Music, Instruments and Musicians

Scandinavian folk music is rich in in 3/4 time music, as well as in the 2/4 and 4/4 time signatures common in modern American music.  Several characteristics make the music interesting for both listening as well as dancing.  In  3/4 time tunes, the beats within each measure are often of different lengths, calling upon the dancer to take a different step length and/or emphasis on each beat. 

Typically the rhythm is carried in the fiddle or the other parts, and percussion instruments are normally not used.  This quality encourages the dancer to develop a keen ear for tempo and rhythm while listening to the melody.  There is a dynamic interaction between the musicians and the dancers, and an old saying says it takes three to make a dance: the man, the woman, and the fiddler.  Musicians enjoy playing with the phrasing to keep the dancers attentive, and experienced dancers can answer a signal from a fiddler with a flourish or ornament in the dance.  Although eight-measure phrases are common in Swedish tunes, Norwegian Hardingfele music is often built around an older phrasing, in which two-measure units are strung together in a series of themes and variations.

Key signatures are often modal, outside of the familiar major and minor keys common in American music.  Fiddle tunings may be unique to a particular region, style of tune, or mood, and are sometimes given names, such as "Troll Tuning."  Older instruments, such as earlier accordions, did not use the chromatic scale of the modern piano. 

Examples of music used in folk dancing are found on YouTube.  Enter a dance name, such as schottis, vals, hambo, polska dans, or snoa, and look for the videos of traditional Scandinavian dance (dans).  Entering the name "Bruce Sagan" in the YouTube search box, will find videos of this American musician playing traditional tunes.  

The Instruments

The fiddle (violin) is the most common instrument for dance tunes.  Two instruments that are uncommon in the United States are characteristic of Scandinavian music and produce music that is beautiful for listening as well as dancing. 

Nyckelharpa (Swedish Keyed Fiddles)

The nyckelharp (keyed fiddle) predates the flat fiddle (violin) by several centuries. It has developed into a versatile instrument with three rows of string dampers actuated by finger keys.  The many strings give the music a very rich, distinctive quality.  It is associated with the province of Uppland and certain Swedish polska dances.   Photo courtesy of  Esbjörn Hogmark.  (Web link below.)


The Hardingfele (Hardanger Fiddle)

The hardingfele (Hardanger fiddle) contains four to five additional sympathetic strings underneath which are not bowed but resonate with the upper, bowed strings.  There are many different tunings which can give the music qualities ranging from ethereal to haunting.  It is often ornately decorated with rosemaling on the body, mother of pearl inlay on the neck and a carved figure on the neck.  The fiddles developed in isolated parts of Norway and are integral to several types of Norwegian dance, such as the Springars (running step dances) and Gangars (walking step dances) from the interior valleys of the country.  The Hardingfele is played for listening tunes as well as dance tunes.  About 3,000 tunes and variants (variations) are known in Norway for the instrument, and many others have probably been lost over time.  Photo courtesy of


Other Instruments

The accordion is often used for dance music, as is the button box accordion and willow flute.  Sometimes used include the munnharpe (Jew's harp), Säckpipa (Swedish bagpipe), langeleik, and hurdy gurdy.  Other traditional instruments include the bukkehorn (goat horn) and neverlur (birch bark horn), particularly in Norway; these horns were developed by mountain farmers to project sound over long distances. 

Some dances are traditionally done to sung tunes with or without words as well, and there is a tradition of song dances from certain regions.  Photo by Nick Jensen. 


Dance musicians in our area

Tim Rued's music and life are at:

Sarah Kirton also plays fiddle for dances and can be reached at sarah.kirton (at)

Lennart Kullberg plays with Fresno's Great Danes and in the Fresno Spelman. 

Musicians in other areas

Karen Myers and her music can be heard at her web site:  A great deal of information on Scandinavian folk music and instruments is listed on Karen's site, along with recordings of sample tunes.

Bruce Sagan's work and musicianship are at his web site.

The Nyckelharpa Forum and Esbjörn Hogmark can be reached at:


Some information from the Ålesund Spelemannslag. 

Site created by John Hingtgen.

18 Jan 2014 © EDSD

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