Icelandic Folk Music: From the Past to the Present

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Icelandic folk music is a living tradition that has been passed down through the generations. In this blog, we explore the history of Icelandic folk music and how it has evolved over time.

The History of Icelandic Folk Music

Although Icelandic folk music is not widely known outside of the country, it has a long and rich history. Iceland is an island nation located in the North Atlantic Ocean, and its music has been shaped by both its isolation and its proximity to other cultures.

The first people to settle in Iceland were Irish monks, who arrived in the 8th century. These monks brought with them the Irish traditions of storytelling and poetry, which found their way into Icelandic music. In the 11th century, Iceland became part of the Norwegian kingdom, and many Norwegian musicians came to live in Iceland. They brought with them the Norwegian musical traditions of ballads and hymns.

In the centuries that followed, various other peoples immigrated to Iceland, including Scots, English, Germans, and Danes. Each group added their own musical traditions to the growing Icelandic musical melting pot. By the 19th century, Icelandic folk music had developed into its own unique genre, with elements of Irish, Norwegian, Scottish, English, German, and Danish folk music all present.

The 20th century saw a decline in traditional Icelandic folk music, as many people began to move away from rural areas and into urban centers. However, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Icelandic folk music, both inside and outside of Iceland. Today, there are many popular Icelandic folk bands that blend traditional sounds with modern influences.

The Instruments of Icelandic Folk Music

Since the early days of Icelandic music, a wide variety of folk instruments have been used. Some of these instruments are unique to Iceland, while others are found in other Scandinavian countries.

The best-known Icelandic folk instrument is probably the langspil, or “long-strung fiddle.” The langspil is thought to have originated in the 12th century and is played with a bow. It has two or three strings and is tuned in fifths (like a cello or mandolin). The langspil was traditionally played by farmers and fishermen, and was used to accompany singing and dancing.

Other popular Icelandic folk instruments include the following:

-The Hardingfele: This Norwegian fiddle has four strings and is tuned in fifths. It is often used for playing jigs and reels.
-The Bouzouki: A Greek instrument with four strings, typically tuned C-F-A-D. It has a round back and a long neck, and is often used for playing chords.
-The Drengjakoklar: Iceland’s version of the bullroarer, this traditional instrument is made from wood, bone, or stone. It is attached to a rope and spun around to create a low, haunting sound.
-The Flatveu: An Icelandic version of the bass drum, this instrument is made from animal hide stretched over a wooden frame. It is usually played with two sticks.

In addition to these traditional folk instruments, modern Icelanders also make use of various Western instruments such as the piano, guitar, and clarinet.

The Styles of Icelandic Folk Music

Styles of Icelandic Folk Music
Traditional Icelandic folk music is the music of the people, sung in the homes and at social gatherings. It is often passed down from one generation to the next, and has been influenced by the music of other cultures. There are four main styles of traditional Icelandic folk music: ballads, love songs, work songs, and dance tunes.

Ballads are typically about heroes and heroines, and their adventures and often tragic love stories. Love songs are about both the joys and sorrows of love. Work songs were sung while performing physical labor, such as farm work or fishing, as a way to pass the time and to make the work feel less arduous. Dance tunes are lively tunes that were (and still are!) played at dances.

Traditional Icelandic instruments include the fiddle (or violin), recorder, accordion, and mandolin. The guitar has become increasingly popular in recent years. In addition to instrumental music, Icelanders also enjoy singing folk songs a cappella (without accompaniment).

Folk music has been an important part of Icelandic culture for centuries, but in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in this musical tradition. More and more people are learning to play traditional instruments, attending folk music concerts and festivals, and sharing traditional songs with new generations.

The Influence of Icelandic Folk Music

Icelandic folk music has been influenced by many other genres over the years, including European classical music, popular music from other countries, and even traditional Icelandic music from other regions of the country.

One of the most notable examples of this is the work of Icelandic composer Jón Leifs, who was heavily influenced by both European classical music and Icelandic folk music. Leifs was particularly interested in creating a unique Icelandic symphonic sound, and he did this by incorporating folk songs and dances into his compositions.

Many of Leifs’ works were inspired by specific Icelandic folk tunes, and he even wrote a number of arrangements of traditional Icelandic songs for choir and orchestra. In addition to his work as a composer, Leifs was also a conductor and an accomplished pianist, and he often performed his own compositions with orchestras.

Leifs’ work had a significant impact on the development of Icelandic symphonic music, and his example was followed by other composers such as Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, who also wrote pieces that incorporated elements of Icelandic folk music. Today, there are many different types of Iceland symphonic bands which perform a wide variety of Iceland music, including both traditional and contemporary pieces.

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