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Examining the limits of written nyckelharpa music

By Matt Fichtenbaum

Nyckelharpa music occurs naturally in the Swedish musical environment, and players find lots of support in developing their repertoires. There are courses, spelmansstämmor (musicians’ gatherings), organized groups, friends who play together, well-known players who carry tradition further, players who make new tunes and extend the tradition, recordings, and tune books. And the Swedish musical tradition has historically been one of passing tunes along by aural means.

We nyckelharpa players in North America have fewer resources. For those who don’t live near other players, attend the ANA Stämma or other workshops, or keep regular contact with the Swedish “mother country,” recordings and written music are the two most available resources.

Judging from the recent ANA Members’ Questionnaire, many members read music fluently and favor written music as a source of tunes, and the ANA’s own collection of published tunes continues to grow. It seems like a good time to raise the question of “To what extent does a transcription capture a tune?”

To my mind, written music misses being a complete description of a tune in these ways:

  • It tells you very little about the tune’s “style” or “feel”
  • It’s an approximation to the rhythm, timing, and phrasing
  • It leaves out articulation, ornaments, and other personal touches
  • It’s usually a “snapshot” that doesn’t capture variations

What’s this about “style?”

A Boda polska, with its “take a breath” before a sharply struck second beat, feels different from an Uppland bondpolska and both feel different from a hambo, yet they look similar on paper. A 16th-note polska may have the formal, straight-up-and-down feel of an Östergötland polska, or the drive of an Uppland tune, or the gentle, inexorable urging of a Småland slängpolska. Two different players may play the same tune, from the same area, with proper “style” but individual interpretation. Or one fiddler may play the tune differently on different occasions, depending on his mood, the dancers’ mood, etc. It’s not clear that the language has the terms to identify and describe the subtle issues involved, and it’s rare to find a transcription that attempts to present style.

And “rhythm?”

By convention, polskas are notated in 3/4 time with “the details left to the reader.” But don’t expect, for example, a regular beat. It’s been said that “playing a Boda polska is like rolling an egg,” reflecting Boda rhythm’s slightly short first beat (see Example 1). Some Rättvik polskas accommodate the “float” in the dance by hesitating, changing the spacing of the first two beats (see Example 2). And some western Dalarna styles have two-measure phrases with the first beat shorter in every other measure. Orsa music can take this to an extreme, with long, elastic phrases that distribute the correct number of notes over the right number of measures but seem to ignore the bar lines along the way.

Dotted notes are often recommendations rather than commandments. The first sixteenth of a group of four, played slightly longer, may be written straight or dotted but is probably somewhere in between (Example 3). A figure written as a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth may be played more like a triplet (Example 4).

Incidentally, I’ve discovered an inexhaustible source of hambos. If I give a standard transcription of just about any eighth-note polska to my music transcription software and ask it to play it aloud, it comes out as a hambo. And if I transcribe it as it sounds, players of Swedish music laugh at it. Life is complex.


Swedish music is rich with double stops, trills, and grace notes that are sometimes just before the beat, sometimes on the beat. Some transcriptions include these and some don’t, but ornamentation is often considered to be the player’s individual expression, done appropriately to the style. Articulation – whether phrases are played “squarely” or in a flowing, even slinky manner; whether notes begin and end sharply or swell and fade – is another dimension that is seldom notated.

And “variation…”

A transcription records a tune once; even repeated parts usually appear once with an indication that they are to be played twice. Listen to a traditional player and you’ll hear the tune evolve – growing in expression or energy, changing phrasing, gaining double-stops, substituting one figure for another.

Sometimes recordings’ liner notes mention where transcriptions of the tunes may be found. I have pursued some of these, and there were often differences between what was played on the recording and what was printed on the paper. Tunes reach people by varied and wandering paths, and it’s not surprising if recorded and notated versions of a tune disagree.

“Enough, already! Say something positive!”

I like to hear a tune before I try to play it. Having the “sound/feel/mood” of the tune in my mind gives me a structure on which to hang the individual notes as I learn them. Besides, I’m an aural person, and I’m much more likely to find excitement in a tune that I’ve heard than one that I see on paper. (And hearing, for example, Olov Johansson play a tune is undoubtedly more interesting than seeing a transcription of his tune).

If I get the chance, I’ll listen to a tune over a week or two before I try to learn the details. I might transcribe a new tune while learning it; for me, the act of transcribing it helps fix it in my mind. If someone else’s transcription is available, I’ll use that. Then I’ll learn it in detail, working from the transcription for the fine points, and from the recording for the “music,” until I really know it.

If I hear a tune played by two or more different players, so much the better. I think that (1) sorts out “the tune” from “the fiddler’s style,” and (2) brings out the range of possibilities in the tune. Even a similar tune played by a different musician can help put the tune you’re learning into perspective.

If you have only the transcription

It’s important to know the style in depth. If it’s an Uppland bondpolska, know what those sound like and feel like; if it’s a schottis, know whether you want the feel to be smooth or bouncy, dotted or even. Think about similar tunes that you already know, and find things in them that you can apply to the new tune. After all, you’ve played all those notes before, just not in this order! And as you get familiar with a new tune, you have more concentration and energy to work on its expression.

Dancers can be a valuable resource for refining your playing. Try out your tunes on them, and don’t be reluctant to ask how to play more danceably. Listen to others play for dancing, and try to find, in their playing, the secrets that you can apply.

Experiment with the music you play. Bend the rhythm a little, change the phrasing, exaggerate the second beat. When you find something that seems to work, make a mental note of it and try it again. Eventually it becomes part of your arsenal of tricks to be used without conscious thought.

Learning by ear

The aural-tradition model suggests that one learns a tune by hearing a role-model fiddler play it, and thus learns not just the notes but the whole sound/feel/image. If you’re not comfortable learning the notes by ear, you still have something to gain. First, there’s a lot of style and feel to learn by listening to others. Second, you can sing the tune – at least to yourself, in the privacy of your home or car – even if you don’t play it. Then, when you play it from the transcription, you’ll already be acquainted with it.

For further reading

John Olsson is a musicologist and collector in Björklinge, Uppland. He has written a paper, Hur mycket kan man lita på noter, (“How much can one rely on written music?”) that is reprinted in Volume 2 of Leif Alpsjö’s Spela Nyckelharpa. If you read Swedish or know someone who does, you can see what he has to say.

A last word

Here’s a quote from legendary Cape Breton fiddler Winston “Scotty” Fitzgerald, as quoted in a collection of his tunes published by Paul Cranford and reviewed in Fiddler Magazine, Summer 1998. I am still comprehending the depth of its implications.

“If you learn a tune out of a book without putting anything into it, then it’s like washing your feet with your socks on.”