Folk Music in The United States


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16                 An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States

ers jagged ones; some have descending ones, others arc-shaped. Contours which only ascend are rare, possibly because of the difficulty of producing a rising melodic line with the human voice, for when a singer is exhaling, he finds descent much easier.

As already said, the rhythmic patterns of traditional music are often irregular, but nevertheless systematic. Meters change frequently, as in Example 31, or a song may consist of a pattern which, though repeated throughout the song, is in itself fairly complex- Meters such as 5/8, 7/8, 11/8, and 13/8 are found as well as the simpler types.

The rhythms and metric patterns in folk songs are often based on, or at least related to, the rhythm of the words. This is particularly true if the rhythmic aspects of the language are very pronounced. The rhythms of a musical style often reflect the characteristics of the language. In German, for instance, words often begin with unaccented syllables, and nouns are preceded by unstressed articles. In Czech, however, articles do not exist, and all words begin with stressed syllables. In some songs that have traveled across the German-Czech frontier we find the same traits: Czech variants often begin with stressed tones, and lack the so-called pick-up or up-beat, but German variants more commonly begin on the unaccented beats. We are not sure whether these musical traits originated along with those of the language because of some kind of aesthetic preference in the culture, or whether they are simply the result of tunes being set to specific words whose rhythm must be accommodated.^

The rhythmic structure of the text of a song seems to have other profound effects on the entire rhythmic structure of a musical style. For example, in most western European bodies of poetry the basic unit is the foot, which consists of one stressed syllable and one or two accompanying unstressed ones. We describe a line of poetry by indicating the type and number of feet. Thus, the foot arrangement in many of the Anglo-American ballads is iambic, 4,3,4,3. This rather regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables produces a fairly regular metric structure in the music. In most eastern European languages, however, metric feet do not exist in the poetry, and the basic unit is the syllable.

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