Folk Music Definition and Development


This paper aims to discuss the definition and development of such concepts as folk music. This term was first originated by William Thorns at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and since that time it has always been a subject of brisk discussion among musicologists. It can be interpreted according to several criteria such as its origins, major functions, compositional patterns, genres etc. Moreover, scholars find it quite difficult to identify the major characteristics of folk music because it has several cultural and ethnographic peculiarities. This is one of the reasons why the definition of this notion still remains a very thought-provoking. In addition, folk music has undergone many changes in the course of its history, a great number of genres have become a part of mainstream culture and the borderline between popular and folk music is often untraceable. Therefore, it is necessary to analyze the works of folklorists and ethnomusicologists in order to trace the evolution of this concept and single out key elements of folk music. The key task is to propose a nuanced definition of this term.

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Evolution of the term folk music

As it has been noted earlier, this term was coined by William Thorns who believed that this was the music created by lower classes of the society. But soon this approach was criticized because folk music might be created and performed not only by marginalized layers of the community (Gelbart, 2007, p.58). The fact that the authorship is unknown does actually mean that this person belonged to the poor or uneducated classes. Furthermore, it should be borne in mind that a great number of folk genres eventually became commercialized and now they are no longer anonymous, one of the most classical examples is jazz (Lomax & Cohen, 2003, p 330). This evidence indicates that the initial definition does not reflect the essence of this notion. Probably, it was more appropriate for the nineteenth century but it is not frequently used by present-day musicologists.

Modern scholars emphasize the idea that folklore reflects the values, history and ideas of the whole nation. It is deep-rooted in culture and ethnicity rather than social class. There are many cases that can substantiate this standpoint: English ballads, the songs and music of Native Americans, blues and other ethnographic variants. In fact, the definition of the term constantly extends. Even now musicologists struggle to enumerate all the attributes of folk music and many of then are quite reluctant to propose their own dentition. For example, Ronald Cohen marks out the following characteristic features: anonymity of the author, simplicity of the composition, oral transmission etc (Cohen, 2006, p 2). Nonetheless, he acknowledges these attributes are not always observable because modern folk music may not necessarily be transmitted only by oral means.

Yet, judging from the above-mentioned qualities, one can argue that folk music can be treated as musical and poetic works of anonymous authorship, which constitute cultural heritage of a certain ethnic or cultural group. This view on folk music became quite widespread in the fifties. In this respect, we should remember the famous folk revival in the UK and the US. To some extent, this Renaissance was caused by the events of the World War II (Weissman 2003, p 57). Since that time, this concept was frequently associated with national identity. Hence, we can argue that evolution of this term was significantly affected by social events. Most importantly, there is a very great likelihood that understanding of this term will evolve or even dramatically change in the future, because the functions of folklore can become more complicated.

Problems of definition

This discussion leads us to the problem of definition. It can be explained by the fact that the major attributes of folk music have not been fully specified. As it has been mentioned before, the role of folk music, its stylistic peculiarities, its genres evolve with time passing. The rule can be applied to the definition. For instance, some musicologists emphasize the fact that it is passed from one generation to another mostly by oral means and that it does not have written tradition (Matthews, 2000). Yet, now at the beginning of the twenty-first century the situation is drastically different. Some scholars attach importance to the idea that these are songs and compositions, which are typical only of one culture. This statement is not fully grounded because there are many genres which are cross-cultural, for instance, ballad.

The second aspect of this problem is the functions performed by folk music. Frequently, it has didactic qualities. In other words, such songs can convey the norms and principles, established within a certain group or nation. Therefore, we can say that the key difficulties of defining this term are as follows: historic evolution of folk music and diversity of its attributes. None of these approaches should be disregarded because each of them looks at folk music from a different angle and helps to discover new facets of this phenomenon.

