Norway is a country of rich folk music traditions. When we speak of "folk music", we are generally referring to traditional, anonymous music from rural communities, music that has survived the passage of time and is still very much alive although it has never been written down.
Folk music is also closely associated with particular instruments. In Norway this music has been regarded as national music that is distinctively Norwegian, and has therefore been the focus of a great deal of interest. Throughout the entire twentieth century, there have been discussions about the kind of music that deserved to be called "folk music". Generally it may be said that the scope of the term has been gradually widened.
Norwegian folk music may be divided into two categories: instrumental and vocal. As a rule instrumental folk music is dance music (slåttar). Norwegian folk dances are social dances and usually performed by couples, although there are a number of solo dances as well, such as the halling. Norway has very little of the ceremonial dance characteristic of other cultures. Dance melodies may be broken down into two types: two-beat and three-beat dances. The former are called halling, gangar or rull, whereas the latter are springar or springleik.
Traditional dances from the present century, such as waltz, tango, etc., played on the accordion are not generally regarded as folk music, even though this music is extremely popular. The same applies to the Norwegian variant of American country music. Such music is cultivated in circles that have their own organizations and festivals.
The most important folk music instrument in Norway is the Hardanger fiddle. It is only to be found in Norway, primarily in the western and central part of the country. The Hardanger fiddle dates back to around 1700 and differs from the ordinary fiddle in many respects. The most important of these is that it has sympathetic strings and a less curved bridge and fingerboard. Thus, the performer plays on two strings most of the time, creating a typical bourdon style. An ordinary type of violin (the flatfele) has been commonly used in the eastern and northern parts of the country. Norwegian folk music for the fiddle also reveals great variation as regards tunings.
Other folk music instruments that are common in Norway are the Norwegian dulcimer (langeleik), various flutes and the Jew's harp. The dulcimer consists of a long, narrow case without a neck, with one melody string and several accompanying strings producing a fixed harmony. It is played with a plectrum. The placement of the frets on old dulcimers indicates that the scale differed from the tempered scale employed in European art music. The dulcimer tradition has survived up to our day only in the Valdres region. The long willow pipe is the most typical of the flutes. It measures between 40 to 80 centimetres (about 2 feet), has no finger holes, and produces a harmonic series. Generally, a willow pipe produces between eight and ten notes, which are enough to play a lively melody.
The vocal tradition
Epic folk songs are the most important form of vocal folk music in Norway. Although there are many types of epic folk songs, the most intriguing are the medieval ballads. They were first transcribed in the previous century, but the ballad tradition has been handed down from the Middle Ages. The lyrics of these songs also revolve around this period of history, recounting tales of the lives of nobles, and of knights and maidens. A number of the ballads describe historical events, and they are often dramatic and tragic. Although the lyrics of Norwegian epic folk songs have parallels in the German tradition, they are most closely related to English and Scottish ballads. However, fairy-tale motifs and goblins and giants are more commonly found in the Nordic folk songs than in the English.
The lullaby (bånsull) is another type of folk song that is widespread in Norway. There are many Norwegian lullabies, and they are often sung to simple melodies that have been handed down through the centuries. There are also various types of work songs in Norway, as well as calls and signal songs. The latter two were intended to be audible over long distances. A rich tradition of folk melodies used in Protestant hymns developed before the advent of the church organ. These melodies are very beautiful, and a great many of them have been incorporated into modern hymnbooks.
The Sami people have their own vocal folk music, the joik, which is a monotonous chant. The only instrument they knew was the magic drum (runebomme) or the shaman's drum. The joik is an archaic vocal form which is closely related to those employed by other Arctic peoples. The joik is not an epic form, i.e. it does not tell a story. Instead, it depicts a person or a phenomenon by means of single words and short sentences. It is onomatopoeic and symbolic.
Folk music is a very popular form of music in Norway. Interest in folk music is growing, and there are a number of promising young performers. They are not only drawn to instrumental music, however. Many young people are now learning to sing in the traditional style. During the past few decades (since the folk-rock trend), folk musicians have displayed a greater interest in experimentation. A new generation has emerged which, while showing respect for the old traditions, is also willing to think along new lines. A number of well-known folk music artists in Norway have made excellent recordings using new instruments and new arrangements. The two record companies in Norway that specialize in Norwegian folk music are Heilo and Buen Kulturverksted. Kirkelig Kulturverksted has also released a number of interesting folk music records.
Folk music institutions
The National Association of Folk Musicians is an organization for folk music artists and folk dancers. Founded in 1923, the organization is primarily a union for local and regional folk music associations, but it is also open to individual members. As of 1990, the national association had 6,000 members from approx. 125 different local organizations. The National Association of Folk Musicians publishes Spelemannsbladet, a folk music journal that comes out 12 times a year. It also arranges the annual Landskappleiken (National Contest for Traditional Music), which is the most important event of its kind in Norway. The word "kappleik" means contest, and the annual contest features traditional vocal and instrumental music as well as folk dancing. Such contests are also held on a regional basis.
Attending a national folk music festival in Norway is a real treat for anyone interested in folk music. In addition to the official programme, the festival provides an opportunity for amateurs of all kinds to get together, and the unofficial "off-stage" performances add a colourful touch. Most local organizations also arrange their own festivals. A list of folk music festivals held in Norway is available from the National Association of Folk Musicians, which can also provide information about courses and seminars.
The Førde Folk Music Festival, which is held every summer in western Norway, is more internationally oriented than the festivals mentioned above. It is attended by outstanding folk musicians from all over the world. One of its most popular features is the opportunity it provides for musicians from different nations and representing different genres to play together.
The Norwegian Folk Music Collection is the central folk music archives in Norway. It is affiliated with the University of Oslo, and is a centre for folk music research in Norway. Otherwise, research on folk songs has largely been the domain of the Norwegian Folklore Collection. All those particularly interested in folk songs are referred to the Archives for Folk and Popular Song in Oslo. In addition, there are several large regional archives and a number of local folk music archives in Norway. The most important of these are the Arne Bjørndal Collection at the University of Bergen, the Norwegian Council for Folk Music and Folk Dance (which specializes in folk dance) at the University of Trondheim, and the Northern Norwegian Folk Music Collection at the Tromsø Museum, which is responsible for Sami music. In addition to research, these institutions are engaged in collecting folk music.