An Extensive Encyclopedic Music Dictionary

An Extensive
Traditional and Folk Music
Encyclopedic Dictionary

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(Section S3)

Singspiel-A Singspiel is a German form of play with music. The word is used to indicate a stage work that makes some use of spoken dialogue, even in a context of primarily musical interest. Examples are found in Mozart's The Magic Flute and in Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio.

sirrah a form of address implying disrespect, mild derision, or the listener’s inferiority.

sit in an invitation to join some other musicians, either formally on stage, or in a jam. Or to accept that invitation.

sixth 1. The sixth note of the scale, counting inclusively; for instance, A in the key of C. 2. The interval sounded when two notes are played a sixth apart; for instance, C and A. See also relative minor, which is based on the sixth note.

skerry (UK, also "skerrie") a rocky islet in the sea. Its most famous appearance is probably "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry", Child 113.

skiffle a type of music popular to some extent in Britain in the 50s. Skiffle bands played a mix of folk, jug band, pop and music hall sounds. The word seems to be connected to improvised jazz bands of the 20s. An example of skiffle/music hall that was briefly popular in North America in the 60s was George Formby’s "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On the Bedpost Overnight" recorded by Donegan, Lonnie.

Skillet Lickers an old-timey band from Georgia, led by Gid Tanner (1885-1960). Their recordings from 1924-1934 influenced many of today’s followers of the old-timey sound. Their singer/guitarist was Puckett, Riley. The name, like many names used by the early country bands, was a contrivance; the "hillbilly" sound was selling well at the time and the stereotype was exploited - see Grand Ole Opry.

skilly (Scot.) skilled; (Eng.) food (from "skillet"?).

skin the membrane stretched across the hoops of drums, banjos, etc. Although membranes made of animal skin are available, they’re plagued with tension variations as the humidity changes, so most musicians prefer those made of an artificial material. "Skins" is also slang for drums.

Skinner, J. Scott (1843-1927) (James Scott Skinner) Scottish composer of violin tunes. Tunes from his publication "The Scottish Violinist" will be in the repertoire of most fiddlers, such as "The Hurricane", "Bonny Lass o’ Bon Accord", "The Spey in Spate", "Laird o’ Drumblair", and many others. He was well-known in his time as a superb concert violinist, and was occasionally referred to as "The Strathspey King" (see fiddle tunes). "Bon Accord", incidentally, is a Scottish term for Aberdeen.

skins see skin.

skipping songs a subgenre of the folk tradition, skipping songs are passed from one generation of children to the next with no interference from adults. Oral transmission at its best. A skipping song with some currency among folkies is "Green Rocky Road", arranged by Chandler, Len and widely recorded.

Sky, Patrick popular in the folk circuit of the 60s and 70s, Pat was the author of "Many a Mile" and recorded several albums for Vanguard. According to his article in a 1978 Sing Out!, he came out of four years of semi-retirement to form the Potstill Band, a group that did traditional Irish music. They disbanded shortly after, he said, because of poor economic conditions in folk clubs - an opinion that is shared by many; see Cooney, Michael, gig, and money. He hasn’t been heard from much since, and is missed.

slack tuning tuning a guitar down one to three tones from concert pitch. The bass notes become richer and the string tension is relaxed somewhat for easier playing. This is favored by blues players and 12-string guitar players. The disadvantage is an increase in the strings buzzing against the frets, although heavy-gauge strings may ease this. Occasionally the term is used to mean open tuning.

slate (Scot., also "slait") to whet a sword.

slide a metal bar or cylinder used to fret a slide guitar; see also bottleneck style.

slide guitar a guitar in open tuning, fretted with a metal bar. See National, Dobro. Also known as the Hawaiian guitar. The effect is often duplicated by using a bottleneck style.

slide whistle a whistle with a tubular slide that can change the pitch. The continuous glide up or down produces a comic effect. Not in wide use, although with some practice it’s possible to play simple tunes on it. This is seen as a waste of time.

slip jig see jig.

slur 1. See bend. 2. In music notation, the curved line over a group of notes to indicate that they are to be played smoothly.

smear synonymous with bend. Not used very often.

