Function vs. Art – in Context

 When I started to realise that my mind was shifting from thinking about folk music as Function towards thinking of folk music as Art, I believed this dichotomy was something I had built up myself and that it was something that existed only in my own head. Of course I could see signs of it also in my background, in comments from people around me etc. but my general idea was still that it existed mainly in my head. In a way, that was a good thought, because it meant that it would be easier to get rid of. I only had to make up my business with my self, I wouldn’t have to also take care of the outer world. However, I gradually realised that I am far from the first one to recognise this dichotomy (or Duality as I prefer to call it in the end): the conflict between Art Music and Functional Music.

The division between music as function and music as art is very much a division between folk/popular music and what we normally call ‘classical’ music. It is even so included in our language that another common term to refer to the latter is precisely ‘art music’. This division has not always been there though. Carl Dalhaus (1970) puts it in a historical context in his book Analysis and Value Judgment, explaining that before ca 1800 all music was ‘functional music’, music that was justified because of its genre. Music (and all other art forms as well) was recognised for its ability to fulfil the criteria (stereotypes) of whatever genre it was in: its ability to be functional. Then came the Romantic ideas of the Genius, the Artist and the Work and music would now be judged for its uniqueness and originality rather than anything else. Roughly at the same time came the idea of ‘folk music’, the genuine music of the people, and this served as a direct counterpart to the idea of art music. While art music belonged to the higher classes in society and expressed the idea of a composer-genius (and perhaps also the soloist-genius), folk music was the possession of the poor and expressed the soul of the People. Its value was in its anonymous, collective history, with unknown (and mystical/mythical) origins.

When I realised that the tension between function and art was something I had learned from the world around me, rather than something I had made up myself, I was actuallt quite relieved. It made it easier to understand myself, and it became easier to think about, and discuss, the development and change I was going through.

In many ways, the function/art dichotomy, and its folk music/art music parallel, is very present in today’s Swedish folk music scene, as are a lot of the other romantic ideas from the 19th C about folk music. For me personally, one of the most important and interesting aspects of these ideas is how they have affected the thinking of the amateur community, which makes up the largest part of the world of Swedish folk music, and which forms a strong part of my own background in folk music.


Function is a much harder concept to define than Art, for me. I am not very happy with the term, but I will do my best do clearify what I put into it. Carl Dahlhaus (1970) calls it Genre-music, which in a way perhaps is a better term, but I will stick with Function, since that is the term I have got used to.

Functional music is music that has an ‘outer’ purpose. It may be dancing, it may be a ceremony (like a wedding or a funeral), it may be as a means for friends to hang out together. All this also implies that functional music is music where everyone is somehow participating, there is no real division between performer/creator and audience, everyone is necessary and the one would not exist without the other. Hence functional music depends on (the approval of) the collevtive and doesn’t really give space for the individuality.

Functional music is also music that follows clear and straight lines that are defined by this purpose: If I’m playing for dancing it is the danceability of the music which defines its value; If I’m playing togethere with a group of people it is the musics ability to fit into the taste, style and technical ability of the group that defines its value. This creates a very comfortable space to move within. As long as you’re keeping inside these frames there is a great deal of freedom and it is easy to know what is good and what is not. Quality in this context is about reproducing tradition and convention, fulfilling the requirements of the genre.

Together with Art, Function art can be said to make up a Dichotomy. Or rather: a duality.

The Community

My local community of folk musicians consists largely of amateurs, a lot of them with a great knowledge about folk music but not very skilled instrumentalists. In that environment there is a great appreciation for good tunes and you get acknowledged if you spread new tunes (preferably from the right origin, and not too difficult ones) play good harmonies and good for dancing. Playing ‘artistic’ or soloistic, or choosing a repertoire that reaches beyond the average level of difficulty does not get you an acknowledgement. To be part of the group musically, you have to align yourself with the common idea of how the tunes should be played, and, especially in my core group of folk music friends, there is a strong leader whom to follow. It is folk music as a group experience.

And in that millieu folk music is very much a functional music. It has a (social) purpose and that is why you play it. It is played in a social context, together with friends as a way of socializing, and it is played for dancing. That is really the only reasons to play folk music.
If it is played on stage it should still be concidered dance music and if it is arranged in a way that wouldn’t work for dancing that clearly puts its value as folk music at stake. There is definitely a risk of getting the music labeled as not folk music. The same goes for contemporary composed tunes: they might be brought into the repertoire, but only if they fit into the patterns of what is concidered traditional, if it goes along with the groups idea about what folk music is (and fits within the technical limitations of the group). In the end however, it is not about the danceability of the music, but rather a matter of belonging. The music should be accessible for everyone and everyone should be able to participate.

For me this environment and these people meant a lot. It gave me a context and a sense of belonging, it provided clear values and easy-to-follow ‘rules’ for playing. I got appreciation for my skills and I could easily contribute to the community by bringin in new tunes, or just by being a ‘strong’ musician, for the others to lean on. So I made the values of the group my own, and that influenced and affected a lot of my practicing and development. Of course I had some ideas of my own, and sometimes wanted to take music in somewhat different directions, but I found it hard to allow myself to do that, and even harder would it have been to present those ideas to the group. From time to time I often found myself thinking “what would NN think about this?” or even “I would like to do this, but they would never approve of it”. To be honest though, I think I also had a tendency to project my own fears and inner judges on that group of people, and thus place them outside myself.

If community for me represents music as function, then education represents music as art.