scale in one country and a diatonic major scale (scale with no sharps or flats) in another. Indeed, very similar tunes are found in nations as far apart as Spain and Hungary, the variations reflecting the local style of each country. This relationship of similar tunes in distant communities is difficult to trace. The similarities may be the result of the tunes migrating from region to region, or they may occur simply because musicians composing folk music are bound to produce similar tunes sometimes.
Within a single country, however, it is often possible to identify those tunes that appear to be related. They all seem to have come from a single parent tune passed on by oral tradition in community get-togethers. A group of such related tunes is called a tune family. Comparisons of folk song variations can reveal how a tune family may have developed. Tunes may be shortened, for example. When the four-line "Pretty Mohea" of Anglo-American tradition became "On Top of Old Smoky," it seems to have lost its first two lines. A shortened version may then have new lines added. Or, in the interior of a musical line, the second of two contrasting bits of melody may be forgotten and replaced by a repetition of the first. A tune may also borrow a line from a completely unrelated family. For example, in Czech folk songs, which often use the form aaba, the line b may move to other tunes as an independent unit.
The number of tune families in a given body of folk music ranges widely. Hungarian folk music seems to have hundreds. In Iran, however, each genre of text, such as songs about heroic warlords, seems to be associated with one type of melody and thus the total number of families is very small. American scholar Samuel Bayard has claimed that some 40 or 50 families dominate Anglo-American folk music, and that 7 of these families account for the vast majority of songs.
A ballad, with an established story, may be sung consistently with one tune and its variants. Typically, however, it will also be sung to other, unrelated tunes from several families. Because these texts, such as ballad stories, disperse broadly, they are held in common by a number of countries in Europe and the Americas. The same dispersal is true of members of a tune family—they are sung with a variety of texts. However, texts and tunes do not usually move together. For example, the text to the ballad "Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight," common in English folk music, is found all over Europe, but in each country it is sung to a distinct group of tunes.
The large number of tunes in a typical folk music repertory is the basis for various systems of tune classification. Because oral tradition is so unpredictable, however, what remains constant when a tune changes differs markedly from culture to culture. In English folk song, for example, contour (the general outline of melodic movement) remains constant, whereas in Hungarian folk music, the consistent elements are the rhythm and the configuration of final notes of the several (usually four) phrases. Because of such differences, there is no satisfactory way to classify all the tunes that are related members of one family.
V. Types of Songs
There are many types of folk songs, including ballads, epics, folk theater tunes, songs that address important occasions, work songs, love songs, children's songs, and religious songs. Each of these types has a specific purpose.
Ballads are songs that use a set of stanzas to tell stories involving one main incident. "Barbara Allen" and "Lord Randall," both sung in countless variants, are two of the best-known ballads in the English-speaking world. American scholar Francis James Child collected, classified, and numbered (because variants have no standard titles) these and more than 300 other English and Scottish ballads. These songs are known as Child ballads, after their collector: "Barbara Allen" is Child 78, "Lord Randall" is Child 12, and so on. Child ballads constitute an especially large proportion of the body of folk songs in the Appalachian Mountain region of the East Coast of the United States. Sung mostly to old tunes that are frequently pentatonic, they show little influence from art or popular music. Modern ballads from these regions, often circulated in printed form on large sheets called broadsides and then passed on orally, frequently use tunes in major or minor keys. They are often sung with instrumental accompaniment and are closer to popular song and modern Protestant hymn styles. Their texts concern unhappy love, murders, events of war, and tragedies such as railroad wrecks. In contrast to the Child ballads, broadside ballads are specific and consistent in giving names, places, and dates. At one time they served as a way of spreading news. Although English ballads are best known in North America, the ballad as a type is found in all Western cultures.
Another type of narrative folk song is the epic, a drawn-out account focusing on the adventures of a hero. Found mainly in the Balkans, Russia, Finland, and the Middle East, epics are usually organized in lines or couplets rather than in stanzas. Best known are the Serbian epics telling about conflict between Christians and Muslims from the 1200s to the 1600s. Many of these epics take several hours to be told, and singers partially improvise with the use of melodic formulas (preset musical patterns). In Iran, epics concern Persian kings before the Islamic conquest of Iran and the deeds of the early leaders of Islam.
Folk theater can be found throughout Asia and in parts of Europe. Similar to medieval mystery plays, this form of theater is exemplified by narrations of the Christmas story. In folk theater, the style of the music is typically simple, involving repetitive melodies with short formulas and few tones.
A large group of folk songs may be called calendric—that is, they accompany rituals that mark major events in life or in the year's cycles. Included are songs sung at weddings, funerals, births, and the onset of puberty. In the West some calendric songs mark annual events that date from pre-Christian times, such as those celebrating summer and winter solstice, planting, and harvest. Others celebrate Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Many calendric songs are extremely old, using short forms and restricted scales, and they are often associated with instruments such as rattles, one-tone wooden trumpets, and flutes without finger holes.
Another category of folk music involves songs for crises such as war and illness. Although songs of this kind were probably common at one time, they are rare now.
Many work songs exist in Western cultures, especially in the folk music of African cultures in the Americas. People sing some work songs as rhythmic accompaniment to repetitive labor. Songs with texts that concern agricultural activities and other kinds of work can build the solidarity of the working group. Within this category are sea chanteys, cowboy songs, and railroad songs, many of them ballads.
Additional types of folk songs include love songs, marching songs (once sung by soldiers on long marches), and songs of general entertainment. In the Balkans, for example, young people entertain themselves with songs while taking walks on holidays. Children's songs include lullabies, game songs, counting-out rhymes, and nursery rhyme songs. Another type is religious folk songs, which are generally hymns sung in rural churches.