Smith, Bessie (1894-1937) considered the greatest of the women who sang the blues, her solo work and her work with Rainey, Ma set the standard for everyone who followed. She recorded for Columbia from 1923 on, with some of the best musicians of the 20s and 30s. Her songs included "Downhearted Blues", "Gulf Coast Blues", and her version of "St Louis Blues".

Smith, Michael Chicago singer-songwriter best known for writing "The Dutchman", "Spoon River" and "The Last Days of Pompeii". While he is relatively popular at clubs and festivals and is hailed as one of the best songwriters around, fame has eluded him.

smooth-voice-leading. A traditional type of voice-leading where there is no leap greater than a perfect-fourth in the soprano, alto, or tenor voices, and no leap greater than a perfect-fifth in the bass (the octave excepted in the bass). Certain other intervals are also avoided melodically, namely the tritone and augmented-second.

Smorzando-dying away (in intensity and tempo.)

Smothers Brothers in the early 60s, Dick and Tom Smothers became famous for hilarious parodies of folksongs and recorded many wide-selling albums. They used this style of comedy for cutting social satire as well. Eventually they were given a CBS TV show in 1967 and it proved popular, introducing the public to a wide range of folk musicians and comedians, but it was seen as too controversial and eventually canceled. Another show was started on NBC in 1975, but had little success, said to be due to its blandness. They continue to perform and are seen in the occasional TV guest spot.

snake this is the main cable that connects the sound board to the equipment on the stage. It’s the one you’ve tripped over at festivals and concerts. Aka "umbilical".

snare a small drum with wires stretched across the head; these provide a loud rattling noise when the head is struck. A lever lifts the wires clear of the head for use as a normal drum.

Snow, Hank (1914- ) (Clarence Snow) a Nova Scotia picker and vocalist who idolised Rodgers, Jimmie, Hank was quite successful in Canada with his country sound, but didn’t catch on in the US until his song "Wedding Vows" reached the Top Ten in 1949. Two of his most famous songs are "Movin’ On" and "I Been Everywhere". He has an enormous number of albums and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1979.

Society for Creative Anachronism an international organization for researching and recreating the customs of pre-17th-century Europe. Their gatherings feature tournaments, medieval feasts, accurate costumery and music, etc. They’re occasionally seen on the television news, and the TV people always focus on the fighting because it looks good on camera, to the neglect of their many other talents. If you’re interested in medieval/Renaissance history, try to see them first-hand - you’ll want to join on the spot. There are branches in various major cities. See Internet folk for their Web site; there is also a Usenet newsgroup,

sodger (Scot.) soldier.

sol-fa 1. See tonic sol-fa. 2. By convention, the notes of the scale are assigned the names do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do, and this is often called "sol-fa notation". There is a wide variation in the spelling of these note names; "sol", for instance, is often "so"; "ti" was originally "si" when musicians changed from the six-note hexachord to our current seven-note scale, and "si" still turns up occasionally. See Guido d’Arezzo for the origin of the note names.

Soli-plural of solo.

solmization the designation of note pitches by syllables rather than the conventional C-D-E note names. In other words, the do-re-mis.

solo 1. To sing and/or play an instrument without accompanying musicians. 2. To take a lead part of your own, even though there are accompanying musicians. 3. For a band member to make an album under his or her own name (even if the band accompanies). 3. Solo-a piece or part of a piece of music played by one instrumentalist or vocalist.

sonata. a three or four contrasting movement, classical form in which the first movement is in sonata-form and, in the three movement sonata, any of the other movements may also be in sonata-form. The first movement is fast, in the tonic key; the second movement is slow, in a different but related key, and the last movement is very fast. In the four-movement sonata, the extra movement is inserted before the last. It is a minuet or scherzo, A B A, triple time, in the home key.

sonata-form. a complex musical-form that is essentially a large rounded binary. It has a first section, called an exposition, with two contrasting themes in tonic and dominant (or relative) keys, a development section containing theme fragments, modulations and counterpoint, and a recapitulation that recalls the first section with both themes in the tonic key. 2.Sonata-form, otherwise known with similar inaccuracy as first movement form or sonata-allegro form, developed during the second half of the 18th century as a principal form in instrumental music, from Haydn onwards. The form is based on a triple division of a movement into exposition, development and recapitulation. The first section normally contains two contrasting subjects, the first in the tonic key and the second in the dominant key or in the relative major of a minor key movement. The section ends with a coda or codetta. The middle section, the development, offers varied treatment of themes or parts of themes that have already been heard. The recapitulation brings back the first and second subjects now in the tonic key. The movement ends with a coda. The form is used for all kinds of instrumental music, from sonatas to symphonies, and is expanded and varied in a number of ways.

