Characteristics of Music: Folk

What a wild, musician ride we’ve been on these past few months! We’ve spent the last several months exploring the key characteristics of a variety of different musical genres, and what makes them each unique.

We began this journey with a look at pop music, before moving on to jazz, rock and roll, punk, funk, R&B, reggae, swing, and finally, country last week. Let’s keep this ball rolling with a genre that has been a major part of every culture on Earth: folk music!

Of course, this week’s topic is a little different than the ones that have come before. Although jazz, rock, R&B, and especially pop, have changed a ton over the years, folk music not only changes over time but across cultures. In fact, the term “folk music” is often used to describe music that is created by the indigenous people of any given region.

That means Balinese Gamelan music, Irish folk music, and Japanese “Gagaku,” can all be categorized in the same genre, “folk,” even though they have little to nothing in common. In fact, each region’s own folk music is rich in meaning and history and deserves to be explored all on its own.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the few characteristics of folk music that bring this massive and differing genre together.

Characteristics of Folk Music

Creation and Evolution

Where folk songs come from is often a mystery, even to those who know them best. That means, for much of folk music, anonymity in the creative process is common. Someone had to create and share the music for it to be taken up by the community, but those names are often lost to history.

But, once that music is taken up by the community, it takes on a life of its own. Thanks in no small part to humankind’s common oral tradition, any given folk song is likely to have been affected by the entire community over time. These songs are passed from parent to child, and to friends, coworkers, and other relations. All sorts of influences act on a folk song, including creativity, forgetfulness, other learned songs, and ever-changing stylistic expectations. As a result, any given song may change in length or change to more closely resemble new styles of popular music.

All this means that an important characteristic of folk music is its dependence on being accepted by its community, and its tendency to change as it is passed from one group to another.

Versions, Variants, Forms, & Tune Families

Thanks to the fact that folk songs live largely through oral tradition, they don’t often exist in a single, standard form. In fact, a single song may sound different in each region of a country, community, village, family, or even in a single singer’s repertoire. Each performance of a single song may be unique. Each version of the same song is called a “variant” or “version.”

Several similar performances of a folk song might be considered a “version.” Several versions are that not too dissimilar from one another make up a “variant.” Several variants, made up of performances of the song that are related, but not all the same, are called a “form.” Groups of songs (either words of music) that appear to be related are called “tune families.”

There is often a ton of variation throughout a single folk culture. For example, English folk music is believed to be mostly made up of only 40 tune families, each of which came from a single song. What’s more, the majority of English folk songs seem to be members of only seven of these tune families.

Hungarian folk music, on the other hand, has some 200 tune families. In some of the folk music of eastern Iran, some types of poetry are all sung to different versions of the same tune.


The instruments used in folk music vary vastly in type, design, and origin. That said, they can generally be divided into roughly four categories.

The first group consists of the simplest instruments. These might include rattles, flutes, bullroarer, leaf, grass, and bone whistles, and long wooden trumpets, like the Swiss alpenhorn.

The second group of folk instruments is made up of instruments that were brought to Europe or the Americas from non-European cultures, and often changed. Examples of these include the folk oboes of the Balkan countries, which were adapted from western Asian predecessors, and the banjo and xylophone from Africa.

The third group of instruments may be created by the village culture itself. An example of this group is the Dolle, which is a type of improvised fiddle that is used in northwest Germany and is made from a wooden shoe.

The final group of folk instruments is made up of instruments taken from urban musical cultures and from classical and popular music – and then sometimes changed significantly. Chief among this group are the violin, bass viol, clarinet, and guitar. In some cases, instruments that were used during the Middle Ages and later, but eventually abandoned, are still used in folk music today. A few examples of this are the violins with sympathetic strings found in Scandinavia, and the hurdy-gurdy, which is based on the medieval organistrum and is still played in France.

Folk music is a massive, multi-faceted genre, with very little in common across regions. But all that diversity makes exploring it all the more rewarding! What are your favourite folk songs? Are they from your culture or another? Let us know in the comments!

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