Danish traditional music

Danish traditional music
Rebild Spillemandslaug, a guild of traditional musicians founded by Evald Thomsen.

Danish traditional music (Danish: spillemandsmusik) is the music genre that has its roots in pre-modern Denmark. In Denmark in the pre-modern period it was common for a village to have one or more town musicians (Danish: "spillemand") who played at dances, processions and certain rituals. Until around 1900 this was the common musical culture of Denmark, but with increasing urbanization and the spread of Classical music it became marginalized to exist in rural areas.



Through the Middle ages and into the 19th century there are reports of "chain dances", processions and ceremonial dances accompanied by pipes, drums and singing.

In the 17th and 18th centuriesthroughout Denmark the practice of music was under monopoly by the appointed city musician "stadsmusikant", who with his journeymen and apprentices were the only ones allowed to play for a salary within an assigned territory. Since the city musician was trained in the cities this meant that courtly repertoires made their way into the countryside, and that most areas did not maintain local musical traditions during this time. Only a few areas, such as Bornholm and Amager never had the stadsmusikant monopoly, and a few others such as Fanø maintained a local tradition by an arrangement where local musicians leased the right to perform on the island from the city musician of Ribe. Since city musicians frowned on the use of instruments deemed impure such as drums, bagpipes and hurdy gurdys, this period also saw the rise of the fiddle as the main instrument for dance music.[1]

From around 1500 medieval chain dances were exchanged for partner dances, the oldest known pair dance in Denmark is the pols, an adapted variant of a Polish dance which was popular in Sweden as early as 16th century. It is assumed that the pols was prevalent in the Danish countryside by the second half of the 17th century, and in the 18th century it was the most common popular dance along with the minuet. These Polish dances were usually performed in two parts a slow march and a faster 3/4 second part. Often in the oldest hand written tune books only the first part was written, as the fiddler improvised the second half based on the first.

From the end of the 18th century English-style contra and square dances became popular. In the 19th century the waltz became the most popular dance in the cities, after having been known in the countryside for awhile. Other dance types of the early 19th century are hopsa, rheinlænder, galop, sveitrit og schottish all of which were integrated into the popular English style dances, and later as their own dance forms. Around 1850 the polka and mazurka entered the popular repertoire. At the end of the 19th century the traditional dance tradition began to loose its place to modern dances from England, Southern Europe and America.[2]

To counter the loss of traditional dances the Association for the Promotion of Folkdancing was founded in 1901, focusing on the preservation of popular dances from the period 1750-1850. Many local chapters of such preservation societies appeared during the first decades of the 20th century, and in 1929 there were as many as 16,000 members. These dance associations did have a homogenizing effect on the popular dances, creating a standard repertoire of Danish folk dances. Certain rural areas of Denmark such as Fanø, Læsø, Ærø and in parts of Western Jutland did maintain living traditions of dancing dating back to the late 18th century and well into the 20th century.

Sources and History of scholarship

The earliest known Danish traditional music comes from the handwritten tune collections of musicians, such as the large collection of tunes by Rasmus Storm (approx. 1760). Collection of danish folkmelodies began in the early 19th century, and figures such as Svend Grundtvig (1824-83) and A. P. Bergreen (1801-80) and Evald Tang Kristensen (1843-1929) published significant collections of tunes and songs. In the early 20th century with the establishment of the field of ethnology in Denmark the collection of folk tradition including music, song, and dances began in earnest. [3]


  1. ^ Koudal, Jens Henrik. 1997. The impact of the "Stadsmusikant" on Folk music" in Doris Stockmann & Jens Henrik Koudal (eds). 1997. Historical studies on folk and traditional music: ICTM Study Group on Historical Sources of Folk Music, conference report, Copenhagen, 24-28 April 1995. Museum Tusculanum Press.
  2. ^ Urup, Henning. 1976. ”Dansk spillemandsmusiks forudsætninger, kilder og særlige karaktertræk” in "Musik og forskning 2", Copenhagen[1] (Danish)
  3. ^ Bæk, John. 2006. Dansk Spillemandsmusik 1660 – 1999 - med særligt henblik på spillestilen. MA thesis from the university of Aarhus.[2] (Danish)

See also

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