Béla Bartók recording Hungarian peasant folk singers in Zobordarázs, Hungary, 1907

Folk tales

ON Stage brings you excerpts from the NCPA Quarterly Journal, an unsurpassed literary archive that ran from 1972 to 1988, and featured authoritative and wide-ranging articles. In the penultimate part of the series on categories of music, musician and ethnomusicologist Ashok D. Ranade examines the various aspects of folk music and its evolution.

A striking feature of folk musical expression is the relative paucity of instrumental music in it. One reason is, of course, the dominant position that ‘song’ occupies in folk music as a whole. Furthermore, it is important to note that instruments are chiefly employed to accompany the sung expression, and instruments, by themselves, tend to be content imitating and reflecting the vocal expression. By and large, folk instruments lack the capacity for prolonged solo performance. On account of their innate and limited elaborational potential they remain best suited for accompanying roles entailing spurts of separate but short solo-playing. Besides, instrumental music as such makes a heavy demand on acquisition of technical skills—largely a specialist phenomenon. This degree of professionalism can hardly be imagined in folk music. Finally, the limited scope afforded to instrumental music can be traced back to the accent on collectivity in folk music. The element of community expression and the individualism involved in instrumental music run in contrary directions. It is also possible that entertainment, a prominent drive behind instrumental music, constitutes a weaker component of folk musical structures and hence the paucity of instrumental music.

Collectivity is one of the most important of the characteristics of folk music. It is symptomatic that only two of the four major musical categories, namely popular and folk, bear names that reflect the aspect of collectivity.

The collectivity of folk music is of a far-reaching nature. Collectivity as a controlling agent marks the conception, performance, propagation and the emotional content of folk music.

Creation of folk songs is seldom attributed to single individuals. For some time, it was averred that songs are created collectively. A more accepted position is that they are communally recreated. A particular cultural group is motivated at a particular period in a particular manner towards the creation of certain musical material as a cumulative result of the prevailing socio-cultural environment. As a consequence, a folk song or its parts begin to acquire a shape. It is as if the entire atmosphere is charged with the song even though it assumes the final form—a crystallisation—through the agency of an individual. This is the reason why the general anonymity of a folk song seems meaningful since it is a recognition of the collective contribution to the emergence of a song. At the same time, describing the emergence as recreation allows the individual his due share.

Apart from the slightly speculative explanation offered for the collective recreation theory there is yet another discernible and more direct factor. On a majority of occasions a new song merely presents an edited, modified or altered version of those already in existence. Songs that had come into existence continue to be in the social repertoire only after society has processed them according to its requirements. This is the background against which stanzas are dropped or newly introduced in prevalent songs. To that extent, a folk song is a continuously created entity.

Propagation of folk songs exemplifies collectivity because they are sung or heard by and/or for groups. All song types are, not collective in equal proportion in an actual performance but the exceptions do not render the general observation invalid. Further, the collectiveness is frequently related to the effectiveness of the songs rather than their actual propagation. In other words, they may need a group to achieve an impact though their non-collective existence or performance may not be an impossibility.

Collective tunes

The most important aspect of the collectivity of folk songs is their emotional content. Folk songs hardly ever embody the ordeals, crises or likes-dislikes of an individual. Their content is generalised to ensure a universal appeal. The same concern for reaching the maximum number of people is reflected in their tunes. This becomes clear when folk songs are structurally analysed. The thematic recurrence of events particular to the human life-cycle (e.g. birth. initiation, marriage, death, etc.) or seasonal cycles is thus traceable to the collectivity of folk songs.

It should be clear that the remarkable durability of folk songs is largely due to the comprehensive role collectivity plays in them. They outlive generations because they address the societal mind rather than the individual spirit. They also express eternal human problems rather than topical issues. A folk song is aptly described as the voice of the collective mind.

Very often, folk music has been defined as the expression of an illiterate who perforce resorts to the oral tradition in order to perform, propagate and preserve it. However, the observation seems to have special validity in relation to cultures where art music is reduced to writing in a major way. The phenomenon of the oral tradition needs to be understood differently in Indian and similar other contexts.

Durga Bhagwat, the eminent folklorist from Maharashtra, quotes Rajasekhara (12th century) as stating that the poetry of children, women and the low castes travels from mouth to mouth. Obviously, this merely confirms the prominence of the oral tradition both in folk and sophisticated expressions. It is relevant to discuss the functions directly connected with the features of folk music.

