An Extensive Encyclopedic Music Dictionary

An Extensive
Traditional and Folk Music
Encyclopedic Dictionary

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Nachtmusik-Nachtmusik (German: night-music) is best known from Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, A Little Night Music, a serenade.

Nancy women in traditional songs are almost always named Nancy or Polly; this is a marker. See also Willy.

National see Steel Guitar.

natural 1. (n.) A note that is not (sharped) or (flatted). For example, in the key of D, which contains the notes C# and F#, the notes C and F would be called naturals. In notation, these would be indicated by the use of the natural symbol, explained below. 2. It is also the name of the symbol used before a note to cancel the sharp or flat that would normally be in the scale, and looks (more or less) like \=\. For example, in the key of G, in which the F is always played sharp, a natural would remove this sharp and F natural would be sounded. Like sharp or flat accidentals, the natural symbol applies only to the notes within a measure, and is cancelled by the next bar line. The symbol comes from the notation used in Renaissance times to distinguish Bb from B natural; the \=\ symbol was once a "b" with a rectangular body; see shape note. 3. (adj.) Derived from the natural scale or from the harmonic series of an acoustic musical sound. The term pure is synonymous.

natural minor see scale.

natural scale the natural scale derives from the harmonics produced by a vibrating string, etc. These are listed for the note C in the entry for harmonic series. It’s the scale that would be played by a valveless horn if it could go high enough (a bugle can only play pitches 2-6 of the series). The full natural scale is somewhat different from what we’re used to because certain notes, such as A, Bb, and F#, stray too far from the customary pitch, so after some adjustments, the natural scale becomes the scale of just intonation or the Pythagorean scale. However, the unusual notes are only a small problem: Instead of our familiar tone and semitone, there are several different types of tones produced, such as the major tone (C to D, ratio 9:8), the minor tone (D to E, ratio 10:9), and the semitone (E to F, ratio 16:15). Furthermore, flatting a note produces a differently pitched note than sharping the one below it (C# and Db are two separate notes). This is not true in the equal-tempered scale, where the two would be enharmonic. Though the just or natural scale is sweet-sounding, key changes are not possible because of the number of tone types. There have been various other attempts throughout musical history to fix the oddities of the natural scale, such as the meantone scale. The best compromise so far is our familiar equal-tempered scale. See also comma of Pythagoras, temperament.

Natural-A natural is a note that is neither a sharp nor a flat. The adjective is used to describe the natural horn or natural trumpet, without valves.

natural-minor. a mode consisting of T-S-T-T-S-T-T.

navelgazers in the 70s, and to a lesser extent the 80s, folk clubs and coffeehouses filled up with Bob Dylan wannabes, complete with vast numbers of homemade songs. While folkies admire creativity and the gumption to get away from watching predigested pap on TV, these songwriters often didn’t realise that rhyming your diary and setting it to three chords did not a folksong make. The introspective quality of their lyrics resulted in the name. See also Taylor, James, wankers. (Lest you think the above is unduly cynical and a tad harsh on songwriters, Pete Seeger wrote in a 1973 Sing Out! about the various categories of songs on tapes received by the magazine (about 25 tapes a week at the time), and one of them was: "NAVEL SONGS: usually labelled contemporary songs, these are the by-myself, for-myself, about-myself pieces which are usually rather formless both in music and poetry. They are generally too personalised to be of any use to anyone but the singer.")

navvy a manual laborer. Laborers building the British canal systems were called navvies because the canals were referred to as "navigations".

Navy six a six-shot percussion cap revolver, popular in the American west until the 1880s. It’s mentioned in some western ballads, such as "Buffalo Skinners".

Neale, John (1818-1866) English hymnwriter and poet. He is the author of the words to "Good King Wenceslas" (see medieval).

Neapolitan chord. A major chord built on the minor second degree of the key. It is a chromatic chord that normally occurs in first inversion and functions as a dominant-preparation.

