An Extensive Encyclopedic Music Dictionary

An Extensive
Traditional and Folk Music
Encyclopedic Dictionary

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(Section P4)

press gang until the early 1800s, it was common practice to keep the military up to strength by kidnapping men. This may be the origin of our phrase "pressed into service". There are many traditional songs about the kidnapped men, and as many or more from the point of view of the women left behind. After the early 1800s the practice was stopped, perhaps because of public opinion, or perhaps because kidnapped men don’t make the most loyal soldiers. The powers that be then switched to a recruiting method still in use today: lies and exaggeration. The greenhorn was promised all sorts of perks if he’d take the King’s shilling and kiss the Bible (a ritual equivalent to signing on the dotted line). This technique produced a great number of anti-recruiting songs, whose purpose may well have been to warn the innocent.

Presto-Presto (Italian: quick) is used frequently as a direction to performers. An even faster speed is indicated by the superlative prestissimo or even il più presto possibile, as fast as possible.

primary-chords. the most important chords in a key: I, IV, V.

principal chords three chords built on the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale, such as C, F, and G in the key of C. See major chord, triad, progression.

Prine, John (1946- ) Chicago singer/songwriter who writes in the folk and country traditions. Considered one of the best writers ever, with a huge list of well-known songs that includes "Paradise", "Sam Stone", "Dear Abby", "Illegal Smile", "Spanish Pipedream" (Blow up your TV), "Hello In There", "Angel From Montgomery" and dozens more. These date from his first album in 1971, but he continues to perform and record.

Prior, Maddy in the late 60s she teamed with Hart, Tim, performing traditional British music, recording the two-volume set "Folksongs of Old England" and the album "Summer Solstice". They then formed Steeleye Span, a band that’s still going. She also recorded several albums of her own compositions, such as "Woman in the Wings". She continues to perform, both as a soloist and with Steeleye.

prison songs (see also hollers) many songs from the US prisons and work farms made their way into the blues and folk traditions. Examples are "Midnight Special", "Bring Me Little Water, Silvie" and "Rocks and Gravel". Many of these songs were recorded by collectors at prison farms in the US south in the 30s and 40s.

processional (aka "morris on") In a danceout, the dancers will gather away from a crowd, then dance through it. The traditional music for this is "Winster Processional", aka "The Morris March". The opposite is the recessional. A mass processional of hundreds of dancers and massed bands can be utterly astounding.

process-music. a compositional procedure in which there is no traditional score but rather, the composer describes the process that the performers are to use to "create" the music.

producer in music recording, the producer has the role of the director in moviemaking. He or she will advise on the arrangements of the songs and sit in on the recording session with advice to the performers and the recording mixer (not all recording "engineers" and sound system operators understand the requirements of folk music - see rock mixers).

Proffitt, Frank (1913-1969) the North Carolina traditional musician (fretless banjo and guitar) taught "Tom Dooley" (aka "Tom Dula") to Anne and Frank Warner (see Warner, Frank). He also collected many songs from his area and passed them on to collectors. Although he never became a full-time professional musician, his albums on Folkways and Folk-Legacy inspired legions of folk musicians in the folk revival.

Programme music-Programme music is music that has a narrative or descriptive extra-musical content. Music of this kind has a long history, but the term programme music was coined by Liszt, whose symphonic poems principally attempt to translate into musical terms works of literature, such as Goethe's Faust or Dante's Divina Commedia. It seems preferable that the term should be limited to instrumental music for concert use and should not include either incidental music or ballet music.

progression most songs have some sort of chord progression; that is, certain chords harmonize nicely with parts of the melody (but see the end of this entry). If you look at a large number of songs, a pattern emerges. The basic chord progression uses major chords built on the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale (the familiar C-F-G, the principal chords, so-called because they encompass all the notes of the scale). Each chord change produces a small bit of musical tension that urges yet another change. The G in the above example (the "dominant" chord) urges a resolution to the "tonic" (see below). The chords are usually labelled with Roman numerals as described below. Somebody at a jam session will often call out "One", "Four", "Five", and so on, largely because the use of the capo can make the use of the actual chord names confusing. Folkie instrumentalists can’t thumb through many how-to books without coming across the names of the chords in a progression. These are wonderful buzzwords if you need to appear paper-trained. The names for the chords, and also the notes of the scale, (shown in the key of C) are:



double dominant (aka "supertonic")














