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Traditional music
Stylistic origins Traditional music
Cultural origins Individual nations or regions
Typical instruments See Folk instruments
Mainstream popularity Highly popular until recently
Derivative forms Popular music • Contemporary music

(complete list)
Fusion genres
Electric folk • Folk metal • Folk rock • New Age music • Neofolk • Space music
Other topics
Roots revival

Traditional music is the term now used in the terminology of Grammy Awards for what used to be called "folk music". Full details of this change can be found in the terminology section of the World music article. Other organizations have made similar changes, though in non-academic circles, and on many CD sales websites, the phrase "folk music" is used in a very all-encompassing way.


Defining characteristics

From a historical perspective, traditional music had these characteristics:

Before the twentieth century, ordinary farm workers and factory workers were illiterate. They acquired songs by memorising them. Primarily, it is not mediated by books, recorded or transmitted media. Singers may extend their repertoire using broadsheets, song books or CDs, but these secondary enhancements are of the same character as the primary songs experienced in the flesh.

  • The music was often related to national culture.

It was culturally particular - from a particular region or culture. In the context of an immigrant group, folk music acquires an extra dimension for social cohesion. It is particularly conspicuous in the United States, where Polish-Americans, Irish-Americans and Asian-Americans strive to emphasise differences from the mainstream. They will learn songs and dances that originate in the countries where their grandparents came from.

  • They commemorate historical and personal events.

On certain days of the year, such as Easter, May Day and Christmas hoe, particular songs celebrate the yearly cycle. Weddings, birthdays and funerals may also be noted with songs, dances and special costumes. Religious festivals often have a folk music component. Choral music at these events brings children and non-professional singers to participate in a public arena, giving an emotional bonding that is unrelated to the aethetic qualities of the music.

As a side-effect, the following characteristics are sometimes present:

  • Lack of copyright on songs

There are hundreds of songs from the nineteenth century have known authors. However, they have continued in oral tradition, to the point where they are classified as "Traditional", for purposes of music publishing. This has become much less frequent since the 1970s. Today, almost every folk song that is recorded is credited with an arrangement e.g. "Trad arr Dylan".

  • Fusion of cultures

In the same way that people can have a mixed background, with parents originating in different continents, so too music can be a blend of influences. A particular rhythmic pattern, or a characteristic instrument, is enough to give a traditional feel to music, even when it has been composed recently. It is easy to recognise the presence of a bagpipe or a tabla in a piece of music. The young are usually much less offended by the dilution or adaptation of songs this way. Equally an electric guitar can be added to an old song. It is a matter of personal taste as to whether this is an enhancement to the music, or a cheap gimmick. The relevant factors may include instrumentation, tunings, voicings, phrasing, subject matter, and even production methods.

  • Non-commercial

Celebrations of cultural identity are occasionally performed without any profit motive. The absence of financial reward for the organiser was much more common in the past.

Subjects of traditional music

Armenian traditional musicians

Apart from instrumental music that forms a part of traditional music, especially dance music traditions, much traditional music is vocal music, since the instrument that makes such music is usually handy. As such, most traditional music has meaningful lyrics.

Narrative verse looms large in the traditional music of many cultures. This encompasses such forms as traditional epic poetry, much of which was meant originally for oral performance, sometimes accompanied by instruments. Many epic poems of various cultures were pieced together from shorter pieces of traditional narrative verse, which explains their episodic structure and often their in medias res plot developments. Other forms of traditional narrative verse relate the outcomes of battles and other tragedies or natural disasters. Sometimes, as in the triumphant Song of Deborah found in the Biblical Book of Judges, these songs celebrate victory. Laments for lost battles and wars, and the lives lost in them, are equally prominent in many traditions; these laments keep alive the cause for which the battle was fought. The narratives of traditional songs often also remember folk heroes such as John Henry to Robin Hood. Some traditional song narratives recall supernatural events or mysterious deaths.

Hymns and other forms of religious music are often of traditional and unknown origin. Western musical notation was originally created to preserve the lines of Gregorian chant, which before its invention was taught as an oral tradition in monastic communities. Traditional songs such as Green grow the rushes, O present religious lore in a mnemonic form. In the Western world, Christmas carols and other traditional songs preserve religious lore in song form.

Work songs frequently feature call and response structures, and are designed to enable the labourers who sing them to coordinate their efforts in accordance with the rhythms of the songs. They are frequently, but not invariably, composed. In the American armed forces, a lively tradition of jody calls ("Duckworth chants") are sung while soldiers are on the march. Professional sailors made use of a large body of sea shanties. Love poetry, often of a tragic or regretful nature, prominently figures in many folk traditions. Nursery rhymes and nonsense verse also are frequent subjects of traditional songs.

