A Comparison Between Chinese and Swedish Instrumental Folk Music
Recently, I have begun to wonder whether there are still similarities between originating from completely different cultures. This is where I came up with the idea of comparing folk music in China and Sweden, two completely different countries. So today, I will be comparing these two contrasting cultures of music, using pieces representing each culture.
Folk music – usually a form of rural music – is a genre of music that is most often defined by their characteristic of being passed down orally and/or aurally. This means that the music has been learned through hearing or listening to older members of a society, and not through reading written scores of music. (“Folk Music”)
Chinese Folk Music:
The earliest known Chinese folk music is in the 12th century where folk flute solos were the majority. This music had tonalities not of Western pentatonic scale but such tonalities similar to Middle Eastern scales, and a defining feature was its ornamentation in flutes. As time has passed and more instruments have been invented, other instruments such as the zither (plucked string instrument) or the erhu have become popular. Many of Chinese folk music is used as a form of storytelling, and are melodies played solo or with an accompaniment. (Music-Folk) (“Chinese Music”) The piece featured today is called “The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring” composed by A Bing, and it is played by the erhu, a two stringed Chinese vertical fiddle, made without a fingerboard in order to create subtle expressive elements such as subtle contrasts in dynamics, texture, powerful vibrato and glisandos. (Encyclopædia Britannica)
Swedish Folk Music:
Swedish traditional music is most often played in informal sessions at small festivals called spelmansstämma, a musician’s meeting, and most regions have these once a year. The tunes they play are folk music, and is usually a recreation of a past performance. The most common type of music is the Polska, dance tunes played in ¾ time, and other types include waltzes, polkas schottisches, mazurkas, etc. The tune I will be looking at today is “Polska från Torsång”, or Polska from Torsång, which is a Polska. A Polska is a type of tune where the strong beats come at the start and end of measures instead different to waltzes, where the strong beats only come at the first beat. Swedish folk music is played by many types of instruments such as the most common, fiddle, the accordion, the clarinet, the nyckelharpa (key fiddle), or the flute, and with today’s tune I thought I should feature the fiddle, as it is a defining characteristic of Swedish folk music.
Ornamentations in the melody is a defining characteristic of both genres of folk music. (Volk) (Fichtenbaum) In the Chinese piece, “The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring”, the melody features many different types of ornamentation. Acciaccaturas in measure two, trills in measure four and mordents in measure six. On top of these traditional ornamentations, there are also scoops and falls – usually characteristic ornamentations of jazz brass music – used to start phrases or to add expression in a melody. (Figure 1)
Figure 1: Ornamentations in “The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring”
These ornamentations are also seen in the Swedish piece “Polska från Torsång”, but to a lesser extent. Although there aren’t many ornamentations notated in the original score, listening to a recording of the piece gives us a sense of how much ornamentation is used. Through my transcription, it can be seen how appoggiaturas are often heard at the start of small phrases, and mordents are used to spice up each melody. Small slides, portamentos are also heard from appoggiaturas at the end of phrases, to give variation in expression. (Figure 2)
Figure 2: Ornamentations in “Polska från Torsång”
Furthermore, through looking specifically at the appoggiaturas we can hear how each appoggiatura has a different length in time, and takes up a different length of time from the note it is leading up to. The first one in measure 2 has a long appoggiatura, the second in measure 3, a little shorter, and the appoggiatura with the slide in measure 8 is also short. The last two appoggiaturas in measures 14 and 16 are also short but it is still clear, as to what note is played. (Figure 3) All appoggiaturas played in this piece are heard clearly, and is not very short, like in acciaccaturas.
Figure 3: Differences in Appoggiaturas in “Polska från Torsång”
Both genres of music have a variety in ornamentation, however the Chinese folk music seems to have more complex use of ornamentation with its scoops and falls, due to the instrument’s speciality in articulation.
Both genres of music have melodies composed of antecedent and consequent phrases, to assist in its flow of melody. In the first melody of the Chinese piece, it starts off with an antecedent phrase of four and a half measures, which ends with a measure long consequent phrase. (Figure 4)
Figure 4: Uneven phrases in “The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring”
The second melody is similar in style, however the third melody starts off with a short antecedent phrase of one measure and another antecedent phrase of two measures, ending with a consequent phrase of two melodies. (Figure 5)
Figure 5: Uneven phrases in “The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring” (2)
Through these three melodies it is already clear how complex the phrasings of melodies are in this piece. The first and second having an uneven split between length of antecedent and consequent phrases, and the third having an uneven two antecedent phrases and one consequent phrase form.
On the other hand, the Swedish piece has melodies that are composed of antecedent and consequent phrases of equal lengths. The piece itself is in a form of A1 A2, B1 B2, with A1 being the antecedent phrase to A2 and B1 to B2. Each of these phrases however can be broken down to two measures of an antecedent phrase ending with two measures of a consequent phrase. This format is repeated for each phrase in a structured order. (Figure 6)
Figure 6: Even phrases in “Polska från Torsång”
Comparing the two pieces, both pieces have melodies composed of the traditional antecedent and consequent phrases. However, while the Swedish piece has well-structured melodies of equal lengths of antecedent and consequent phrases, the Chinese piece is a lot more complex with it’s uneven flow of structure.
