How Classical-Era Composers Incorporated Folk Elements in Their Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


How did classical-era composers incorporate folk elements into their music? Here are some examples of how they did it.


Classical-era composers began to incorporate folk elements into their music in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This was a response to the growing popularity of folk music and the rise of nationalism in Europe. While some composers simply borrowed melodies or rhythms from folk traditions, others went further and incorporated folk instruments into their work. This created a new genre of classical music known as “Nationalist” or “Folksong” music.

One of the most famous examples of Nationalist music is Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” This work was heavily influenced by African-American and Native American music, and it even features a section for banjo and other folk instruments. Folk elements can also be found in the work of other classical-era composers such as Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, and Edward Grieg.

Today, many classical composers continue to be inspired by folk music from around the world. This can be heard in the work of contemporary composers such as Tan Dun, Osvaldo Golijov, and Gabriela Lena Frank.

The Classical Era

The Classical era was a period of music history that lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. The years 1750 to 1820 are generally considered the Classical era in music. This period is known for its classical music compositions, which were created by some of the most famous composers of all time.

The Age of Enlightenment

The Classical era was a period of music history that lasted from the mid-18th century to the early 19th century. This era was preceded by the Baroque period and followed by the Romantic period. Classical-era composers used many of the same musical elements as their Baroque predecessors, but they began to incorporate more folk elements into their music.

During the Classical era, composers began to use more imitative counterpoint, which is when two or more melodic lines are combined in such a way that they echo and mirror each other. This technique was used to create a more expressive and dramatic effect in music.

Classical-era composers also began to experiment with different forms and structures in their music. They frequently used sonata form, which is a three-part structure that includes an exposition, development, and recapitulation. This form allowed for greater flexibility and creativity in composition.

In addition to using new structures and forms, Classical-era composers also incorporated more Folk elements into their music. They did this by using simpler melodies and harmonies, as well as dance rhythms from various Folk traditions. These elements helped to make Classical-era music more accessible and popular with audiences.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in the United Kingdom in the late 1700s and had a profound impact on music. This era saw the rise of new technology, which led to new types of instruments and new ways of playing music. Classical-era composers began to incorporate folk elements into their music, which was a reflection of the growing popularity of folk music at this time.

Many of the most famous classical-era composers, such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, were born in the latter half of the eighteenth century and started their careers during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. This period was one of great change and innovation in music, as composers began to experiment with different styles and forms.

One of the most notable changes during this time was the increasing popularity of folk music. This style of music had long been popular among peasants and workers, but it began to gain popularity among the middle and upper classes as well. Folk music was often seen as being more genuine and authentic than the more formal classical music, which was associated with the aristocracy.

Classical-era composers began to incorporate elements of folk music into their own compositions as a way to reflect this change in taste. Haydn, for example, wrote several pieces that included dances from various European countries. Mozart also wrote a number of pieces that incorporated popular songs and dances from his native Austria. Beethoven drew inspiration from Scottish and Irish folk tunes for some of his most famous works, such as his ninth symphony.

The incorporation of folk elements into classical music was just one way that composers reflected the changing world around them during the Industrial Revolution. This era was one of great change and creativity in music, laying the foundation for many of the genres and styles that are enjoyed today.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution was a time of political and social upheaval in France that lasted from 1789 to 1799. The main goals of the French Revolution were to end the absolute monarchy of the Bourbon Dynasty, to make France a republic, and to protect the natural rights of all citizens. The revolution ended when Napoleon Bonaparte took power in a coup d’état and declared himself Emperor of the French.

During the Revolution, many composers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, François-Joseph Gossec, and Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny wrote patriotic songs and marches celebrating the overthrow of the monarchy and the ideals of liberty and equality. These folk-influenced pieces were very popular with the people of France and helped to rally support for the Revolution.

Folk Elements in Classical Music

The classical era was a time of both high and low musical traditions. Many composers were influenced by the music of their peers, as well as the music of other cultures. This can be seen in the incorporation of folk elements into classical music. Folk elements can be defined as any musical element that is not part of the “art music” tradition.


In the Classical era, composers began to take musical elements that were specific to their own countries and incorporate them into their work. This practice, known as nationalism, can be seen in the music of Classical-era composers such as Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Frédéric Chopin.

For example, Haydn’s ” Farewell” Symphony makes use of a Hungarian folk tune, while Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 includes a setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” a poem that celebrates the brotherhood of humanity. Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” is based on a popular form of theater called commedia dell’arte, and Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor makes use of a Polish folk melody.

Nationalism in music was not just limited to composers from Europe; American composer Aaron Copland drew inspiration from the folk music of the United States for works such as “Appalachian Spring” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.”


During the Classical era, there was a strong movement among composers to return to the idea of music as a mirror of nature. This meant that composers were interested in writing music that resembled the sounds of the different regions in which they lived. To achieve this goal, many composers began to incorporate folk elements into their classical pieces.

One of the most famous examples of regionalism in classical music is Antonín Dvořák’s “New World Symphony.” This work was heavily influenced by the folksongs and dances Dvořák heard while living in America. These folk elements helped to give the symphony a distinctly American sound, which was something that was very new for classical music at the time.

Other notable examples of regionalism in classical music include Felix Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Symphony” and Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite.” Both of these works contain strong folk influences from the regions where Mendelssohn and Grieg grew up (Scotland and Norway, respectively). These pieces are still some of the most popular and beloved works in the classical repertoire today.


One of the most obvious ways that classical-era composers incorporated folk elements into their music was through the use of folk melodies. Folk melodies tend to be very singable and have a strong sense of rhythm, which made them perfect for use in classical pieces. Many composers, such as Haydn and Mozart, were known for borrowing folk melodies and giving them their own spin. This was often done by adding or removing notes, changing the rhythm, or altering the melody in some other way. By borrowing these familiar tunes, composers were able to make their music more accessible to a wider audience.


One of the most noticeable ways that classical-era composers incorporated folk elements into their music was through the use of folk instruments. While the concerto grosso and the symphony were dominated by strings, woodwinds, and brass, folk instruments like the hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes, and hammered dulcimer found their way into classical compositions as well.

The hurdy-gurdy was a particularly popular choice for classical composers looking to add a bit of flavor to their music. The instrument, which is also known as the wheel fiddle, is a stringed instrument that is played by turning a crank. This crank turns a rosined wheel that rubs against the strings, producing a sound that is somewhat similar to that of a violin.

Bagpipes were another popular choice for those looking to add a touch of the folk to their classical music. While Highland bagpipes are most commonly associated with Scotland, there are also types of bagpipes from other parts of Europe, including Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. Bagpipes were often used in compositions that were meant to evoke images of the Scottish Highlands or other rural areas.

The hammered dulcimer is a stringed instrument that originated in Asia but made its way to Europe during the medieval period. It gained popularity during the Renaissance and continued to be used throughout the baroque and classical eras. The dulcimer gets its name from the fact that its strings are struck with small hammers known as mallets. The instrument has a distinctive sound that can add an exotic touch to any composition.


In conclusion, many classical-era composers found inspiration in folk music, which they often incorporated into their own works. This can be seen in the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and other composers of the period. While some folk elements were simply added for flavor or to create a certain atmosphere, others were more integral to the composition itself. In any case, the use of folk music helped to give Classical-era compositions a unique flavor and allowed composers to explore new soundscapes.

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