How do we learn folk music?
Part 1 of a two-part series by Jack Cooper.
When I studied the Introduction to Western Music History at Conrad Grebel College back in the early eighties, I came upon my first definition of folk music. It wasn’t anything cute or catchy like, “It’s called Folk music because it ain’t sung by horses”, but I’ve retained the definition in my memory to this day because it tried to clearly delineate the difference between highbrow and lowbrow music. Classical music was carefully orchestrated, the composer required a degree of training and/or education, it had to be written out, and it was normally performed by an ensemble or larger grouping. Folk music was written and performed ‘for the folk’ by wandering minstrels and was learned by aural methods; folk songs rarely existed in written form and when they did usually only the lyrics were written down.
In the mid-to-late 1800’s classical composers began incorporating folk song melodies into their compositions- sort of like the “Jeans and Classics” series you hear today, where a full orchestra is employed to serenade the audience with David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’. Classical music pretty much remained classical music throughout history, although the harmonic and tonal vocabulary broadened and new instruments, including electronic ones, were employed. It was never as good as it was in the days of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Sort of like how all rock music has sucked since the sixties and early seventies.
Folk idioms broadened out and became more complex. Pianos became the ukuleles of their day in the late 1800’s, but piano was almost always taught and performed with sheet music. Recorded music came into existence and it was like the Big Bang; it provided a new way to preserve music without having to listen to someone playing in the same room or having to rely on written music. Folk music as a stylistic genre, as opposed to a theoretical idiom, flowered within Western culture in the fifties and sixties. Other stuff, like Al Gore inventing the Internet happened as well- I don’t want to bore you with all the technical details.
Trying to get a room full of musicians to agree on the current definition of folk music is enough to incite a holy war. But rather than get sucked into that debate, I am currently embroiled in a debate of a different sort with folks involved in making music within folk and roots genres: Is there a need today for written music or can we all agree that recorded music and aural methods are all that are needed to learn to sing and play folk music?
I think before we dive in and start arguin’ that we need to first examine the obvious question: How does one learn to sing and play folk music? The flippant answer would probably be: it depends on whom you ask. We all have our biases shaped by what roles we play and what has served us well along our journey of making and/or appreciating music. The point I was attempting to make in my rambling introduction about classical and folk music is that there is no longer a clear dividing line between ‘formal’ music makers and those engaged in informal genres of music. Access to education changed dramatically in Western society after the Industrial revolution. Music education has been part of most school curricula for decades. Even with aggressive cutbacks over the years to ‘non-essential’ programs, students will be introduced to singing or playing an instrument at some point in their school careers. And with that will come at least a brief introduction on how to read and/or write music.
So your typical folkie will likely have at least some degree of musical literacy. Back to the question, then- How does one learn to sing or play the music by a folk or roots artist? I think along with this question comes another important qualifying question- What are the reasons that one would learn to sing or play music by a folk and roots artist?
If I were to classify my status as a musician, I would call myself semi-professional. That is, I have performed music for money in the past but it has never been a primary source of income for me and has never been a pursuit that I’ve spent a significant part of my time or focus on. When I am motivated to learn a song by an artist, it is typically because I feel that the style and lyrics of the song resonate with me and that I could hear myself performing a version of the song, either at an open stage, a song circle or at a paid gig. I tend to be goal oriented that way; other people I know are motivated to learn a song just for the sake of learning it or for the challenge without regard to where or how they might perform the song.
So I think part of the general motivation for learning is that most of us carry a radar with us that is constantly on the lookout for ‘good songs’ or tunes and songs that have particular meaning to us or resonate with us. Those involved with teaching music or leading bands or choirs have the additional motivation of finding songs that would be suitable for their students, choirs or ensembles to perform.
How do we learn to play the music that motivates us or inspires us? I’m going to toss out a few options, and I’m hoping we can flesh out more ideas with some discussion. Here is what I come up with:
- Aural methods. You learn by hearing the artist play the song in concert or on CD, or by hearing someone else cover the song at a jam or circle. There is a bit of skill involved with doing this that relies on being able to quickly assimilate what you hear and retain what you hear in memory, sometimes known as ‘having a good ear’.
- Cheat sheets. You learn by having a sheet containing all the information you need to play the song. This could be as simple as a lyric sheet with chords. Rise Up Singing, a popular songbook used across many jams and song circles, uses a modified version of lyrics with chords to cram several hundred songs in the book. Fake books usually contain the music notation for the melody with lyrics and chords in a condensed format. Leadsheets are similar to Fake books, but sometimes guitar chords are pictured as well. Leadsheets or Fake books are self-contained in that one can learn to play the song without having previously heard the song. Lyric sheets and Rise Up Singing both rely on the learner having to learn the song by aural methods as well.
- Written notation of a musical arrangement. To learn a specific vocal or instrumental part, you read the arrangement written as tabbed notation or standard notation. Most choirs rely on using choral arrangements to learn songs (most, but not all). A popular format of sheet music is PVG (Piano-vocal-guitar) which contains music notation for the vocal part and piano arrangement along with accompanying chords to be played on guitar. It is not essential for one learning a part or song using this method to have previously heard the song.
- Video. I’m going to delve into this in much greater detail in the next article, but I think it is sufficient to say that instruction of stringed or fretted instruments is greatly aided by providing visual content.
- Live music instruction. I almost forgot about the obvious method for learning music- taking lessons either individually or in a classroom with an instructor.
Note that none of these methods are particularly new or cutting-edge. These methods have all been available for a long time in one form or another. In the next article, I am going to explore what is new and what options are now available that weren’t around twenty years ago.