Firstly, it is due to the oral tradition that all kinds of changes can changes can be brought about in the folk song compositions which (as mentioned earlier) are continuously created. Changes are facilitated because of these compositions.

Secondly, every culture generates and carries forward a corpus of folk songs. The very formation of such a corpus becomes possible because individual songs and song-sets are passed on from person to person and from generation to generation. Song-corpora are created by a process of slow accretion, and the existence of a flexible core is an essential pre-condition for the formulation of a corpus.

Thirdly, it is due to the oral tradition that techniques of composition and preservation are evolved. In this way, agents of consolidation as well as tendencies towards change are supported in their respective tasks.

Societal nature

Folk music enjoys a mixed motivation. Individual, societal and artistic motives bring it into being. However, folk music is specifically characterised by societal motives which have a close logical connection with the collectivity discussed earlier. An important point to be noted is the unambiguously non-musical thrust of the societal motivation. Folk music is expected to respond to social needs of a didactic nature as opposed to the aesthetic demands related to art music. Admittedly, there are folk manifestations which entertain but even these are found to have a social and predominantly non-art function.

The societal motivation of folk music becomes obvious through its connection with religion, language, rituals, sacraments and such other cultural manifestations. Folk music assumes its prevailing character due to its non-musical contexts, which act as live forces responsible for the conception, performance, propagation and reception of folk musical expression. It is logical for folk music to be defined as an expression of a particular culture. Such a description emphasises its regional, linguistic, as well as religious orientations. The functional element in folk music also offers proof of its societal motivation. This is not to suggest that folk music does not possess art content. What is stressed is that the societal thrust is always to be detected in combination with a variety of other motives.

The functionality of folk music can also be appreciated at a more psychological level. The frequent thematic insistence of folk songs on cultural myths makes repeated allusions to societal dreams or the past heritage signifies a subtler functionality. Folk music performs the function of representing non-musical, cultural realities on account of its social motivation. This explains why the corpus of a society increases during those periods when the societal mind undergoes stresses and strains or is at least unusually stimulated.

Another characteristic of folk music hinted at earlier is that (for all practical purposes) it has no beginning and no end. Theoretically speaking, every composition or a song type can be said to have crystallised into a stable shape at some particular point of time. However, when one says that folk music defies chronological placement, the aim is to stress its all-time appeal. In fact, the anonymity of folk music is, to some extent, a result of the non-importance of the time-dimension. When there is a very close and definite connection between music and a particular event, personage or period, the relevant music may make an exit from the permanent musical corpus. Folk music is undateable like culture and cannot be described as old or new and, in that sense, it is always contemporary.

Folk music is both changeable and unchangeable. The particular kind of flexibility folk music enjoys is causally connected with its nature. The proneness as well as the reluctance to change needs to be explained. It embodies conservatism and adaptability.

Conservatism and change

Folk music is conservative because it is an expression of the collective mind. Society is less eager than an individual either to accept the new or to reject the old. A societal mind is more than the sum total of individual minds. It is motivated differently at various levels and hence a change in any of its expressions is a complex and slow process.

Folk music is informed by diverse motivations and it is obvious that the satisfaction of all or most of the motives is a rare phenomenon. Change is accepted only when diverse motives have successfully completed a series of mutual influences.

Folk music mainly deals with themes that possess a universal appeal. Prior to finding a place in folk music, themes seem to be subjected to numerous eliminations. To introduce changes in such a time-tested entity is, therefore, the culmination of a lengthy process completed with considerable difficulty. Changes in folk music are results of a real cultural inevitability.

The functionality of folk music also acts as an impediment to change since it does not enjoy an independent existence. If its functional partners do not undergo changes, musical change alone is inconceivable.

However, the reluctance to change is not equally intense in case of all types of folk music. In this respect, the following observations are germane.

– Music associated with religious ceremonies, marriage and other rituals displays extreme conservatism.

– Comparatively speaking, music related to love, separation and other such common human experiences is more likely to change.

– Folk expressions, bound with entertainment items such as games, dances, etc., are prone to change.

– The easiest to change are those musical features which a performer or a particular group among them seems to prefer.


– If those who perform are themselves motivated to change the performance of the music concerned, then alterations can be easily introduced. A related feature is the role of the spirit of competition, in case a large number of performers are involved.