A critic once wrote disparagingly of folk musicians, saying that they use only three chords. Seeger, Pete wrote in rebuttal, "You have that all wrong. The best of them use only two." Recently, he wrote in Sing Out! that he has reduced certain banjo tunes to one chord. The humorous aspects of this aside, certain tunes such as "Cripple Creek" or "Old Joe Clark" reallydo sound better with one chord.

projection in singing, the ability to make the voice heard at a distance ("Project to the back row"). This is partly a matter of loudness and partly one of putting energy into the midrange tones where the listener’s ear is more sensitive. For more on this, see formant.

prolongation. [3,5] (Schenker) a repetition or sustaining of a sonority before it moves on to the next sonority on the same level of structure; the sustaining or contiguous structure ultimately exemplified as the Ursatz. Prolongation normally consists of an elaboration of a fundamental structure, such as the Ursatz, to generate the substance of a tonal work.

prosody the study of poetic meters and versification; see foot. It can also refer to the intonation patterns of phrases; certain song chants, seem to have a melody of their own, even done without accompaniment.

protest protest songs have an ancient tradition, no doubt going back to the first songs to ever appear. The topic can be anything people want to complain about. In the Industrial Revolution, people sang of dehumanizing working conditions and low wages. In the 20s and 30s, there was a large number of union songs championing workers’ rights. In the 60s, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and environmental awareness stimulated the songmakers. The best of the 60s writers included Paxton, Tom, Ochs, Phil, Reynolds, Malvina and Dylan, Bob (in his early years). Few of the songs remain in circulation - such is the fate of the topical song, unless it happens to be universal in its subject matter (and/or extraordinarily clever in its construction). The output of protest songs began to dwindle after the 60s, although there are still some being produced. They died off because songwriters could see how ephemeral (and perhaps ineffective) they were, and because too many writers were churning out what amounted to nothing more than rhyming editorials. No doubt they also noted that they were preaching to the converted - a folk club full of people with similar ideas. The mass media generally won’t touch anything controversial unless it’s trivial. This is not to say that protest songs aren’t being written - but a good one is a rare find.


Psalm-Psalms are the texts included in the biblical Book of Psalms and retaining an important place in the services of the Catholic Divine Office, sung to plainchant. The biblical texts are not metrical and therefore use a relatively simple form of chant that can be expanded by the use of a longer reciting note, the final syllables sung to a short syllabic formula. After the Reformation of the early 16th century metrical versions of the Psalms became current, with texts that could be sung to hymn-tunes. Harmonized settings of the biblical and metrical Psalms have been current in Protestant churches and chapels since the 16th century.

psaltery like a hammered dulcimer, but plucked with the fingers (medieval illustrations show the smaller ones held against the chest and played with a pick). They come in all sizes, but most look like a table, or a small grand piano with no top and no keyboard. Considered the forerunner of the harpsichord.

pub where you’ll usually find morris dancers when they aren’t actually dancing. English-style pubs are much preferred, especially if they brew on the premises or feature other real ale.

Puckett, Riley (1884-1946) a blind singer/guitarist who recorded old-timey music with the Skillet Lickers in the 1920s. His solos had a fairly smooth sound for this country style; the vocal style seems more closely related to the pop music of the time, which no doubt enhanced their considerable popularity.

pull (also "pull off") on a stringed instrument, to suddenly lift a lefthand finger from the fretboard or fingerboard, producing a note that falls in pitch. See also hammer.

pulling shanty see shanties.

pulse there is a difference between the beats per measure and the listener’s perception of them - for instance, 6/8, which is a triple time, can be perceived as double time: see jig and rhythm for further comments on this.