Sonata-The title sonata originally designated music that was to be played rather than sung. The baroque sonata developed in two parallel forms. The first, the sonata da chiesa or church sonata, was generally of four movements in the order slow-fast-slow-fast, the faster movements fugal in character. The second, the sonata da camera or chamber sonata, was in essence a dance suite. Sonatas of this kind might be played by a melodic instrument with basso continuo or with a realised keyboard part, or in the form of trio sonatas, with two melody instruments and basso continuo, therefore normally involving four players. The classical sonata, instrumental music again generally in several movements, might involve one or more instruments. There was in particular a development of the solo keyboard sonata, from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to Beethoven. Duo sonatas, generally using a keyboard instrument and a melody instrument, developed from an earlier form in which the melody instrument predominated to a form in which the keyboard assumed greater importance, with an optional accompaniment from a melody instrument. Greater degrees of equality between the two were achieved in the later violin sonatas of Mozart and the violin sonatas and cello sonatas of Beethoven. The 19th century brought an expansion of the sonata and greater freedom in the treatment of existing forms, often with more considerable technical demands on performers, as in the violin and piano sonatas and cello and piano sonatas of Brahms.

Sonatina-A sonatina is a little sonata, simpler in structure and shorter in length than a sonata.

song circle see singaround.

song cycle see cycle, suite.


song family musicologists can often trace a number of song variants back to a common source. One example would be the enormous family that sprouted from the ancient English "Villikins and his Dinah". The variants include "The Nightingale", "The Nightingales Sing", "The Bold Grenadier", "One Morning in May", "The Wild Rippling Water" (a cowboy version), "The Soldier and the Lady" (Canadian and southern US), "Keepers and Poachers", and many others. A variant of the tune was used for "Sweet Betsy From Pike". Another song family is formed by the descendants of "The Unfortunate Rake". The rake is dying of syphilis (or mercury poisoning resulting from the treatments of the time) and laments his errant ways. In some variants, the victim is a woman (sometimes called "The Whore’s Lament" or "Young Girl Cut Down in her Prime"). The two most famous variants are the American cowboy version collected by John Lomax, "The Dying Cowboy" (better known as "Streets of Laredo") and the jazz/blues song "St James Infirmary". There is a lesser-known variant from the American south called "St James Hospital". It’s fascinating in that it’s a perfect blend of "St James Infirmary" and "Streets of Laredo", set to an interesting modal tune (see mode). Another example is the song family related to "Farewell to Tarwathie". According to MacColl, Ewan, this whaling song was written in the 1850s by George Scroggie of Aberdeenshire, although the tune might be borrowed from an earlier song. This tune appears in the US as "My Horses Ain’t Hungry" and "Rye Whisky". An up-tempo version was a hit in the 1950s as "Shrimp Boats Are A-Comin’". Dylan, Bob borrowed the tune for his "Farewell, Angelina", recorded by Baez, Joan (see borrowing). In 1701, a man named Jack Hall was executed in England for burglary. In the same year, William Kidd was executed for piracy. Before long, there were broadsides ( goodnight ballads) about them, one called "Jack Hall" and the other "Captain Kidd" (often called "Robert Kidd" in the lyrics), both with the same tune and structure. Musicologist Bronson, Bertrand said that it’s "difficult to say which song got the start of the other." The Jack Hall story (in which he’s a chimneysweep) also came to be called "Sam Hall" from the mid-19th-century British music hall, according to Kidson, Frank. The tune and structure of Hall/Kidd proved so popular that it led to the ballads "Admiral Benbow" and "Admiral Byng", and also songs about seafarers Paul Jones and Lord Nelson. In an 1835 sacred harp book, there’s a hymn with the title and tune of "Captain Kidd", though the lyrics have nothing to do with piracy. The tune and lyrical structure were adapted by Burns, Robert for his song "Ye Jacobites by Name", and the Scottish song "My Love’s in Germany" (aka "Germany Thomas") is a close cousin, as are many others. Jack Hall apparently turned to Sam in the popular mid-19th century music hall version, though he might have appeared earlier (some songbooks even say that the music hall version was the original). Of the two main versions of the hanged Hall still around, Sam is in one something of the Robin Hood figure that he was in the original: "I’ve got twenty pounds in store, that’s no lie, that’s no lie, (2x)I’ve got twenty pounds in store, and I’ll rob for twenty more,For the rich must help the poor, so must I, so must I." In the other variant, Sam is an unrepentant man of steel as the noose tightens: "The parson he did come, he did come.Oh, the parson he did come, and he looked so goddamned glum,Well, he can kiss my bloody bum, (alt: "As he talked of Kingdom Come")You’re a bunch of muckers all - damn your eyes!"