Nebenstimme. (Schoenberg) a line of secondary importance, abbreviated N in Schoenberg's scores.

needle gun a 19th-century term for a breech-loading rifle. The "needle" is a firing pin. The expression is rare, but turns up in the great American ballad, "Buffalo Skinners".

neighboring-tone. a nonharmonic-tone that is approached by step from a harmonic-tone and moves by step back to the same harmonic-tone.

Neil, Fred (1937- ) singer-songwriter-guitarist who started off in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 50s and early 60s. His songs and rich voice are popular, and his songs have been widely recorded, with his best-known being "Everybody’s Talkin’", which was the theme of the 1969 film "Midnight Cowboy". Others include "Blues on the Ceiling", "Other Side of This Life", and "Wild Child in a World of Trouble". He has not recorded since 1971.

Neoclassical-Neoclassical style in music indicates a 20th century eclectic return by some composers to various styles and forms of earlier periods, whether classical or baroque. The style is exemplified in the score for the ballet Pulcinella by Stravinsky or by the same composer's opera The Rake's Progress.

neuk (Scot.) nook, corner, as in "The East Neuk o’ Fife".neumatic from neume, but means the setting of a syllable to a number of notes, usually no more than six or so. More than this is called melisma. This is a textbook definition, and the terms are probably used interchangeably.

neume (pron. "noom" or "nyoom"; also "neuma") a shorthand notation system for recording notes or groups of notes in Gregorian chant; their use started about the 9th century. There is a system of neumes for the shorthand notating of music of the bagpipes. This is fitting, since bagpipes are pneumatic systems.

Never-Never Land traddies often idealise the past - the old ballads spoke of lords and ladies and fairytale castles, and even the poor bugger trying to plough a field while up to his knees in muck becomes the Merry Ploughboy. Merrye Olde England becomes a sort of Disneyland. Sea shanties make life on the bounding main sound like great fun, something that isn’t supported by the accounts of the time. In the boy-meets-girl songs, of which there are many, the protagonists are usually rolling in the hay by the third verse. While this might happen occasionally, the fact that it happens consistently in balladry doesn’t say much for the reality of some folksong. Countering this confectionery are the many songs detailing the horror and uselessness of war, the gory murder ballads, and even the safe-sex warning songs of past centuries (syphilis was the AIDS of its day).

New Christy Minstrels a massive folk group capitalizing on the 1960s folk revival. They had a hit with "Green, Green", and their best-known performers were Kenny Rogers and Barry McGuire (singer of "Eve of Destruction" by P.F. Sloan). They took their name from the 19th century Christy’s Minstrels.

New Lost City Ramblers an old-timey group formed in 1958 to perform what might be called the roots of country music: both traditional and composed songs from the mountain country of the eastern US. The original members were Mike Seeger (1933- ), John Cohen (1932- ), and Tom Paley (1928- ), who was later replaced by Tracy Schwarz (1938- ). The group still gets together to perform. Perhaps no one else had such a influence on the younger musicians who were interested in the old-timey style. Besides impeccable musicianship, they also varied the content of their repertoire to include country blues, Cajun, old ballads, etc.

New Vaudeville Band the vaudeville approach had a small revival in the 60s with this group’s wildly successful "Winchester Cathedral".New York Gals performed by many, with one of its most unusual arrangements being by Steeleye Span with Peter Sellers on the ukelele. The song originated in the first half of the 19th century as one of the vast number of shanties from the American clipper and packet ships. It was collected by Lomax, John and Lomax, Alan with the title "As I Walked Down on Broadway". There is also a version known as "Buffalo Gals". Those who lived in southeast Canada or the northeast US in the late 50s or early 60s might remember this as the theme for Ballantine’s beer commercials ("Oh, that Ballantine, ale with Brewer’s Gold" instead of "Oh, you New York gals, can’t you dance the polka").

newgrass an imprecise and not very useful word that’s along the lines of "new country". When the style of bluegrass was stepped up in tempo and loudness via electric arrangements, it was labelled newgrass. It has been pointed out by music critics that the technical virtuousity of the newgrassers has displaced the intensity and thoughtfulness that went into the songs of, say, the Stanley Brothers or Monroe, Bill.

Newman, Joel a pseudonym - see the Weavers.

nexus-set. (Forte) (set-theory, nonlinear) a referent set for a set-complex.

