The Folk Music of Russia: Why it Sounds Different from Western Europe

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Russia is a country with a rich musical heritage. The folk music of Russia has its own unique sound that is different from the music of Western Europe. In this blog post, we will explore the reasons why Russian folk music sounds different from its Western counterparts.

The Origins of Folk Music in Russia

Folk music in Russia has its roots in the music of the Slavic people who migrated to the region from Central and Eastern Europe. The music of the Slavic people was shaped by the climate and geography of the region, as well as the influence of the Turkic and Mongol peoples who once ruled the area. The result is a sound that is quite different from the folk music of Western Europe.

The Slavic peoples and their music

The folk music of Russia is unique and easily recognizable because it has its roots in the music of the Slavic peoples. The Slavs are a group of people who live in Eastern Europe and have their own language, culture, and musical traditions.

The Slavic peoples were some of the first to develop a form of written music, which was used for religious purposes. The earliest examples of this music date back to the 9th century. In the 11th century, the first Russian Prince, Vladimir the Great, converted to Christianity and brought with him Byzantine musicians, who introduced new musical styles to Russia.

Over time, the music of the Slavic peoples absorbed elements from other cultures, including Mongolian and Finnish music. By the 18th century, Russian folk music had developed into a rich and distinct genre that included a variety of regional styles.

Today, Russian folk music is still performed regularly in Russia and other countries with large Slavic populations. It is often played on traditional instruments, such as the accordion, balalaika, and garmoshka.

The Mongol invasion and its impact

The Mongol invasion of the 13th century was a cataclysmic event in Russian history. Not only did it destroy much of the country, it also had a profound effect on Russian music. The Mongols brought with them a new type of music, which quickly spread throughout Russia. This music was characterized by its use of extended techniques, such as glissando and vibrato, and its unusual scales. It also featured a wide range of percussive sounds, including gongs and drums.

The impact of the Mongol invasion can still be heard in Russian folk music today. Many of the scales and extended techniques used in Mongolian music are still used by Russian folk musicians. In addition, the percussive sounds of the Mongols have often been imitated by Russian folk instruments, such as the balalaika and the gusli.

The Characteristics of Russian Folk Music

Russian folk music has a distinct sound that sets it apart from the music of Western Europe. The major difference is in the use of klezmer and gypsy influences. Russian folk music also often features unusual instruments, such as the balalaika and the accordion. The following article will explore the characteristics of Russian folk music in more detail.


A characteristic feature of Russian folk melodies is their wide range. Melodies of two octaves or more are not uncommon, and melodic phrases often leap over an interval of a fifth or a fourth. This is partly due to the fact that, unlike in Western Europe, where folk songs were mostly confined to the major and minor keys, the Russian folk song was based on a more complex system of Tonal relations called church modes.

The church modes were introduced into Russia from Byzantium in the 10th century and continued to be used in Russian Orthodox liturgical music until the 18th century. They are believed to have had a significant influence on the development of Russian folk music. The modes also helped to create a specific type of melodic decoration, which was often used in Russian folk songs. This decoration, known as zvonki (bells), consisted of rapid repeated notes, usually played on a higher pitch than the main melody.


The balalaika is a triangular, fretted folk instrument with three strings. It is related to the lute and is typically between one and a half and two feet long. The balalaika has a distinctive, resonant sound that is perfect for accompanying singing.

The garmoshka is a folk instrument that consists of a brass horn or wooden trumpet attached to a leather or wooden body. It is held vertically and played with the right hand while the left hand supports the bottom of the instrument. The garmoshka produces a loud, piercing sound that can be heard over long distances.

The domra is a plucked string instrument with four or five strings. It is similar to the mandolin and is played with a pick. The domra has a bright, resonant sound and is often used in ensembles.

The bayan is a chromatic button accordion that consists of two keyboards (one for each hand) and a set of bass buttons. It originated in 19th-century Russia and is still very popular today. The bayan has a wide range of tones and can be played solo or in an ensemble.


Instrumental folk music is by far the most common type of folk music in Russia, but there are also many songs with lyrics. These songs often have a slow, sad melody and deal with topics such as love, loss, nature, and history. Like instrumental folk music, Russian lyric folk songs are usually based on a melody that is passed down orally from generation to generation. As with instrumental folk music, there is no one “composer” of these songs; they are the product of many years of tradition and change.

One of the most distinctive features of Russian lyric folk songs is their use of syllabic verse. This means that each syllable of the lyrics corresponds to one note in the melody. This gives Russian lyric folk songs a very different sound from Western European song traditions, which tend to use more evenly-paced lyrics.

Another distinctive feature of Russian lyric folk songs is their use of expanded vowel sounds (known as “vowel lengthening”). This creates a more singsong quality to the melodies, which can be quite beautiful when done well. However, it also makes Russian lyric folk songs harder for non-native speakers to understand; if you’re not used to hearing them, it can be difficult to catch all the words.

Finally, Russian lyric folk songs often make use of what’s known as “strophic form.” This means that the same melody is reused for each stanza (or verses) of the song. This allows for a lot of repetition within a single song, which can make them very catchy and easy to remember. It also means that Russian lyric folk songs tend to be much shorter than their Western European counterparts; many only have six or eight lines total.

The Influence of Russian Folk Music

Though sharing many commonalities with the folk music of Western Europe, the folk music of Russia has developed its own unique sound and characteristics. One of the primary reasons for this is the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has instilled a deep sense of piety and spirituality in the music. In addition, the wide expanses of the Russian landscape have resulted in a wide variety of regional styles, each with its own distinct flavor.

On classical music

Few cultures have had as profound and lasting an influence on classical music as that of Russia. Soviet composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev brought the traditions of Russian folk music to the concert stage, infusing their works with the distinctive melodic and rhythmic features of this musical style. As a result, Russian music has come to be characterized by a richly textured sound that is quite different from the more streamlined approach of Western European composers.

While Russian folk music is generally based on major and minor scales, it often features unusual harmonic progressions that create a sense of tension and release. The use of drones and open fifths is also common, giving Russian folk music a distinctly “eastern” sound. In addition, Russian folk tunes tend to be shorter and more repetitive than those from other European traditions, making them easier to remember and sing.

The influence of Russian folk music can be heard in many of the great works of classical composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rachmaninoff. In fact, Tchaikovsky’s famous “1812 Overture” contains quotation from a traditional Russian folk tune, “The Volga Boatmen’s Song.” So if you ever find yourself listening to classical music and suddenly feel like singing along, it might just be the Russians calling to you from across the centuries!

Popular music in Russia has always been a little different from what we’re used to hearing in the West. While some of the biggest Russian pop stars have made inroads into the mainstream Western music industry, for the most part, Russian popular music has held fast to its own unique identity.

One of the biggest influences on Russian popular music is the country’s rich tradition of folk music. Even today, many of the most popular Russian pop songs are based on traditional folk melodies, giving them a sound that is distinctly Russian.

If you’re curious about what Russian popular music sounds like, check out some of these popular artists:

Alla Pugacheva is one of the most successful and well-known Russian pop stars of all time. She has been active since the 1970s and her career has spanned several decades. Her style is a mix of traditional folk music and more modern pop sensibilities.

Valery Leontiev is another veteranRussian pop star who got his start in the 1970s. His style is also a mix of folk and pop, but with a heavier emphasis on folk influences. He is best known for his emotional ballads and patriotic songs.

Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) is a punk rock band that formed in the late 1980s. They are one of the most popular and successful bands in Russia, and their music often satirizes life in Russia under Vladimir Putin’s rule.

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