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Folk Music

ethnic group, folk song, characterization, mastery, notation

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Folk Music, the music with which the people of a nation or an ethnic group most specifically identify themselves. It consists of song or pieces taught through performance rather than notation (written musical notes), and learned by hearing. The original composers of folk music are anonymous or forgotten. A folk song does not have a standardized form. Instead, its words as well as its music exist in more than one and sometimes a great many variants, or in slightly different versions. Folk music is most commonly the music of the socially and economically lower classes and of rural populations. Although many folk musicians are accomplished artists who have fine technique and mastery of many pieces, folk music is generally simpler and more compact in style than classical, or art, music. Folk music exists in many different forms and under a variety of social and cultural conditions. Folk music—or some music that conforms to the definition just given—is found in most of the world’s societies. The characterization given in this article applies best to the musical cultures of Western nations. Even so, the variety of folk music is so great that the statements made here can only outline characteristics rather than define the features of folk music.


Nettl, Bruno, M.A., Ph.D.

Professor of Music and Anthropology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Former President, Society for Ethnomusicology. Author of "The Study of Ethnomusicology", "The Western Impact on World Music", and other books.

Article key phrases:

ethnic group, folk song, characterization, mastery, notation, definition, people, words, characteristics, performance, pieces, style, technique, article, hearing, artists, statements, societies, variants

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