Nick (UK, also "Old Nick") Satan.

niffer (Scot.) trade, exchange.night visiting song although there is a song by this name, the term refers to a class of songs, all on the same topic: a man visiting a woman, or vice versa, late at night and for amatory reasons. Sometimes the songs are comic, with the hopeful young man being made the butt of a joke. Sometimes there is a supernatural element, with one of the lovers returned from the dead, but doomed to return to the netherworld before dawn. A lot of the songs feature elaborate methods for the man who’s outside to notify the woman of his arrival - pulling strings and so on.

Niles, John Jacob (1892-?) folklorist and collector of American folk songs. He has published a large number of his collections and has made albums for RCA, Folkways and other labels.


ninth 1. The ninth note of the scale; that is, the octave plus one note. For example, the D in the octave above C is the ninth in the key of C. 2. The compound interval formed by playing two notes a ninth apart.

ninth chord a chord consisting of the root, third, fifth, flatted seventh, and a ninth. For example, C9 would be C-E-G-Bb-D. The flatted seventh could be omitted for the simplest of ninth chords.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band begun in 1966, the NGDB mixed folk, rock, jug band and other elements into a musical potpourri. They are best known to folkies for a hit recording of "Mr Bojangles" (see Walker, Jerry Jeff and in the early 70s, for organizing a United Artists album, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken", which featured a large number of folk and country musicians, including Acuff, Roy, Carter, Maybelle, Watson, Doc, Travis, Merle, Scruggs, Earl, and others.

Nocturne-A nocturne is a night-piece, music that evokes a nocturnal mood. It was developed as a form of solo piano music by the Irish pianist and composer John Field in the early 19th century, leading to its notable use by Chopin. The title has been used more recently by other composers for both instrumental and vocal compositions.

node in a vibrating string or column of air, any point that has no motion. When a string is plucked, it swings back and forth to produce the fundamental note. The center point then stops moving, and the two halves of the string swing alternately to produce the octave. The process continues as the string divides itself up in simple integer ratios, producing the harmonic series. The node can be demonstrated by forcing one onto any string of a stringed instrument to produce the octave harmonic. Place your finger lightly on the halfway point of the string and pluck the string forcefully. You’ll hear the high-pitched harmonic, which is also rather thin in tone colour - the fundamental has been suppressed, and so have the upper harmonics that don’t also have a node at the string center. See also formant, and for how the harmonics relate to the musical scale, temperament.

Nonet-A nonet is a composition for nine performers.

nonharmonic-tone. a tone or note that is not a part of the sounding chord. syn. nonharmonic-tone.

nonlinear set. (set-theory, nonlinear) A set in which linear order is irrelevant (syn. unordered-set).

nonsense songs these abound in folk music (see also tall tales). The lyrics generally tell a preposterous story with lots of outrageous word plays. Sometimes they have an implied moral, and sometimes they’re just what Sandburg, Carl called "darn fool ditties". Two verses about the balloon ride in the delightful "Horse Named Bill" should serve. It’s set (more or less) to the tune of "Dixie": "The balloon turned up with its bottom side higher,It fell on the wife of a country squire,She made a noise like a doghound,Like a steam whistle,And also likeDynamite.Oh, what could you do in a case like that?Oh, what could you do but stamp on your hat,And your toothbrushAnd anythingThat’s helpless."

nonsense syllables often used in folk music (detractors might say it’s nothing but). One use is for concocting a chorus or burden: To me whack fol-a-day,Whack-fol-a-day,To me whack-fol-a-day,Fol-a-die-gee-oh. - "The Treadmill Song" Another is to insert them in lines to accentuate a rhythm, just make it scan, or to stretch it out - "He’s a-then gone home a-to fetch his gun" ("Maria Marten"). It’s interesting to note that the "a-" before a verb ("a-waitin’ for the dancers to come back") has a forerunner in Old and Middle English - "sumer is icumen in". Actually, "is icumen" means "has come", but it’s a possibility. Sometimes an entire song can be made of nonsense syllables - see mouth music, scat singing.

normal-order. (adapted from Howe) (set-theory, nonlinear) the most compact rotation of the pitch-numbers of a pc-set. E.g. G B D F has pitch-numbers 7,11,2,5. Rotations of these are: (a) 7,11,2,5, (b) 11,2,5,7 (c) 2,5,7,11, and (d) 5,7,11,2. The most compact of these is (b) since the distance from the first to last numbers is the smallest mod-12. If two or more rotations have the same distance from first to last numbers, the rotation with the greatest compaction at the beginning is the normal-order. Compare with prime-form.

