Definitions – music & dance

Hardanger fiddle

Hardanger fiddle

  Scandinavian Folk Music and Dance Resource Guide  

Here are basic definitions for some of the common folk instruments that are played in Scandinavia and some brief descriptions of the folk dances.   At the bottom of the page I have set out sources on the Internet and elsewhere for further information about Scandinavian music and dance.  Access to Norwegian and Swedish sites has improved with the web translators that are commonly available.   Even though you may not hear the music or see the dances frequently, the tradition is alive and well!     



Fiddle (known as the flat fiddle, regular fiddle and violin) – There is a great diversity of playing styles throughout the Scandinavian countries.  The fiddle is played solo, with other fiddles or with modern and contemporary music ensembles.  It is also common to play a second harmony part that adds to the beauty and richness of the music. There are several ways to tune the fiddle that may enhance the fullness of the sound.  A baroque sounding character can be heard in much of the music.

HFAA 2012 - Hardanger fiddle

HFAA 2012 – Hardanger fiddle

Hardanger [HARDONG er] fiddle or in Norwegian, hardingfele [HARDING fayla] (My pronunciation key is only approximate)  The Norwegian Hardanger fiddle is similar to the fiddle/violin but there are several unique differences.   It is beautifully decorated with mother of pearl inlay and ink artwork (rosing).  There are an additional 4 or 5 strings running parallel and underneath the top four bowed strings that ring sympathetically when the instrument is played.   It has a shorter, baroque length neck. The traditional playing style is heavily polyphonic (a melody voice which is accompanied by a moving drone voice).  There are approximately 20 different ways to tune the instrument.  The music from this instrument is mystical, full sounding, haunting and beautiful.  The oldest known instrument was made in 1651.  Dialect/regional dance tunes (springar & gangar) and listening tunes are played as well as the newer dance tunes which include the waltz, reinlender, mazurka and polka.

      Here is a link to a presentation titled “Playing by Ear” by Andrea Een at St. Olaf College.   Some interesting details about playing this instrument are discussed including a comparison to the regular violin  http://www.stolaf.edu/multimedia/streams/bounce.cfm?eventid=173


Langeleik [long EH like] or langspil (long play) –  The oldest existing instrument is dated 1524. It is played with a cowhorn plectrum.  While resembling the American mountain dulcimer, there are distinct differences in repertoire and morphology.   The langeleik is longer and deeper than the dulcimer.  The Norwegian langeleik has 8 or 9 strings, one of which is the fretted melody string.  The instrument is made with either the modern European tempered scale or the older variation that has a higher fourth and lower seventh in the scale.   The ‘blue notes’ of the older scale add a mystical character to the music.  The langeleik is used to play listening tunes and dance tunes such as the springar, waltz & reinlender.

Showing the old style langeleik

Showing the old style langeleik


Seljefjøyte [sell YA floyta] (willow bark flute) – The willow bark flute was traditionally made from the bark of a willow tree in the spring when the sap was rising.  This made it easy to slip off the bark and plug it with a fipple (block of wood forming the air path).   Modern instruments are made from plastic, which is more stable and gives a greater range of notes.  The notes are created by changes in the volume of breath and by stopping the hole at the end of the instrument.   The pastoral sound quality is due to the natural harmonic scale of the seljefløyte.  Listening tunes and dance tunes are played on this instrument.

Nyckelharpa (Swedish keyed fiddle) (listen to pronunciation here) – The modern nyckelharpa has 16 strings, four that are bowed on the top and 12 that ring sympathetically under the bowed strings.  The bowed strings are cello gauge, providing a rich baroque sound.  Approximately 37 keys stop the strings.  The nyckelharpa has evolved in Sweden for more than 600 years.

Theresa playing nyckelharpa with Lauralyn (the dog is next to the chair) - 09-05-2013

Theresa playing nyckelharpa with Lauralyn (the dog is next to the chair) – 09-05-2013

Kantele [CON tay lay] – (Finnish cordophone) –  This is an ancient instruments whose history goes back about 2000 years.   It typically has a diatonic scale and by changing the tuning, it could be played in either a minor or major mode.  The older instruments may have had 5 strings, and a modern concert kantele can have 39 strings.

