Panel 4. Variation in folksongs

Convenors: Teresa Proto, University of Leiden / Meertens Institute,; Mari Sarv, Estonian Folklore Archives of Estonian Literary Museum,

Variation in folksongs

It is well known that folksongs are not static but live “in a state of flux”. This is due primarily to the oral medium of transmission: change is inherent to the very nature of oral expression. However, orality is not the only source of variability. The individual creativity of the singers and the constant adaptation of the songs to the realities of life, including changes in the language, also play a role. Furthermore, general cognitive constraints appear to regulate the way in which we process, store and pass-on information.

Variation in folksongs may occur at all levels, from the accompanying movements to the underlying metrical structure. Because a song combines two objects, the text and the tune, variants may be produced by either manipulating the melodic-rhythmical structure of the tune, or the syntax/semantics of the text, or both. In the framework of this workshop, we would like to focus on variation at the structural level, including variants in the metrical, melodic and syntactic organization, and on the sources of this type of variation.

Variants at the musical level, for instance, may be naturally produced under the influence of cultural conditioning (e.g. assimilation of features of a foreign musical idiom), but they can also result from the melodic-rhythmical structure of the tune being adjusted to the requirements of the language. Instances of the latter kind of variation can be observed both diachronically (e.g. tune structure is modified in the course of time to accommodate phonological changes which have occurred in the language) and synchronically (e.g. in the local variants of a song collected within a limited geographic area). In some variants, structural modifications occur within a song while leaving the semantics (almost) untouched; in others, the semantics is largely disregarded, and what is preserved in the song transmission is the phonetics of the text, i.e. the text is sung as a sequence of phonetic strings partially or totally deprived of sense.

The workshop is conceived of as an opportunity to approach the topic of variation in folksongs from a broader perspective, involving scholars from different backgrounds such as linguistics, folklore studies, musicology and cognitive science. Participants in the workshop are expected to contribute with a 20-30 minute paper and to take part in the final discussion. The expected output of the workshop is a collective book (or a monographic issue of a journal) devoted to the theme “Towards a typology of variants in folksongs”.