song structure in its simplest form, the repetition of verses with the same meter and melody: A-A-A... A popular form in folk music is the chorus song. The chorus repeated after every verse would give it the structure A-B-A-B-A... Another method of adding variation is to insert a verse with a new melody and (perhaps) meter, A-B-C-B-A, depending on how many times the B part (called the bridge) is used. There are many other methods used by inventive songmakers. See also burden, rondo.

sonority. a sound complex, consisting of a combination of sounds.

Sons of the Pioneers originally the Pioneer Trio, founded in 1949 by Roy Rogers (yep, that Roy Rogers), Bob Nolan, and Tim Spencer. The name was eventually changed, as was the personnel when Roy left for a movie career. Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer wrote some of the songs they made famous, such as "Tumblin’ Tumbleweed", "Cool Water", and "Cigarettes and Whiskey and Wild, Wild Women". Their sound is occasionally referred to as Western Swing.

sonsie (Scot.) jolly.

sookie see sukey.

soprano the highest range of the voice; some women with high voices are sopranos, although most are altos. The usual specified range is from E above middle C to the first G above the top line of the treble staff. Some men can achieve the soprano range using falsetto. See also vocal ranges. 2.The soprano is the highest kind of female voice. The word may be used as an adjective to describe instruments of higher range, such as the soprano saxophone, or to qualify the word clef, the soprano clef, now little used, puts a C clef on the bottom line of the stave.


Sorrels, Rosalie singer and songwriter, Rosalie has a huge repertoire of traditional and contemporary songs. She has recorded over 14 albums.


Sostenuto-Sostenuto (Italian: sustained) is a direction to performers to play smoothly.

Sotto voce-in a subdued manner.


soul-cake (UK) a cake prepared for All Souls’ Day (Nov. 2). They’re celebrated in the song "A-Soulin’" (recorded by PP&M as "A’Soalin’" and mixed up with Christmas). The distribution of these cakes (usually by churches) is related to our candy-binge at Hallowe’en. The song has the more general meaning of a community ceremony, house to house, to collect in memory of the departed.

sound board 1. The wooden diaphragm that transfers the energy of an instrument’s strings to the air. A guitar top is a sound board, as is the bottom or back of a piano. 2. The large console for controlling the relative levels of the stage microphones, usually located at the back of the audience, which causes the operator to get thoroughly confused as to who’s singing into what mike.

sound check the sound equipment is checked out for balance/quality at concerts and festivals, resulting in much "Test! Test! Check! Check!" (These words are used to test for sibilance.) Since festivals tend to have a large number of acts playing for a short time, there are multiple sound checks as the microphones are reset for the next performance. This can get very lengthy and boring.

sound hole the circular hole in the top of guitars, etc., or the f-shaped holes in the top of violins, etc. The hole is not, as is popularly believed, "to let the sound out"; it forms a Helmholtz resonator with the enclosed volume of air in the body and boosts the volume of the lower octave. This can be demonstrated by blocking a guitar’s sound hole with a thick magazine and then playing a chord. The mid and high frequencies will still be there as usual; only the bass notes are attenuated. Guitarists who use a pickup often block the sound hole. This minimizes feedback in the lower frequency range, since the guitar/pickup combination makes a good microphone for receiving stage sound and sending it around again. The attenuated bass can be compensated for to some extent with EQ.

