Folk music, in the original sense of the term, is music by and for the common people. Folk music arose, and best survives, in societies not yet affected by mass communication and the commercialization of culture.

It normally was shared by the entire community (and its performance not strictly limited to a special class of expert performers), and was transmitted by word of mouth. During the 20th and 21st centuries, folk music took on a second meaning: it describes a particular kind of popular music which is culturally descended from or otherwise influenced by traditional folk music.

Like other popular music, this kind of folk music is most often performed by experts and is transmitted in organized performances and commercially distributed recordings. However, popular music has filled some of the roles and purposes of the folk music it has replaced. Folk music is somewhat synonymous with traditional music. Both terms are used semi-interchangeably amongst the general population; however, some musical communities that actively play living folkloric musics (see Irish traditional music and Traditional Filipino music for specific examples), have adopted the term traditional music as a means of distinguishing their music from the popular music called “folk music,” especially the post-1960s “singer-songwriter” genre.

Defining Folk Music
“Folk song is usually seen as the authentic expression of a way of life now, past or about to disappear (or in some cases, to be preserved or somehow revived). Unfortunately, despite the assembly of an enormous body of work over some two centuries, there is still no unanimity on what folk music (or folklore, or the folk) ‘is'” (Middleton 1990, p.127). Gene Shay, co-founder and host of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, defined folk music in an April 2003 interview by saying: “In the strictest sense, it’s music that is rarely written for profit.

It’s music that has endured and been passed down by oral tradition. […] And folk music is participatory—you don’t have to be a great musician to be a folk singer. […] And finally, it brings a sense of community. It’s the people’s music.” The English term folk, which gained usage in the 19th century (during the Romantic period) to refer to peasants or non-literate peoples, is related to the German word Volk (meaning people or nation). The term is used to emphasize that folk music emerges spontaneously from communities of ordinary people. “

As the complexity of social stratification and interaction became clearer and increased, various conditioning criteria, such as ‘continuity’, ‘tradition’, ‘oral transmission’, ‘anonymity’ and uncommercial origins, became more important than simple social categories themselves.” Charles Seeger (1980) describes three contemporary defining criteria of folk music (Middleton 1990, p.127-8):

  1. A “schema comprising four musical types: ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’; ‘elite’ or ‘art’; ‘folk’; and ‘popular’. Usually…folk music is associated with a lower class in societies which are culturally and socially stratified, that is, which have developed an elite, and possibly also a popular, musical culture.” Cecil Sharp (1907)?, A.L. Lloyd (1972).
  2. “Cultural processes rather than abstract musical types…continuity and oral transmission…seen as characterizing one side of a cultural dichotomy, the other side of which is found not only in the lower layers of feudal, capitalist and some oriental societies but also in ‘primitive’ societies and in parts of ‘popular cultures’.” Redfield (1947) and Dundes (1965).
  3. Less prominent, “a rejection of rigid boundaries, preferring a conception, simply of varying practice within one field, that of ‘music’.”

David Harker (1985) argues that “folk music” is, in Peter van der Merwe’s words, “a meaningless term invented by ‘bourgeois’ commentators”. Jazz musician Louis Armstrong and blues musician Big Bill Broonzy have both been attributed the remark “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.”

Subjects of Folk Music

Apart from instrumental music that forms a part of folk music, especially dance music traditions, much folk music is vocal music, since the instrument that makes such music is usually handy. As such, most folk music has meaningful lyrics. Narrative verse looms large in the folk music of many cultures.

This encompasses such forms as traditional epic poetry, much of which was meant originally for oral performance, sometimes accompanied by instruments. Many epic poems of various cultures were pieced together from shorter pieces of traditional narrative verse, which explains their episodic structure and often their in medias res plot developments. Other forms of traditional narrative verse relate the outcomes of battles and other tragedies or natural disasters. Sometimes, as in the triumphant Song of Deborah found in the Biblical Book of Judges, these songs celebrate victory. Laments for lost battles and wars, and the lives lost in them, are equally prominent in many folk traditions; these laments keep alive the cause for which the battle was fought. The narratives of folk songs often also remember folk heroes such as John Henry to Robin Hood. Some folk song narratives recall supernatural events or mysterious deaths.

Hymns and other forms of religious music are often of traditional and unknown origin. Western musical notation was originally created to preserve the lines of Gregorian chant, which before its invention was taught as an oral tradition in monastic communities. Folk songs such as Green grow the rushes, O present religious lore in a mnemonic form. In the Western world, Christmas carols and other traditional songs preserve religious lore in song form. Other sorts of folk songs are less exalted. Work songs are composed; they frequently feature call and response structures, and are designed to enable the labourers who sing them to coordinate their efforts in accordance with the rhythms of the songs. In the American armed forces, a lively tradition of jody calls (“Duckworth chants”) are sung while soldiers are on the march. Professional sailors made use of a large body of sea shanties. Love poetry, often of a tragic or regretful nature, prominently figures in many folk traditions. Nursery rhymes and nonsense verse also are frequent subjects of folk songs.

Variation of Folk Music

Music transmitted by word of mouth through a community will, in time, develop many variants, because this kind of transmission cannot produce word-for-word and note-for-note accuracy. Indeed, many traditional folk singers are quite creative and deliberately modify the material they learn.

Because variants proliferate naturally, it is naïve to believe that there is such a thing as the single “authentic” version of a ballad such as “Barbara Allen (song).” Field researchers in folk song (see below) have encountered countless versions of this ballad throughout the English-speaking world, and these versions often differ greatly from each other. None can reliably claim to be the original, and it is quite possible that whatever the “original” was, it ceased to be sung centuries ago. Any version can lay an equal claim to authenticity, so long as it is truly from a traditional folksinging community and not the work of an outside editor.

Cecil Sharp had an influential idea about the process of folk variation: he felt that the competing variants of a folk song would undergo a process akin to biological natural selection: only those new variants that were the most appealing to ordinary singers would be picked up by others and transmitted onward in time. Thus, over time we would expect each folksong to become esthetically ever more appealing — it would be collectively composed to perfection, as it were, by the community.

On the other hand, there is also evidence to support the view that transmission of folk songs can be rather sloppy. Occasionally, collected folk song versions include material or verses incorporated from different songs that makes little sense in its context.

Regional variation

The loss of folk music is occurring at different rates in different regions of the world. Naturally, where industrialization and commercialization of culture are most advanced, so tends to be the loss of folk music. Yet in nations or regions where folk music is a badge of cultural or national identity, the loss of folk music can be slowed; this is held to be true, for instance in the case of Bangladesh, Hungary, India, Ireland, Turkey, Brittany, Galicia, Greece and Crete all of which retain their traditional music to some degree, in some such areas the decline of folk music and loss of traditions has been reversed such as Cornwall.


Harker, David (1985). Fakesong: The Manufacture of British ‘Folksong’, 1700 to the Present Day. Cited in van der Merwe (1989).

Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9. Seeger, Charles (1980). Cited in Middleton (2002) van der Merwe, Peter (1989).

Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Further reading

English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Collected by Cecil J. Sharp. Ed. Maud Karpeles. 1932. London. Oxford University Press. Carson, Ciaran (1997). Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music. North Point Press. Karpeles, Maud. An Introduction to English Folk Song. 1973. Oxford. Oxford University Press. Sharp, Cecil. Folk Song: Some Conclusions. 1907. Charles River Books