Variation in traditional music

Korean traditional musicians
Chinese traditional musicians

Music transmitted by word of mouth through a community will, in time, develop many variants, because this kind of transmission cannot produce word-for-word and note-for-note accuracy. Indeed, many traditional singers are quite creative and deliberately modify the material they learn.

For example the words of "I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day" (Roud 975) are known from a broadside in the Bodleian Library Bodley24. The date is almost certainly before 1900, and it seems to be Irish. In 1958 the song was recorded in Canada (My Name is Pat and I'm Proud of That). Jeannie Robertson made the next recorded version in 1961. She has changed it to make reference to "Jock Stewart", one of her relatives, and there are no Irish references. In 1976 Archie Fisher deliberately altered the song to remove the reference to a dog being shot. In 1985 The Pogues took it full circle by restoring all the Irish references.

Because variants proliferate naturally, it is naïve to believe that there is such a thing as the single "authentic" version of a ballad such as "Barbara Allen". Field researchers in traditional song (see below) have encountered countless versions of this ballad throughout the English-speaking world, and these versions often differ greatly from each other. None can reliably claim to be the original, and it is quite possible that whatever the "original" was, it ceased to be sung centuries ago. Any version can lay an equal claim to authenticity, so long as it is truly from a traditional singing community and not the work of an outside editor.

Cecil Sharp had an influential idea about the process of folk variation: he felt that the competing variants of a traditional song would undergo a process akin to biological natural selection: only those new variants that were the most appealing to ordinary singers would be picked up by others and transmitted onward in time. Thus, over time we would expect each traditional song to become esthetically ever more appealing — it would be collectively composed to perfection, as it were, by the community.

On the other hand, there is also evidence to support the view that transmission of traditional songs can be rather sloppy. Occasionally, collected traditional song versions include material or verses incorporated from different songs that makes little sense in its context. Sarah Cleveland (b 1905) is a respected traditional Irish-USA singer. Her version of "Let No Man steal Your Thyme" contains a mixture of another song - "Seeds of Love". (Sarah's version). Flowers occur in both songs, but the theme is quite different. Equally, many traditional songs are known only as fragments. In the extreme case only one or two lines may have been recorded.


Regional variation

While the loss of traditional music in the face of the rise of popular music is a worldwide phenomenon, it is not one occurring at a uniform rate throughout the world. While even many tribal cultures are losing traditional music and folk cultures, the process is most advanced "where industrialisation and commercialisation of culture are most advanced".[1] Yet in nations or regions where traditional music is a badge of cultural or national identity, the loss of traditional music can be slowed; this is held to be true, for instance in the case of Bangladesh, Hungary, India, Ireland, Latvia, Turkey, Portugal, Brittany, and Galicia, Greece and Crete all of which retain their traditional music to some degree, in some such areas the decline of traditional music and loss of traditions has been reversed. This is most obvious where tourist agencies brand some regions with the word "Celtic". Guide books and posters from Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany and Nova Scotia refer to live music performances. Local government often sponsors and promotes performances during tourist seasons, and revives lost traditions.

Fieldwork and scholarship on traditional music

19th century Europe

Starting in the 19th century, interested people - academics and amateur scholars - started to take note of what was being lost, and there grew various efforts aimed at preserving the music of the people. One such effort was the collection by Francis James Child in the late 19th century of the texts of over three hundred ballads in the English and Scots traditions (called the Child Ballads). Throughout the 1960s and early to middle 1970s, American scholar Bertrand Harris Bronson published an exhaustive, four-volume collection of the then-known variations of both the texts and tunes associated with what came to be known as the Child Canon. He also advanced some significant theories concerning the workings of oral-aural tradition.

Contemporaneously with Child came the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, and later and more significantly Cecil Sharp who worked in the early 20th century to preserve a great body of English rural traditional song, music and dance, under the aegis of what became and remains the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). Sharp also worked in America, recording the traditional songs of the Appalachian Mountains in 1916-1918 in collaboration with Maud Karpeles and Olive Dame Campbell. Campbell and Sharp are represented under other names by actors in the modern movie "Songcatcher".

Similar activity was also underway in other countries. One of the most extensive was perhaps the work done in Riga by Krisjanis Barons who between the years between 1894 and 1915 published six volumes including the texts of 217 996 Latvian folk songs; the Latvju dainas.

Around this time, composers of classical music developed a strong interest in traditional song collecting, and a number of outstanding composers carried out their own field work on traditional song. These included Percy Grainger and Ralph Vaughan Williams in England and Béla Bartók in Hungary. These composers, like many of their predecessors, incorporated traditional material into their classical compositions. The Latviju dainas are extensively used in the classical choral works of Andrejs Jurāns, Janis Cimze, and Emilis Melngailis.

North America

In North America, during the 1930s and 1940s, the Library of Congress worked through the offices of traditional music collectors Robert Winslow Gordon, Alan Lomax and others to capture as much North American field material as possible.