– Folk music changes on account of its largely unwritten tradition. Language, articulation, composition and such other aspects undergo unintentional changes when the corpus of music is transmitted from person to person and from generation to generation. A near-total reliance on memory is causally related to the changes detectable in a majority of cases. Too often, the debates about the  ‘original, traditional or the authentic’ in folk music are a consequence of the unintentional changes finding their way into the existing corpus.

– Folk music migrates when the people to whom it belongs shift their base. This is the case when people (individually or collectively) leave the place of their origin for a different domicile. On account of the change in environment, their folk music (which they otherwise cling to) undergoes changes. Somewhat disconcertingly, melodies might migrate independently. Thus one may come across near-identical melodies irrespective of distances, dissimilar texts and performing traditions. These are aptly described as ‘wandering melodies’.

– Another factor that may introduce qualitative changes in folk expression assumes special significance today. When a body of songs, etc., is taken up by castes or groups of people who are professional performers, changes are introduced because they are inclined to improve the performances. Usually, the interest is in creating a better impact on the audiences by injecting better techniques or superior skills in the performances. Very frequently, the performing models thus created tend to affect the originals! However, such a pattern of mutability takes the music to art music.

– Exposure to educational influences makes for changes in folk expression. Even if the entire corpus is not changed, significant changes in style are introduced. In a way, these particular changes may be described as indirect changes because they are the result of cultural developments brought about by education.

Perhaps, the most important factor responsible for changing folk music is the proximity of art music. The consequences of this musical and cultural neighbourhood need separate consideration.

Rootedness and mobility

Art music and folk music: Primitive and folk music can be meaningfully distinguished by the fact that the latter enjoys the proximity of another musical stream, which the former does not. To that extent, primitive music operates in musical isolation. On the other hand, in the case of folk music, there is the constant possibility of a continuous exchange of influences with both primitive as well as art music. In fact, the existence of more than one stream of music in itself indicates cultural complexity. The use of multiple language layers, recourse to the written form, the nature of the prevailing economy, the rate of industrialisation as well as mechanisation are some of the factors conducive to a more complex cultural milieu. To a certain extent, cultural complexity suggests a corresponding multi-stream musicality. Folk music is, therefore, prone to a variety of controls symptomatically indicated by the operations of art music. A detailed enumeration of how art music affects folk music is better revealed in the musical analysis of the latter.

National expression: Owing to its close relationship with a particular people and their culture, folk music can be regarded as a form of national expression. Diverse culture groups can hardly be expected to have similar folk music. In this context, countries such as India pose a special problem. Despite the cultural oneness of the country, almost every region has folk music particular to it. Hence these folk musics, being confined to particular people, can be described as national expressions, though such a characterisation overlooks the political orientation of the term ‘nation’. An interesting factor to note here is that the vocal music of a ‘nation’ is more homogeneous than its instrumental music.

An additional nuance in the situation is that more than one nation can have the same art music as a common tradition and hence art music cannot be strictly regarded as national expression. This is obviously not so in the case of folk music. Once again, the Indian situation needs special consideration with its single culture, two developed systems of art music and several regional expressions of folk music. However, the point to be stressed is that folk music (more than any other musical category) is closely and innately connected with a particular culture.

Geographical ties: In a manner of speaking, folk music being national expression automatically proclaims its ties with a specific geographical area. It is, therefore, logical that folk expression reflects the surroundings, the natural phenomena in its content. However, the close ties with a particular locale are a consequence of the relationship folk music has with a particular culture. Apart from the broader cultural causation, folk music keeps close to the geographical locale because of its characteristic responsiveness to nature as a force. The seasonal cycle, agricultural, pastoral and oceanic operations, all find a place in folk music. However, this is not to suggest that nature reflected in folk music corresponds to the actuality. It is possible to detect the depiction of nature in a manner that a particular community would wish to be surrounded by it. This may be interpreted as a direct response to the encompassing natural phenomena—though in a dialectical manner. (Perhaps the one exceptional case of Israel might suggest that geographical ties constitute a dispensable feature of folk music. The nation was preceded by its folk music!).

Migratory potentialities: Considering the stress on the element ‘one culture, one group and one region’, it may appear that folk music as an entity cannot migrate. However, this is not the case. On account of migrations, and also due to its largely unwritten tradition, folk music is characterised by a noticeable mobility. That which sounds good is accepted, modified, and assimilated to be pressed into service. Instrumental expression migrates in greater measure and more easily. Comparatively speaking, vocal music is closer to a culture and brooks dissociation from the people only under exceptional circumstances.

This article was originally published from the Archives section by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the August 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.