sound mass. a large block of sounds and/or pitches in which no individual pitch predominates.

sound post a wooden post inside members of the violin family, used to transfer part of the pressure of the bridge to the back. If the sound post is missing or badly out of place, the instrument will sound very squawky (assuming the player isn’t doing it).

sound sheet a thin, very flexible 33RPM record on a vinyl sheet that can be bound into books and magazines. Sing Out! used them for a while. Usually, the sound sheet contains excerpts from the music covered in the publications. A boon to those who can’t read music. They are rarely seen these days, no doubt because of cost.

sound. audible vibration, i.e., any vibration that is capable of being heard, whether or not it actually is.

source-set. a subset of a tone-row that is used to generate the entire row through symmetric transformation, e.g., a 4 note figure may be transposed, inverted, etc., to form two more four-note figures to comprise a whole row; see also the G,A#,B example under derived-set.

sovereign in the old British system, a coin equal to a pound.

Spaeth, Sigmund (1885-1965) American song collector and folklorist. He was a specialist in sentimental songs of all types, and published them in his "Read ‘Em and Weep" and "Weep Some More, My Lady", among others. Some of his other wonderfully readable works include "History of Popular Music in America", "The Common Sense of Music", "The Importance of Music", and "Stories Behind the World’s Greatest Music".

spait (Scot., also "spate") flood.

Spanish guitar properly, the six-string, nylon-strung classical guitar. In general, any six-string acoustic guitar. See also flamenco guitar.

Spanish tuning (also known as classical tuning) the usual tuning for guitars - E A D G B E. The B string is one semitone below middle C. See notation, guitar.

spasm band a turn-of-the-century word from the US south, meaning a band using washboards, jugs, etc. Similar to a jug band or a washboard band.

spate see spait.

speer (Scot., also "spier") inquire.

Spiccato-a controlled bouncing bow.

spinet (pron. "spinnet") a small upright piano or harpsichord. 2. The spinet is a small form of harpsichord.

spiritual a general sort of word for a hymn-like song or gospel song, usually associated with black music. It might be said that they’re a cross between the European hymn style and African rhythm and ornaments. They began to be notated about the time of the American Civil War, and since notation can’t capture the subtleties of the black style, many popular versions of the traditional spirituals are in the whitebread style, lacking any sort of intensity or verve.

Spivey, Victoria (?-1976) Texas blues singer who lived in NYC. By the 20s she was recording for Okeh, and by the 30s was in films. First-rate jazz and blues musicians like Louis Armstrong, Tampa Red, Johnson, Lonnie, and Williams, Big Joe backed her on the records. She retired in 1951, but returned to performing in 1961 and was very successful with her brand of jazz-blues. She began her own record company, and one of her records ("Three Kings and the Queen") in the early 60s includes the young Dylan, Bob on harmonica, which was probably his first recording. A photo of that session showing Victoria with Dylan appears on the back cover of Dylan’s "New Morning" LP.

Spoelstra, Mark (1940- ) singer, songwriter and 12-string guitarist. His recordings of traditional and composed songs for Folkways and Elektra in the mid-60s inspired many folkies to experiment with the sound of the 12-string. He was much influenced by the ragtime and blues of Fuller, Jesse. Anti-war songs were one of his favorite topics, and he both recorded them and published them in Broadside.

spondee see foot.

spoons a rhythm instrument made by holding two spoons back to back and striking them against the hand or the leg, or running them up and down the open fingers. The clacking sound lends itself to rapid dance tunes and the like. Compare with bones.

squaredance has its roots in country dancing - many of the steps and calls are similar. It is fairly popular with folkies, although country dancing seems to be preferred in Canada - and folkies shun the western-style costumes worn so often in public squaredances.

Squaredance tunes, now. Folkie instrumentalists will play those until the cows come home.

squeezebox see melodeon, accordion, concertina.

squire (also "esquire") 1. A rather vague term - generally a title of respect referring to a member of the landed gentry. 2. In songs about medieval times, a young man of noble birth who tended a knight. 3. In the morris, the person in charge of the dance team. The squire has general organizational duties. May be elected or just informally appointed.

staccato in staccato playing, the notes are abruptly sounded and damped out quickly afterwards. The opposite is legato.