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The Musical Bridge - Scandinavian Folk Music

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

The Nordic Countries of Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark

Traditional Nordic Folk Dancing at Swedish Day at Good Templar Park in Geneva, IL, June 16, 2019

The Swedish Nickelharpa from Fox Valley Folk and Storytelling Festival, Geneva, IL. 2018

So far on our musical journey we have explored musical instruments, styles, and genres of music that come from China and the Indus Valley region (found in modern day India and Pakistan.) Today, we are traveling far across the Eurasian continent to the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Even though it is over 4,000 miles from Beijing, China to Stockholm, Sweden, we find musical instruments that are similar to those found in traditional Chinese music. In fact, some of the musical instruments probably share the same musical ancestors tens of thousands of years ago!

Here in Geneva, Illinois, mid-June means Swedish Days; this popular festival has over 200,000 yearly attendees who come from across Illinois and beyond to celebrate Scandinavian Midsummer. In Sweden and other Nordic countries, the Midsummer Festival or "Midsommar" is the most popular holiday other than Jul (Christmas). Though it is celebrated at the Summer Solstice (the first day of summer,) it is called "Midsummer" because it is the halfway point for the warm season in the cool Nordic climate. To read more about Midsommar and find two delicious Swedish recipes, visit my personal blog.

The Chicago Spelman at Fox Valley Folk and Storytelling Festival, Geneva, IL. 2018

Scandinavian folk music has ancient roots but also has been influenced by the "art" music of Europe. Ancient musical elements such as the the use of parallel fifths in Icelandic music or the use of quarter tones in songs, give Scandinavian music an exotic sound to modern Western ears. Many of the traditional folk songs are written in modes, which are scales outside of the Western major and minor system; while others are written in what musicologist, Bruno Nettl, calls "jaunty" major keys that are closer in style to music from the Classical period. This blend of ancient traditions with "art" music demonstrates how European "art" music and "folk" music are interdependent and have evolved together.

Many of the modal aspects, singing techniques, and phrasing of Scandinavian folk music have become integrated into 21st century music from the region. For example, the genre of heavy metal has been heavily influenced by Scandinavian folk scales, rhythmic patterns, and singing styles. Popular musicians of other genres have borrowed from the folk tradition as well. The Icelandic composer and singer Björk is an excellent example as she has incorporated traditional Icelandic singing techniques into her electronic music. Listen to her track Big Time Sensuality and pay attention to her unique vocalizations. Many of the techniques she uses when she sings can be found in Scandinavian folk music. Additionally, Scandinavian folk influences have long been favorites of film composers. Folk elements can also be heard in the popular soundtrack to Disney's Frozen and in the score for the Amazon television series, Vikings.

Vocal Traditions


Some of the oldest piece of music in Sweden and Norway are songs. A kulning is an unaccompanied son