Purcell, Henry (1658-1695) an English court musician who has been called England’s greatest composer. He was familiar with the Playford family (and was first published by them) and so had access to a huge number of traditional tunes. Whether he did any borrowing of any of these is a good question, but if so, he wouldn’t have been the first to cop a good tune from the folk tradition. His fame in general today comes from the arrangement of the Rondo from "Abdelazer, or the Moor’s Revenge" into "The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra" by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). Aside from writing beautiful melodies in his various airs for the theater, his claim to fame in folk music is that the Hornpipe from "Abdelazer" was so popular that it was published as "Hole in the Wall", and then issued as a single in the 18th century! This lovely dance tune was renamed in the sheet music with the appealing title of "St Martin’s Lane". It later passed into the country dancing tradition via the Playford Dancing Master, still with the dreadful title of "Hole in the Wall", under which name it’s played today.

pure with respect to musical intervals, an interval derived from the harmonic seriess of a musical note, and consisting of simple integer ratios; the third, for instance, has a pitch increase in its notes of 5:4. These pure integers sound best, but cause sour notes if they’re used to generate a scale and modulation is attempted. Various fixes have been used in musical history: the Pythagorean scale, the scale of just intonation, the meantone scale, and finally our current equal-tempered scale. Note that musical dictionaries often use "pure" and "perfect" interchangeably. For more on this, see perfect interval.

purfling the decorative effect where the sides meet the top or bottom of a guitar, mandolin, etc. The inlay around the sound hole is also a type of purfling, though it’s usually referred to as a rosette.

Pythagorean scale one of many historical attempts to minimize the problems with scale tuning; one of the forerunners of our current equal-tempered scale. It’s a scale created by jumping ahead for 12 natural fifths as described under circle of fifths (dropping back in octaves as required). This eliminated many of the discrepancies of the natural scale, but as with all scales, added its own. For instance, although the fifths are accurate at 3/2, the third (C to E, say) is not, being a ditone with a ratio of 81/64 (1.266). This is larger than a pure third of 5/4 (the error is the 21.5 cents of the syntonic comma). The octave is also a bit sharp by 23.5 cents, which is the comma of Pythagoras. One of many ways that were used to correct for the discrepancies was to construct a scale using five whole tones (9/8 each) and two semitones of 256/243 each. The octave is now exact, though the third is still sharp and there are problems when you try to change keys, mainly because of sharps and flats that aren’t enharmonic. Another method was to set F to a pure fourth (4/3) above C and the octave to a pure fourth above G, then use the 9/8 tone and the adjusted semitones as required. The E is still sharp; see diesis. Other attempts were made by flatting the fifth slightly before generating the notes, or by using differently-flatted fifths at various points for going around the circle. The flatted-fifth solutions were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, some of which came close enough to allow all keys to be used ("circulating temperaments"), and it’s these Pythagorean methods referred to in the title of Bach’s "Well Tempered Clavier" (1722 and 1742 - see well-tempered scale). One method likely to be Bach’s tuning, according to the Harvard Dictionary of Music, was to spread the comma over the fifths for the notes C, G, D, and B. These variants were successful enough when it came to modulation, though lots of sharps or flats in the key signature decreased the accuracy, and they must have been fearsome for tuners. For other scales and related information on temperament, see just intonation, meantone scale. The frequencies for a Pythagorean octave are shown below, and derive from the Harvard Dictionary of Music. The method used was the second one mentioned above: correct fourths and fifths, whole tones of 9/8, and semitones of 256/243 (or going down, 243/256). Small discrepancies arise from roundoff error. Note that the semitones between C and D, and between G and A, are not enharmonic.

Note  Freq.  Ratio  Multiplier 
260.7  1/1  1.000 
C#  278.4  1.068 
Db  274.7  1.053 
293.3  9/8  1.125 
Eb  309   1.185 
330    (9/8)2 1.266 ((9/8)^2 = 1.266) 
347.7  4/3  1.333 
F#  371.3    1.424 
391.1  3/2  1.5 
G#  417.6    1.6 
Ab  412    1.58 
440  27/16  1.6875
495    1.898 (243/256 * octave) 
521.5  2/1  2.000 (4/3 * G)

pythagorean-intonation. a tuning system based on simple mathematical ratios.