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Scandinavian Fiddling Genres

by Carl Rahkonen

Scandinavian fiddle music is great to listen to and even more fun to play. I always enjoyed listening to this music, years before I understood anything about it or how to play it. My initial interest in music can be traced to the fact that my grandfather in Finland played fiddle. After nearly thirty years of playing classical viola, I took up fiddle playing by learning some of my grandfather's tunes, which were preserved on old reel-to-reel tape recordings. His tunes were from the Finnish gammeldans repertory and were fairly straightforward and enjoyable to learn. This led me to study other Scandinavian repertories that were more challenging and exciting.

This article introduces the genres of Scandinavian traditional music, in other words the forms and styles of Scandinavian tunes. For example, if you play American old-time fiddle, you know that there are reels, waltzes, rags, etc. In Celtic music you can have jigs, slip jigs, hornpipes, etc. In the same way, Scandinavian music has some unique genres.

There are two layers of folk dance music in Scandinavia. For lack of better terms, I use the terms bygdedans ("village dance") to describe the older layer, and gammeldans ("old dance") to describe the newer layer. Some scholars simply call the older layer folkmusik.

Bygdedans (the older layer) has the polska as its most common genre. Polska should not be confused with polka, the fast dance in duple time. The polska is a dance in three beats, which frequently has a strong accent on beats one and three. It is believed to have originated in Poland, but found its most popular dissemination in Scandinavia. There are many different styles of polskas that are generally named after the region where they are played. In the Dalarna province of Sweden, an area particularly rich in traditional music, the polskas could be played completely differently in villages just a few kilometers apart. In Norway the pols and Rørospols (meaning a pols from Røros) are directly related, as is the springar or springleik. The Danes also have the pols, but played today mostly on the island of Fanø.

Different types of polskas have different characteristics. The even polska features even eighth or sixteenth notes. Finnish polskas are almost exclusively of this variety. The uneven or triplet polska includes parts with quarter and eighth note triplets. The overall feel of many polskas is that of shifting in and out of hemiolas (in polskas, 2 against 3). In addition to this, in some parts of Scandinavia the three beats may be of different lengths, the first beat could be short, the second long and the third as it should be. With the underlying rhythm being uneven, these types of tunes can be very swingy. Polskas are notorious for being rhythmically complex and that is precisely why players and dancers love them! They can be very interesting and exotic.

Other forms of tunes from the older layer have to do with ceremonies, especially weddings, for example the gånglåt ("walking tune") and brudmarsch ("Bridal march"), and skänlåt ("gift giving tune"). The Engleska, similar to a reel, and Norwegian halling are lively dances in 2/4. The Swedish hambo is a specific type of polska, that I believe could belong to either layer.

The older layer of folk dance music was played either solo on fiddle, (or the closely related instruments hardingfele, or nyckelharpa), in duos, or larger ensembles made up entirely of these instruments. When additional musicians played, they frequently improvised harmony. Today such an ensemble, called spelmanslag ("fiddler's ensemble"), can have dozens of fiddlers playing in rich harmonies.

The newer layer of folk dance music, ironically called gammeldans ("old dance,") can add more contemporary instruments, such as the accordion, clarinet, string bass, guitar or almost any other instrument in addition to fiddles. The gammeldans repertory features newer dance forms from the 19th century, such as the schottische, waltz, polka, and mazurka. Again the players can all play the tune in unison or octaves, or they may choose to improvise harmony parts.

Some Scandinavian tunes can be learned quickly, such as the gånglåter, ("walking tunes"). Next the gammeldans repertory is most accessible to the novice Scandinavian player. Finally the older polska and related tunes are the most difficult to learn, but they also the most rewarding. There are literally dozens of web-sites devoted to Scandinavian tunes. To properly learn these tunes, hook up with a Scandinavian spelmanslag in your area, or attend one of the summer camps emphasizing Scandinavian music and dance. Many of these resources are linked from my Scandinavian Fiddling site.

Carl Rahkonen © 2008

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About the Authors

Carl Rahkonen is a Music Librarian and Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In 2001-02 he held a sabbatical to study American fiddling styles, including Scandinavian, Scottish, Irish, and old-time styles, primarily in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. You can email Carl at:

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