Looking at “Polska från Torsång”, as mentioned before, there are two main melodies that can both be split into two very similar phrases. For both melodies, the first few measures are the same as in both phrases in the melody, and it ends with either an antecedent line that ends on the 5th note of the scale, creating a small perfect cadence, or a consequent line that ends on the tonic, ending the melody with a resolution. (Figure 7)
Figure 7: Antecedent vs Consequent Endings in “Polska från Torsång”
If we break down each melody for its repetition, we can see how motif 1 with its unique rhythm of a dotted eighth note to a sixteenth note, is the defining characteristic of theme A. The motif is first played in the first measure after the anacrusis, and is diatonically sequenced up a diatonic step and is repeated in measure two. This series of motifs with the addition of the next measure is then repeated again in measures 5 to 7 in exact repetition. By repeating this motif four times throughout the theme, this creates unity and structure for the theme. (Figure 8)
Figure 8: Motif 1 in “Polska från Torsång”
A similar repetition is seen in theme B where a motif is repeated four times in the section. This motif is repeated and sequenced two times in the first system, and the whole series is repeated with small modifications in measures 13 to 15. (Figure 9)
Figure 9: Motif 2 in “Polska från Torsång”
Another motif heard is in the fourth and twelfth measures in the piece. The last beat of the motif consists of a broken D major triad using sixteenth notes ending on the 5th note of the scale, creating a small cadence towards the consequent phrase as mentioned before. (Figure 10) This motif allows for the connection between the two themes, and for the connection of the antecedent and consequent phrases in both melodies.
Figure 10: Motif 3 in “Polska från Torsång”
Looking at “The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring”, it is hard to hear the individual themes, and the repetition sounds a lot more vague. This may be as a result of the heavy rubato in the performer’s playing, or the heavy use of ornamentation and changes in articulation, making each repetition unique. One thing that I noticed when listening and looking at the transcription of the piece however is how each measure often starts with a long tone and is followed up with shorter lengthed notes creating colour. (Figure 11)
Figure 11: Short vs Long lines in “The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring”
Looking over the whole piece, many rhythmic motifs are repeated, but the notes used are sequenced or very modified such as in measures 3 and 6, or in measures 24 and 28. (Figures 12 and 13) In these repetitions and modifications, the rhythmic shapes can be similar with a few notes, but many times, only the rhythm is repeated.
Figure 12: Motif 1 (Measures 3 and 6) “The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring”
Figure 13: Motif 1 (Measures 24 and 28) “The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring”
There are also shorter motifs that are repeated in the song as well. Even in the beginning of the piece, the dotted eighth note to sixteenth note (or similar) figure is repeated in measures 1, 3, 4, and 6. (Figure 14)
Figure 14: Short Motif in “The Moon’s Reflection on the Second Spring”
In both songs, there are repetitions of motifs, however in the Polska song, the repetitions are well structured following the phrasing and many of it is exact repetition or sequenced. In the Chinese song, the small figures that are repeated, and the longer rhythmic figures that are repeated are not so structured however connects the uneven phrases together, and makes the music flow.
Both songs being folk songs, are heavily modified by the performer. Listening through many performances of the Chinese song, the song can seem very different due to the differences in ornamentation, rubato, and articulation.
For example listen to this performance where there are not many ornamentations used:
Now listen to this:
There are a lot more ornamentations used throughout the melody.
In the original, the rhythm is straight and there aren’t many ornamentations used except for the one grace note before measure 9 that acts as an anacrusis. (Figure 15) In the transcription however, some of the rhythms become syncopated or is given a swing-like feel, and there are a lot more ornamentations. (Figure 16)
Figure 15: Original Score of “Polska från Torsång” (Gjers)
Figure 16: Transcribed Score of “Polska från Torsång”
Both cultures have improvisation as an important element in their music (Lomax) (Stock) however with the Chinese music, this improvisation comes with rubato and use of articulation and ornamentation, in order to express the story told with the performers’ own unique expression. The difference in Swedish music is that the tempo is set and is not in rubato, limiting the improvisation to changes with rhythm creating a swing-like effect, in order to assist with the dances that the music accompanies.
Looking through Chinese and Swedish folk music, the main thing that struck with me is the use of ornamentation and motifs, which I think are what are most essential in these cultures. There are also similarities in how the melody is given importance and how improvisation is a key part of each culture, with them being both folk cultures. There are also small differences between these cultures, and there is a reason these features are heard in both cultures. Chinese folk music is used often for story telling, and so the improvisation, rubato, repetition, phrasing and ornamentation can allow the performer to tell a unique and interesting story with their own and unique style of performance. Swedish folk music on the other hand is used as an accompaniment for dances, and so the music is fixed in time, allowing the dancers to keep a steady rhythm while dancing. The ornamentation and changes in rhythm, adds colour to the music, and assists with the dances, and the repetitions of motifs make it easier for the dancers to keep dancing, and gives freedom for the dancers to improvise, as they know what is coming up.
Thank you for reading today’s post. I will try to be posting weekly posts about music, from cultures to more technical things I may have found interesting throughout the week, so stay tuned!
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