Defining Folk Music: Origins and Influences

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Folk music can be defined as a genre of music that is typically associated with a particular culture or region. It is often passed down orally from generation to generation. Folk music often has simple melodies and lyrics.


Folk music can be defined as music by the people, for the people. It is passed down orally from one generation to the next, and usually exists within a certain community or region. Folk music often celebrates the traditions, culture and history of its people, and can be seen as a form of social commentary.

Folk music has its roots in the oral tradition, and many folk songs can be traced back to traditional ballads or nursery rhymes. These songs were originally created to serve a purpose, such as telling a story or teaching a lesson, and were later adapted and embellished by each new generation of singers.

Over time, certain themes and musical elements became associated with folk music, such as simplicity, acoustic instruments, strong melodies and harmonies, and straightforward lyrics that tell a story. Folk music also often includes elements of traditional music from the region or culture it comes from.

While folk music is typically associated with rural communities and traditional cultures, it has also been influence by urbanization, migration and globalization. As people have moved away from their traditional homelands, they have brought their folk music with them, exposing it to new influences. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in folk music, as people seek out authentic forms of expression in an increasingly digital world.

What is Folk Music?

Folk music is a genre of music that is typically passed down from generation to generation. It is usually associated with the common people of a country or region, and is often influenced by the music of the working class. Folk music usually has a simple, catchy melody and is often accompanied by instruments such as acoustic guitars, drums, and harmonica.


Folk music has always been with us. In one way or another, all cultures have developed their own folk traditions. The term “folk music” can be a bit misleading, since it conjures up images of rural musicians playing old-timey songs on homemade instruments. But folk music is really the music of the people—any people, anywhere in the world.

Folk music is oral tradition music. That means it’s passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, rather than being written down in sheet music. For centuries, folk songs were passed down orally within families and communities. As people migrated to new places, they took their folk songs with them and added new influences to the mix.

One of the earliest examples of folk music comes from ancient Greece. The Homeric Hymns, a collection of 30 poems honoring the Greek gods, date back to around 700 BCE. Many of these hymns were probably sung by bards—traveling minstrels who entertained audiences with stories and songs. The ancient Greeks also developed choral singing, which was often used in religious ceremonies and dramatic performances.

Other early examples of folk music come from China and India—two of the oldest civilizations in the world. The Chinese Guqin, a seven-string zither-like instrument, has been played for over 3,000 years. And Indian classical music dates back even further—some experts believe it may be as old as 5,000 years!


Folk music evolved organically within communities, and was passed down orally from generation to generation. As a result, it is impossible to pinpoint the precise origins of most folk songs. Many folk songs developed from a process of oral transmission, in which a song was created or improvised in the moment, and then remembered and passed on. In some cases, a folk song may have multiple variants with slightly different lyrics or melodies. This process of variation is called “folk processing,” and it is one of the defining characteristics of folk music.

Folk music is also often influenced by the music of other cultures. For example, many American folk songs have their roots in British and Irish folk traditions. In turn, American folk music has had a significant impact on the development of popular music genres such as blues, jazz, country, and rock & roll.

The Relationship Between Folk and Pop

Folk music has been around for centuries, and its origins can be traced back to the oral traditions of various cultures. Folk music was originally designed to be passed down from generation to generation, and it was often used as a way to tell stories or teach lessons. In recent years, folk music has become more popular thanks to its catchy melodies and relatable lyrics. However, some people still don’t understand what folk music is and where it comes from.

The British Invasion

The term “British Invasion” refers to the time when British musicians, bands, and other artists became extremely popular in the United States. This phenomenon began in the early 1960s and continued into the middle of that decade. The British Invasion was made possible by several factors, including the increased availability of transatlantic travel, the popularity of American rock and roll in Britain, and the emergence of new styles of music such as skiffle and Merseybeat.

The Beatles were perhaps the most influential band of the British Invasion. They popularized a new style of music called “Beatlemania,” which combined elements of pop, rock, and R&B. The Beatles also helped to spread the popularity of other British bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Kinks.

The impact of the British Invasion was far-reaching. It not only changed the sound of popular music, but also contributed to a shift in fashion and culture. Many American teens began to emulate the style of their British idols, and this had a lasting influence on fashion trends in both countries.

The American Folk Revival

The American Folk Revival of the twenties occurred because of a desire to return to simpler, older ways of life. This period was called the “roaring twenties” because it was a time of great prosperity in America. One manifestation of this prosperity was the construction of huge, expensive houses, which were intended to show off the wealth of their owners.

The American Folk Revival was a musical movement that began in the early twentieth century. It was a reaction against the over-commercialization and artificiality of popular music. The Folk Revivalists were interested in traditional folk music, which they felt had been corrupted by commercialism. They believed that folk music was purer and more honest than the pop music of their day.

The Folk Revivalists were mostly young people from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. They were not interested in making money from their music; they just wanted to play and sing the songs they loved. Many of them were also political activists, and they saw their music as a way to promote social change.

The most famous figure of the American Folk Revival is Woody Guthrie, who wrote hundreds of songs about the lives of working people. Guthrie’s songs have been sung by many different artists, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen.


Folk music has been around for centuries, and its origins can be traced back to many different cultures. It has been influenced by a variety of factors, including politics, religion, and the environment. Today, folk music continues to evolve and be enjoyed by people all over the world.

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