Some folk songs have no words, only a tune. The main purpose of this instrumental folk music is to accompany dance and marching. Occasionally dancing is accompanied by singing. In Scandinavia, narrative ballads were once used for dancing.
Each folk culture has a large number of instruments. Some, such as bagpipes, are found over wide areas. Others, such as the Sardinian launeddas, a set of three reed pipes played by one musician, are used in limited areas. Most folk cultures throughout the world have several basic instruments in common. Because folk instruments have been a part of human society for so long, it is difficult to know if they developed in one place and then spread, or if they developed separately in many cultures. These instruments include rattles, simple flutes, wooden trumpets, Jew's harps, and drums. Such instruments have long been used as part of rituals and by children as toys. Some instruments migrated from one culture to another. An example is the hammered dulcimer, which probably originated in Iran and is now found in Western Europe as well as in Hungary (where it is known as the cimbalom). Other instruments are particular to one culture, such as fiddles made from wooden shoes in Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands. Many instruments were originally developed in urban cultures—including the clarinet, double bass, and accordion—and were adopted for folk music without much change. Other instruments originated in art music but later were used primarily by folk musicians. Examples include guitars, mandolins, dulcimers, and the hurdy-gurdy.
Many folk music instruments are played solo, but ensembles are also found. In general, folk ensembles resemble chamber music ensembles rather than orchestras in that no two instruments play precisely the same part. They include nonprofessional versions of art music ensembles, such as brass bands and Scandinavian groups of fiddles. Particularly common in central Europe is a combination of two violins with double bass. Many other groups combine one melody-producing instrument with drums and other percussion. In folk music of southern Asia and the Middle East, ensembles of drums and wind instruments—particularly oboes—appear. In some instances one person plays two instruments, as in the pipe-and-tabor (flute-and-drum) combination of Western Europe and South America and the violin and mouth organ in Hungary.
VII. Folk Music in the Modern World
The picture presented thus far applies best to folk music as it has existed in past centuries and in the 20th century in a few isolated valleys and village cultures. However, most folk cultures changed greatly during the 20th century, especially after 1950. First via the introduction of print, then radio and phonograph records, later through television, and finally the Internet and other electronic forms of communication, many small towns and villages have acquired access to the same cultural materials and styles once available only in cities. The musical life and ideals of rural folk today are almost identical with those of urban people. To the extent that it still exists as a separate category of music, folk music has become a phenomenon of urban music. The concepts of ethnicity and regionality once intimately associated with folk music have changed, as almost all people have access to the sounds of folk music from many nations. Today, almost everyone can hear almost any kind of music.
While this availability makes the typical musical experience of each person potentially more varied, it also forces a kind of sameness on the world's musical culture. The modification of many folk instruments to make them compatible with modern concert formats and electronic equipment also reduces cultural differences. The combination of musical styles from various parts of the world with European-based instruments, harmonies, and song forms in the world music or worldbeat movements has modified greatly the concept of folk music.
These developments of the late 20th century had antecedents in the early part of the century. Members of folk communities from rural Eastern Europe and small-town Appalachia, for example, moved to cities and continued their traditions in changed form. European ethnic groups now living in American cities keep up their traditions at festivals and parties to preserve their ethnic integrity by singing songs that once accompanied farm labor.
A series of folk music revivals beginning in the 1930s brought the performance of traditional folk songs—and of new songs composed in imitation of folk music—to the middle classes of American and Western European cities, as well as to university campuses.
Dissenting social and political movements, largely of the left (in North America) but also of the radical right (in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy), made use of folk music as a rallying cry at various times in the 20th century. In the United States, the liberal movements of the 1940s, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the movement against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s produced songs that used folk melodies and imitated the styles of folk songs. Performers also used folk music to publicize environmental conservation efforts, as when American singer Judy Collins recorded a whaling ballad against the background sounds of whales. Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan are among the best-known of the folk singers produced by these movements. European liberation movements in Northern Ireland, among the Basques of northern Spain, and among various ethnic groups from central and eastern Europe have also produced major folk song performers. The Irish group called the Chieftains is an example from the 1980s.
The use of folk music for political purposes was particularly prominent in Eastern Europe and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Soon after World War II (1939-1945), governments in these areas founded special schools to train folk musicians who would then work as concert artists. Musicians also modified folk instruments in imitation of the families of instruments in art music. Thus in Russia sets of soprano, alto, cello-like tenor, and double-bass balalaikas and domras (plucked instrument similar to mandolins) were developed, and folk orchestras imitating symphony orchestras represented both Russian nationalism and Communist populism. After 1950, Eastern European nations raised money to support their folk traditions through festivals and competitions. In Slovakia, for example, many villages created folk ensembles that practice and perform songs and dances used at weddings, to accompany work, or in festivals. Some folk musicians enter national and international competitions. In the 1990s the female choir of the Bulgarian State Radio, using folk-derived vocal techniques, gave a world-famous concert tour that influenced composers and popular music performers throughout the world.
The scholarly and analytical study of folk music became thoroughly established in Europe and the Americas beginning in the 1960s. This growing field of the study of music cultures is called ethnomusicology. It is not only the study of folk music that has crossed cultures, however. Tourism has had a major impact on folk music culture in almost all parts of Europe, encouraging the continued maintenance of traditions while at the same time causing them to be modified to meet entertainment expectations of international tourists.
The borders separating folk music from other kinds of music have become less significant, and many people have mourned the loss of distinctions in world musical culture. Fear that folk music would disappear was already being expressed in the early 19th century when collectors first began to comb the European countryside for relics of the people's ancient music. Folk music has continued to change in style, method of transmission, and social context; however, as a worldwide phenomenon it shows no sign of disappearing.