An answer to “What is Traditional Music?”

The Fourth Annual Princeton Traditional Music Festival is coming up on August 19th to 21st -- just six weeks away! Over a hundred musicians will be in town that weekend. Over the course of the next few weeks, this column will introduce a few of them and their music.

The Fourth Annual Princeton Traditional Music Festival is coming up on August 19th to 21st — just six weeks away!  Over a hundred musicians will be in town that weekend.  Over the course of the next few weeks, this column will introduce a few of them and their music.

A lot of folk have asked what is meant by traditional music. Today’s column will try to clarify what it means.

Before there was commercial music, there was traditional music and classical music. Classical music (though it wasn’t called that in those days) was music for the court, bought and paid for by the king’s or the aristocracy’s ministers or servants.  The church, too, was a great patron of this kind of music.  It wasn’t the stuff sung or hummed by the peasantry while milking cows – they had never heard of it.  What they sang and played when they got the chance was what we now call traditional music.  When they sang, it was almost always unaccompanied, and when musicians played tunes, it was almost always for dancing.

This held true right across Europe.  Every country or region had songs, and some songs were known across many regions.  The ideas behind some of the songs were known from Ireland to India.  Each of the songs had an original author, but that person is so lost in the mists of time, or the song has been so changed in its passing from one person to another over the course of centuries, that it has become anonymous.  The same is true of tunes.

The songs we hear on the radio have all been composed by someone and each time a song gets played the composer gets paid what’s called a royalty. The composers of traditional songs are not known so no one gets paid; they are what the music industry calls ‘public domain’ – they are owned by us all.


This is the kind of music you’ll hear at the Festival, and next week this column will tell you about some of the performers appearing at the Festival.


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