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Scholarly Views on Folk Music

This section analyzes various approaches to the definition of folk music. For more than a century this term was closely examined by many musicologists, who made numerous attempts to define it and clarify its origins. This analysis can throw light on the problem of definition and contribute to better understanding of this concept. If we are speaking about the United Kingdom we should first mention the works of Thomas Percy and William Wordsworth. For instance, Percy’s book Reliques of Ancient English Poetry is believed to be one of the most popular collections of ballads, a properly arranged source of folk music (Matthews, 2000). English ethnomusicologists regard folk music as a story or narrative of anonymous authorship that is told in the form of a song (Riggs, 7). Thus, we can say that these scholars mostly pay attention to the origins and genre. This approach is quite acceptable but folk music can exist independently of poetry and literature. In this regard we should remember African-American culture and such genres as jazz, blues or even rap, which once belong to the domain of folklore. Hence, we cannot fully agree with the view that folk music is always accompanied by lyrics.

In addition to that we should remember the works of such ethnomusicologists as Alan Lomax. He also advocates the belief that folk music was primarily created by people who were at a disadvantaged position in the community such as African-American people in the United States. But he also says that folklore is not a static in its nature. In other words, some musical tendencies can enjoy enormous popularity among members of the public and soon they lose the characteristics of folk music, namely they are performed by professional musicians and they are no longer anonymous (Lomax & Cohen, 2003). This work is rather helpful for this discussion because it eloquently demonstrates that a great number of traditional definitions are erroneous because they view folk music as something unchangeable and this is not quite true.

We can also compare the definitions advanced by such scholars as Charles Seeger and Percy Scholes. Seeger believes that initially this music was created by marginalized classes of the community, yet soon these songs and compositions became the part of elite culture (Seeger as cited in McCarthy, 1995). However, Percy Scholes does not quite share this opinion. He does not want to stratify folk music. In his opinion, these are the songs and compositions created mostly by rural rather than urban people. This comparison demonstrates that folk music can have a ride range of origins.

One of the major contributions to the study of folk music was made by Ronald Cohen. He believes that there is no single and comprehensive definition of folk music. The exact interpretation would depend on the particular perspective: origins, purpose or genres. Ronald Cohen says even the key attributes of folk music are very difficult to identify. There is a widely held opinion that folklore is relatively simple in terms of its style and performance. But Ronald Cohen points out that this is just a common stereotype because many folk styles are extremely complex, for instance, blues, or jazz. This analysis demonstrates that folk music must not be taken as something primitive or unsophisticated at least at modern stage of its development.

Nuanced 21st – Century Understanding of Folk Music

Overall we can propose such definition of this concept: it is a kind of musical performance that was originally in the oral transition, often in a relatively simple language, primarily of rural provenance, normally performed by nonprofessionals, used and understood by broad segments of a population, yet with time passing it became much more sophisticated and merged with mainstream culture. (Randel, 2003, p. 323). Certainly, this definition is not conclusive. We have tried to take into account all those characteristics of folk music. We can presume that at its core folklore could be the domain of lower classes but in the course of history it has acquired enormous popularity. Thus a great number of composers and musicians now take keen interest in it. We do not separate folklore from classical music because a great number of composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, or Chopin took full advantage of folklore music and incorporated it in their compositions. This definition regards folk music as an evolving phenomenon, which changes its genre peculiarities. We have relied on the opinion expressed by Alan Lomax who did not separate folklore from mainstream culture. Undoubtedly, this interpretation can be further elaborated.

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In general, folk music takes an important place in the history of every nation. With its help, people obtain opportunities to recreate their history, share their traditions, and prove the other nations’ own unity and power. This music is a part of history, and this is why people have to know its definitions and the significant steps of its evolution in order to understand the meaning of each song and analyze the information presented there. The definition of folk music is considered to be an ongoing debate during so many years. The interpretation proposed in this paper is neither conclusive nor comprehensive. But it reflects the major peculiarity of folk music, its changeability and tendency to interact with popular culture.


Cohen, R. D. (2006). Folk Music: The Basics. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group.

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Lomax, A. & Cohen, R. D. (2003). Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934-1997. New York: Routledge.

McCarthy, M (1995). On “American Music for American Children”: The Contribution of Charles L. Seeger. Journal of Research in Music Education, vol. 43, issue 4, pp. 270-287.

Matthews, D. (2000). The Invention of Middle English: An Anthology of Primary Sources. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Nettl, B. & Bohlman, P. V. (1991). Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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Weissman, D. (2006). Which Side Are You on?: AN Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

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