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.

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.