What is Traditional Music?

What is Traditional Music?

This question isn’t really as simple to answer as it sounds, since the whole concept means different things to different people. As an exercise, I asked the participants of the Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin Archive Project to write down what the term means to them. We’d like to include a page on the TMF website asking this question, and would love to hear what our members and the wider folk community have to say on the topic.

This question isn’t really as simple to answer as it sounds, since the whole concept means different things to different people. As an exercise, I asked the participants of the Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin Archive Project to write down what the term means to them. We’d like to include a page on the TMF website asking this question, and would love to hear what our members and the wider folk community have to say on the topic. Please email me with your ideas. To start you off, here’s what the EYGers (aged 16-23) had to say:

Robbie: “To me, traditional music is something that is constantly evolving, and difficult to pigeonhole or pin down. I see traditional music as a timeline, i.e. generally anything that was written under 200 years ago is not traditional music to me, although obviously the exact cut-off point is debatable. To me, all music written for traditional instruments (i.e. pipes, fiddles, clàrsach, etc.) or voice, that was written before this point is traditional music. In my opinion, music we record or write today will be ‘traditional’ in two hundred (or so) years time. I do not think that any music where the composer is unknown is necessarily traditional music, I also do not think that traditionally-styled modern-composed music is traditional.”

Hazel: “When I think about traditional music I often wonder why it was written.  Before we had things like radio and television, music was played and sung for entertainment. The music we call “traditional” was rarely composed for performance in front of an audience; sometimes it was written to dance to, and sometimes it was just performed for family to enjoy at night time before bed.  Traditional music even emerged from the working environment of the time; waulking song for example. Nowadays most of the traditional music we play is specifically for concerts, and it is performed using a wider spectrum of instruments.  We have so much more options to explore these days and I think that is where we run the risk of losing what makes our music traditional.

One thing that really appeals to me about traditional music is that it was passed on from generation to generation, like a valuable heirloom.  To me it shows just how much people valued music back then; and even if they had nothing else to pass on to their family, they could gift their music. Today, our reasons for writing and playing traditional music might have changed, but if we treat our music like an heirloom I think that would be a nice way of holding on to tradition.  And maybe one day our children will learn our own tunes and pass them on, keeping the tradition alive.”

Pàdruig: “Traditional Music in my opinion is only like one slice in a pizza; along with it is the heritage, environment, the pass-times, the occupations, and life-styles. Hand in hand they form the culture. This is something which is never constant. For me Traditional music is roughly two or three hundred years old. It is influenced by their life, very different from ours. But what would traditional music be for them? I presume it would be music from a couple of hundred years previous, and as part of an older culture. And what we would call traditional today was new and innovative when it first appeared. Our music today is influenced by our different surrounding environment, history and lifestyles, with exposure to other cultures which all influences our music.”

Ellie: “Trad music to me is music that brings people of all ages together and is open to everyone. Traditional music informs the music that is composed now. Often handed down by ear, it changes as time changes and yet there is something about the harmonies or melodies which allow the listener to say ‘that sounds Scottish/Welsh’ etc. I don’t think you can define traditional music as old, and modern music as new, as there are lots of similarities between the two.

I feel traditional music speaks to the deeper being of people and connects in way that classical music does not. That’s a very personal opinion I know but for me the day I heard traditional music was the day I realised what my passion would be! I love traditional music, it is where my heart lies but I also love the more modern pieces. When I compose or arrange music I draw on ideas from traditional pieces and make new pieces based on them this makes them personal to me, but the arrangements I do are still traditional.”

Alastair: “‘Tradition’ is a heavy word. It’s weighted by time; when we think something is traditional we think of something that has already been done for a certain amount of time. For instance, ‘traditionally on a night out we take a cab to the bar’ would indicate that this group of people has been going to the bar like this for quite a substantial period of time. How long this has been is hard to say. In this example, one could presume that they have taken the cab to the bar several times, but not necessarily for years on end. However, the celebration of Christmas would also be seen as a tradition, a tradition that has been going on for hundreds of years. From this I would conclude that no fixed amount of time can be put on tradition, it will depend on what tradition it is and in what context it is referred to as a tradition.

Still, the thought of ‘tradition’ is often combined with the thought of something ‘old’. Indeed, also with ‘traditional music’ there is a danger of instantaneously thinking of ‘old music’. I say danger because I do not think this the case; to my previous argument I would add that tradition is not a constant in time but a continuity. It is about something that has been passed on to us from the past and is now in our hands to shape and fold in a contemporary form, only to see it being changed again by the following generations. Or in other words, if we would be painters then the ‘old music’, part of a tradition, would merely be our subject, of which we are painting our own version. To me, our new painting is as much part of the tradition as the original ‘old music’ is (Indeed, original is a dubious word in this context. What is the original version?). How far our painting will deviate from the original is our own choice and will depend on our upbringing and environment but it does not matter, for it will be our own contribution to the tradition.”

Roisin Anne: “To me, traditional music has always meant the sharing of music with friends. I have made so many good friends from playing music and without them, I would not have learned anywhere near the amount of tunes I know now. Traditional music is a great way to socialise as well as passing on a traditional through generations. Traditional music is constantly evolving and I believe it is important to aid the process through writing new material as well as digging for old tunes and songs. I think this Archive Project is an opportunity to delve into the past and recreate some traditions which are perhaps not as accessible as others. I believe a mixture of composing and “re-packaging” are what make traditional music what it is and hopefully this ideology will be passed on to the next generation.”


Charlie: “To me, traditionial music, as well as being a genre in its own right, has also provided the foundations for many other types of music. The genre of traditional music encompasses music from many different countries and cultures, and as music becomes more and more accessible on an international level, there are more opportunities to feed of each other’s ideas and use our ancient recourses to create new music. In this sense traditional music is a massive, slowly evolving genre within which any listener should be able to find material that moves them. I feel that the Archive Project is an excellent example of how traditional music is still growing and thriving today, and I find it very exciting that the project allows us to play our part in both keeping the tradition alive and evolving the genre.”

The EYG Archive Project is a collaboration with the School of Scottish Studies Archives aiming to inspire new people to use the them and break down barriers young people and the wider community might have with visiting or using them. Take a look at the blog to find out more.