Dichotomy or Duality? (And a Whole Lot of Other Questions)

Why do I do this division between Art and Function? Does it have any meaning? Do I really need this polarization? What does it do? What does it do to me and what does it do to my art and what does it do to other people and my relationship with them? Does it help me in my development or in my understanding of the world? And is it really a dichotomy where the one excludes the other and everything has to be put in one of the categories (and hence has nothing to do with the other), or is it rather a duality, like the two sides of a Janus-mask, or the two sides of a coin?

A short answer is that I didn’t ‘do’ this division. It occurred to (or maybe in) me without me asking for it. However I accepted it and used it as a way of describing my own development. And in that way it became extremely useful. It provided me with a way of describing my past, present and future. I could put words to what was happening inside me, and it was easy to explain the connections between my changed way of thinking and how that affected my playing. As a way of describing the world around me however, I think it is rather a bit dangerous. There is a risk of projecting values to the different concepts, and then judging people for being too much of the one or the other. When I think about it, it makes a lot more sense to think about it as a duality, as two sides of the same thing. The two sides are always present, whether we want them to or not. The different aspects of them might be stronger or weaker in different contexts, but to me it makes a lot more sense to talk a bout an Art-Function Duality (like the Wave-Particle Duality of Light) rather than an Art-Function Dichotomy.

In many ways, both in my own thinking, and when I’ve been writing this text, I tend to create an oposition also between tradition and art. In the end this is not what I want to do, but in some ways I think that in order to really explore the idea of art and what it is, I have had to leave some of my older perspectives and ideas (like funciton and tradition) behind for a while. In the future, I think the two ideas will move closer to each other again, merging into a useful perspective that provides me with concepts and tools from both sides. At the moment, the idea of art for me is very much an idea of freedom.

The world of Swedish folk music – a very short, one sided, and rough description

This description does in no way give a complete picture of the Swedish folk music scene. It focuses on the amateur community and the main point is just to briefly show how the art/function-dichotomy is at work within this community (together with a lot of other Romantic ideas about music).

The Swedish folk music scene is very much a music scene with a strong culture of participating. A lot of the people involved in the scene are more concerned with playing themselves (or with dancing) than with listening to other people playing in a traditional concert setting. And when it comes to concerts, there is a great recognition of solo players who represent a body of traditional, regional, material. The ideal, for amateurs and professionals alike, is to play tunes from your own home region: there is still a very strong idea about the connection between geographical origin and musical style.

 If you can state the geographical ‘origin’ of a tune, that supposedly says all you need to know about the tune. And if you then play tunes from ‘your own’ area, you will, almost automagically, play them more or less in the right way, whereas if you play tunes from some other area you’re bound to fail. This idea gets stronger in some certain ‘high status’ areas like parts of Dalarna and Hälsingland, where you ‘should’ preferably have lived in the village for generations, to be able to play the tunes in the right way.

Another of these mystical (romantic) ideas is that the music is something you must have ‘in the blood’. And you either have it or you don’t. Even among some groups of musicians, there is little recognition of the power of practicing.

Of course these ideas are duly questioned, and most people would not agree with what I just described, but parts, and left overs, of this thinking keeps popping up everywhere and all the time, both within and outside the folk scene when talking about folk music.

In the amateur millieu there is also a great deal of scepticism towards musicians who educate themselves. Even among people who could be considered more liberal, and more open towards the educated folk musicians, their openness is often built on certain criteria. It demands that the educated musician doesn’t move to far away from what could be considered ‘real’ folk music. The music must follow recognisable patterns (e.g. 32-bar tunes with AABB-forms) and shouldn’t deviate too much from familiar tonality and harmonisation.

In general, as an educated folk musician, in the folk community, you are often acknowledged by your ability to follow in line with tradition, rather than by your ability to evolve it. If you move too far away, people might say ‘it’s good, but it’s not folk music’.* All this very much reflects the function/art dichotomy.

This whole scepticism is also often based on the idea that folk music is not something which can be taught, and especially not in the dry, sterile safeness of a music academy, but it is something which has to be lived and experienced. (For a great example of this way of thinking, read here. That blogpost also shows that this discussion seems to occur in every country where you allow the folk music to enter the educational institutions.)
Of course it is very different between different parts of the folk music world, how much these ideas are at work, and how strongly they are part of the communitys understanding of folk music and of themselves. And I have a huge respect and for the amateur community and the ideas present there; they are very much a part of my background, where I come from. Especially the power and relevance of experience is something I can hold as perfectly valid, and also an area where I used to see (academic) education as being quite problematic. However, my experiences at the Sibelius Academy, and in general what Ive learned throughout my NoFo studies, have made me realise that it is perfectly possible to learn a lot through experiencing also within the frames of education.

Of course, the experiences you can get within the frames of an Academy, and the experiences you can get outside it, are sometimes quite different. In the end the best way to learn a lot is to take part in both.

*This is very much based on my own experiences in my own local folk music community, but also on conversation with fellow students and how they are responded to in their own home communities.


The whole description of Function and Art, but in a much shorter way.

Function Art/ist/


Freedom within a framework




Music for the sake of a purpose


Learned through Living



Freedom to explore


Risk taking


Music for it’s own sake


Learned through Education

The list could of course be built on, with opposites like lower/upper class, low/high status, local/universal, oral/written culture but I prefer not to concider the more valuing and judging aspects of the dichotomy.

Constructing this dichotomy lead me to asking a lot of questions.

Do I really need this polarization? What does it do? What does it do to me and what does it do to my art and what does it do to other people and my relationship with them?

In trying to answer these questions, I ended up forming a Duality instead, to create a synthesis of the two different approaches to music. In most places in the text however, I write dichotomy, mostly since that is how I feel that it is most ofthen thought to be.

Function vs. Art

My definitions or associations

I have, on purpose, chosen not to define the two terms Function and Art very clearly. And I have chosen to define them very much myself, intuitively, since it is my own development I am trying to make sense of, and since it is the meaning of these words, and how I use them, within myself I am trying to describe.

In general, the interesting word is Art, a term that changed my way of thinking about myself and my music making. Function is a term I’m not very happy with, but I haven’t found a better one. I use it to describe, and refer to, the approach to folk music that I used to have, before my NoFo studies, and the approach that is present in the community I come from.

It is easy to see the two terms as forming a dichotomy, and I am aware that my usage of them also sometimes follow that pattern. However, in the end I try to form a synthesis, showing that they rather make up a duality, describing two different sides of the same thing (in this case music).