Northumbrian pipes see bagpipes.

Northwest see morris dancing.notation sheet music. Many folkies never learn to read music, even if they’re virtuosos. While notation doesn’t always lend itself to recording the subtleties of folk music, it’s a handy facility. See also playing by ear.

notation, British the British have different note names from those used in North America: 


North American


double whole note


whole note 













While you might have little need for a sixty-fourth note, it is included in order to bring you the amazing word "hemidemisemiquaver".

notation, guitar the guitar is a transposing instrument; that is, the notes you read from the notation are not the ones that sound when you play them. Fortunately for guitarists who read, the transposition is an octave, so it’s hardly noticeable. middle C on the guitar is the second string, first fret. However, when you actually play from notation, you would sound the C one octave lower on the fifth string, third fret. The advantage to doing this is that it moves the guitar’s range of notes onto the treble staff, eliminating the need for the bass staff. See also transpose, transposing instrument.

Notation-Notation is the method of writing music down, practices of which have varied during the course of history. Staff notation is the conventional notation that makes use of the five-line staff or stave, while some recent composers have employed systems of graphic notation to indicate their more varied requirements, often needing detailed explanations in a preface to the score. Notation is inevitably imprecise, providing a guide of varying accuracy for performers, who must additionally draw on stylistic tradition.

note frequencies see equal-tempered scale, just intonation, meantone scale.

note names these are the same as the names of chords in a progression for the Key of C:  



double dominant (aka "supertonic")






relative minor 



note sequence the arrangement of tones and semitones in a scale.note the basic unit of the scale. By convention, they’re labelled from C on up the alphabet to G, then A and B, whereupon you start over with C again. See octave for a discussion of the confusion this causes. The term is often used incorrectly to mean a tone.

note. a written symbol for a pitch. A note does not sound. 2 A note in English is either a single sound or its representation in notation. American English refers to a single sound as a tone, following German practice.

noter 1. See dulcimer. 2. A tuner of some sort, usually a pitch pipe. 3. The person who sounds the tuner so singers can get the key.

noughtless (Scot., also "naughtless") worthless.

nourice (Scot., also "nouris") nurse.

nouris (Scot., also "nourice") nurse.nucleus. (set-theory) a set of elements used as a central focus, similar to a tonic.

null-set. (set-theory, nonlinear) a pc-set with nothing in it.

numbers in tradition certain numbers are used over and over in traditional songs, perhaps because they lend themselves to rhyme, or perhaps because they just have a nice sound. "Seven" and "four-and-twenty" turn up all the time. Sometimes, presumably to preserve the meter or rhyme, factors are used: "The number of days was seven times seven..." For an ancient counting system that turns up occasionally in UK folk songs, see yan, tan, tethera.

nut 1. A hard piece of wood or plastic at the head of the neck on stringed instruments. Grooves are cut in it to determine the spacing between the strings. 2. See star.

Nye, Hermes folksong collector and singer. He has made a number of albums of American traditional ballads, with subjects such as railroads and the Civil War.

nylon strings the classical guitar uses nylon strings instead of the steel strings found on the guitar used by folkies (although they’re still occasionally referred to as "gut"). The sound is mellow and the bass deep, but it requires a good-quality guitar and an experienced player to avoid a plunkiness. Beginners often start on a nylon because the strings are easier to press down. There is a myth that the nylon-strung guitar is not as loud as the steel-string. This might be because of the muted treble output; a good guitarist can make them sound every bit as loud. They are excellent for lead guitar, although they don’t respond to the bending of notes as well as the steel-string.