Devices vs Brains: Musical Memory

Hins Anders (Anders Zorn)
Hins Anders (Anders Zorn)

Thousands of tunes

Among other things, I’m a fiddler of folk music — have been for 25 years or more. Unusually, for an American, I specialize in traditional music from Scandinavia — Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland — instead of Irish, Scottish, or Appalachian. It’s a very rich tradition, with roots in the Baroque and earlier, and a number of interesting bowed string instruments besides the violin, namely the nyckelharpa and the hardingfele.

Except for a handful who grew up in a Scandinavian musical tradition in America (very few), we almost all come from outside the ethnic culture, inspired by the love of the music itself.

Most of us play for dancers or are associated with people who do so. There are a number of thriving dance groups in America — the ones that have local musicians dance to live music, and the rest dance to recordings. These are social dance groups, by and large, not performance groups — it’s like having a local square dance. Both the musicians and the dancers are tightly connected with their counterparts in Sweden and Norway, and instructors travel regularly to America to lead workshops and teach at dance and music camps.

At a guess, there are maybe a couple of hundred musicians who dabble seriously in Scandinavian fiddle music in the USA, and perhaps a thousand or so dancers. That’s a small community, small enough that the musicians who’ve been around a while pretty much all know each other, as do the leaders of the dance groups.

In a traditional community in Sweden, the locals would have had a dozen or so dances, and the musicians would have played tunes in those genres. In America, where it’s an adopted tradition, the dancers tend to have a collector’s mentality: “Ooh, let’s learn that dance next!”  So, while a fiddler tied to a village in Sweden might have mastered a few genres of tunes for dances (and many tunes for each type), a fiddler for a modern American dance group needs to be able to cover, say, forty dance genres, with at least two tunes each. A typical free-for-all dance party for Scandinavian dancers might require a basic repertoire of eighty tunes, to just barely cover an evening (80 x 3 minutes each = 240 minutes = 4 hours), and that’s assuming all the ad hoc musicians know all the same tunes.

One of my early Swedish mentors recommended that I specialize in the tunes of a particular district (almost any area has dozens or hundreds of tunes). I explained to him that, as an American Scandie fiddler, I was already specializing — I wasn’t playing Irish or Scottish. Different worlds.

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A fashion for resonance

A variety of nyckelharpas
A variety of nyckelharpas

Some discussion of the early history of Western music is necessary in explaining the ancestry and origin of the Swedish nyckelharpa.

In the early Middle Ages, vocal music was performed as a single melody line (monophony). Gregorian chant (or plainchant) originated circa 800-1000 AD, from an older tradition of sacred singing in the early church. This musical style was based on scale arrangements called modes which have a theoretical basis going back to Classical Greece via Jewish and Byzantine religious traditions. Our modern major and minor scales are a weak bi-modal descendent of this system. Modern Western classical music developed in a different direction: that of harmonic modulation.

One of the musical innovations of the Middle Ages was the introduction and development of polyphony, the singing of two musical lines simultaneously. This began as singing in simple octave intervals for mixed choirs of men and boys. Later, melodic lines based on intervals of parallel fifths or fourths developed. This style of singing, called organum, was first described around 895 AD. Organum was not true polyphony, featuring an independent melodic part. It was instead a reinforcement of the main melody, typically sung as the highest line. The first reference to organum describes a well-established practice, so the actual date it became popular is not known. True musical notation only began around 900 AD, so earlier history remains obscure.

The practice of organum singing created a parallel fashion in musical instruments, in which continuous sound either in parallel to the melodic line or as a fixed drone became popular. Pipe instruments (in the form of organs and bagpipes) and stringed instruments were particularly well suited to this style…

Read the rest of The Swedish Nyckelharpa in Its Historic Context.

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Waving my hands in the air

Anders-Zorn-Midsommardans-707331

These days I play the fiddle.

It wasn’t always thus. I had classical piano training as a child, and taught myself guitar, both folk and classical, as a teenager. I can’t remember ever learning how to sing — I assumed everyone could (I still think that). My mother was trained as a classical pianist in Antwerp but she was diverted from that life by WWII and an American GI. She became interested in jazz theory when I was quite young, and I enjoyed learning what she was doing with basic music and harmony theory.

So there I was in my 30s, an experienced amateur singer in medieval-to-classical choral works and a variety of ethnic and traditional genres, and I still spoke string and keyboard a bit. Suddenly one day, listening to traditional Scandinavian multi-fiddle tunes, it occurred to me -– why couldn’t I do this? After all, how hard could it be? I got to the basic level of “village fiddler” after a while, and it’s all been a bonus from there.

Today, I play music for Scandinavian dancing. (I’ll speak more on that genre some other time, but if you like Irish music, I recommend the traditional fiddle music of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark.) What I want to talk about now is the psychology of playing the violin for this music, specifically how the physical movement of the playing impacts the overall communication.

I understood the principles of the strings and stops before I started, and I knew how the bow was used to produce the sound, but I was not prepared for the significance of the musical gestures imparted by bowing. Playing a guitar is an activity with small hand movements. But bowing… this is the land of big gestures.

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