Psalmadikon – A single string bowed instrument used for accompanying hymns.



Singing – There is a rich heritage of traditional folk singing throughout Scandinavia.   Some of the instrumental tunes that are played today evolved from old songs.  Varieties of song include ballads, cow calls or herding calls which are ways of communicating with farm animals and contemporary songs.   Solo tunes can be sung for dances.

Other instruments – There are a great number of other very interesting instruments not covered in detail that are or were played in Scandinavia.   This includes button accordion, piano accordion, five row chromatic accordion, other variants of a sympathetically strung fiddle, harp (Norway), clarinet, varieties of flute (spelpipa, tussefløyte), the psalmodikon (one string bowed instrument), cittra (Swedish zither), harmonica, the lur (birch bark horn), cow horn, jouhikko, bass, Swedish bagpipe (säkpipa), fidhla (Icelandic), hummel, munnharpa (mouth harp), bouzouki, piano, harmonium, hurdy gurdy (lira), träskofiol (Swedish wooden shoe fiddle) and guitar.

Dances & Dance Music

Dance is interwoven with music in Scandinavian cultural tradition, both in Europe and North America.  Below are brief descriptions of a few of the many common and important genres of dances and dance tunes from Scandinavia.

Dance and music variations occur from village to village and amongst the individual musicians and dancers.  There are three major divisions of dance & music.  1) Bygdedans (dialect village dances) which include polska, springar, springleik, and pols.  Typically these are couples dances whereby the couple is turning clockwise and circling around the room in a counterclockwise direction.   2) Gammaldans (figure dances, dances introduced after the mid 1800’s) which include waltz, schottis, hambo, mazurka, and polka.   3) Set/Choreographed dances which are group dances for performance or as community dances that everyone can participate in.

 Dance music is played solo on several instruments such as fiddle, langeleik, mouth harp, Hardanger fiddle or is sung.  Tunes are also embellished by adding one or more instruments to play harmony parts.   Gammaldans bands are usually composed of fiddle, bass and accordion, producing a very energetic sound.   There is also a Scandinavian American music tradition that has evolved in the upper Midwest.

Evening dance party at Folklore Village

Evening dance party at Folklore Village

     Brief Descriptions of Common Dances

Gånglåt/march/walking tune – A 2/4 or 4/4 processional tune used in celebrations such as weddings and midsummer festivities.

Polska – A couples turning dance in ¾ time.  There are many variations of the polska from Sweden.  The polskas are broadly divided into 16th note, 8th note, triplet and other variations in between.  Some polskas may be asymmetrical (a consistent variation in the symmetry of each measure) depending where the tune/dance originated.

Pols – A couples turning dance in ¾ time from Norway, related to the polska in Sweden.  Asymmetry may exist within some of the pols variations.

Springar –  A couples turning dance in ¾ time from Norway that is  played on the Hardanger fiddle.  Many springars are asymmetrical and the degree of asymmetry depends on the region where the tune/dance developed.

Springleik – A couples turning dance in ¾ time from Norway & Sweden.  It has an asymmetrical rhythm and is played on regular fiddle.

Vals/waltz – A couples dance in ¾ time.

Schottis/reinlender – A couples turning (figure) dance in 2/4 time.

Hambo – A couples turning (figure) dance in ¾ time that is related to the polska.

Sønderhoning – A Danish couples dance in 4/4 time.

Additional dances not described include: bakmes, stigvals, storpolska, snurrbock, slängpolska, bondpolska, polkett, trava, gruvslunga,  rull, vossarull, halling,  Røros pols, långdans, snoa, gangar, minuette, mazurka, polka, polonaise and a great number of choreographed (mixer or group) dances.

Typical wooden fence - Sweden

Typical wooden fence – Sweden

Additional Resource & Link pages

Resources & Links

Local Organizations

Video Samples, links

Musicians – more links (mostly audio)

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