People who studied traditional song sometimes hoped that their work would restore traditional music to the people. For instance, Cecil Sharp campaigned, with some success, to have English traditional songs (in his own heavily edited and expurgated versions) to be taught to schoolchildren.

One theme that runs through the great period of scholarly traditional song collection is the tendency of certain members of the "folk", who were supposed to be the object of study, to become scholars and advocates themselves. For example, Jean Ritchie was the youngest child of a large family from Viper, Kentucky that had preserved many of the old Appalachian traditional songs. Ritchie, living in a time when the Appalachians had opened up to outside influence, was university educated and ultimately moved to New York City, where she made a number of classic recordings of the family repertoire and published an important compilation of these songs. (See also Hedy West)

Another important issue in North American folklore and traditional song scholarship throughout much of the twentieth century was that of whether orally-transmitted material was passed along as a chain of motifs (reductionist view) or in entire units such as a complete song, poem, saying, or tale (holistic view), with the former view antedating the latter and both reflecting prevailing psychological theories of learning at their respective times of origin. One prominent spokesman of the reductionist view among musical scholars was George Pullen Jackson, who, in the 1930s and '40s, set forth and defended a concept of "tonal vestments", or characteristic melodic motifs that became established as stock figures through frequent use and were chained to form new tunes and modify existing ones. In 1950, Samuel Preston Bayard set the ethnomusicological world on its ear by stating and passionately, articulately defending the holistic view that the musical learning and recall processes, like other learning and recall processes, did not function as Jackson and others envisioned. Bayard, taking his cue in part from the Gestalt psychology that became popular around mid-century, argued that larger structural units such as phrases and even entire tunes tended to follow broad morphological norms of contour and that complete melodic curvilinear lines, not short tonal patterns, were what comprised the memory trace within the mind of the traditional musician. These views were adopted, modified in various ways, and re-presented by Sirvart Poladian and others.

Combining reductionist and holistic views

In the 1960s and '70s, Bertrand Bronson and others began toying with the notion that the process might be neither entirely reductionist nor entirely holistic but a more complex mixture of both, with musical scales playing a role as shaping forces as well. Using this and similar ideas as something of a point of departure but also considering earlier views and adding extensive observations of his own, musicologist J. Marshall Bevil, in the 1980s, developed and published a theory of melodic generation, transmission, assimilation, and recall that recognized the importance of holistic phenomena but also emphasized the importance of clearly formulaic section openings and closings (which he termed primary cells) as mnemonic anchor and reference points, with more variable phrase openings and closings within large sections (secondary cells) functioning as less significant but still not wholly negligible small units. He further envisioned the oral-aural process as being broadly governed by the interaction between tonal series (i.e., scales) associated with a body of traditional song and characteristic melodic, sectional, and phrase contours of traditional melodic species. From those views and from the characteristics of the music that he was examining, mainly the ballad and traditional hymn tunes of the American Southern Uplands (Southern Appalachia, the Smoky Mountains, etc.), Bevil developed a system of comparative melodic analysis that drew on linguistics, particularly the theories of generative grammar set forth by Noam Chomsky and others. He also created a body of desktop computer software to handle rapidly and accurately the vast arrays of data involved in the detailed analytical process and apply a set of programmed parameters to yield a tentative assessment of the nature and extent of kinship between melodies. He published his findings in a Ph.D. dissertation (University of North Texas, 1984), in a 1986 article that was specifically devoted to the issue of traditional song scales, and in a 1987 study that involved collecting melodic variants from inhabitants of the same area in America visited by Cecil Sharp seventy years earlier. Bevil has since expanded his theories to encompass much present and earlier music from the popular sphere and examine how it is perceived, recognized, and recalled.

See also




  1. ^ Alison Vardy, et al., About Traditional Music Page, Celtic Harp Sheet Music site. Accessed 16 February 2007.

Further reading

  • English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Collected by Cecil J. Sharp. Ed. Maud Karpeles. 1932. London. Oxford University Press.
  • Karpeles, Maud. An Introduction to English Folk Song. 1973. Oxford. Oxford University Press.
  • Sharp, Cecil. Folk Song: Some Conclusions. 1907. Charles River Books
  • Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Ballad As Song (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).
  • Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, with Their Texts, According to the Extant Records of Great Britain and North America, 4 volumes (Princeton and Berkeley: Princeton University and University of California Presses, 1959, ff.).
  • Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).
  • Poladian, Sirvart. "Melodic Contour in Traditional Music," Journal of the International Folk Music Council III (1951), 30-34.
  • Poladian, Sirvart. "The Problem of Melodic Variation in Folksong," Journal of American Folklore (1942), 204-211.
  • Rooksby, Rikky, Dr Vic Gammon et al. The Folk Handbook. (2007). Backbeat

External links


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