I've been thinking about the terms folk music and traditional music. Traditional music seems in most cases to mean music without a known author or composer (or sometimes a tune writtten by a person, ie we have a known composer, playing such music). Folk music is a term that seems more complicated. Folk sometimes refer to music with known author or composer.

So folk music could be Bob Dylan or Evert Taube?

What is the definition of folk music and how does it differ from traditional music?

  • 2
    my perception is that the two words more or less refer to the same thing, but “traditional“ is a more recent term that avoids some of the baggage that comes along with “folk,” an entire philosophical/aesthetic idea of its own, as in “das Volk.” the funny thing about “folk music“ is that “the folk“ just call it “music“! Jan 7, 2023 at 18:02
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    @AndyBonner - I think you're adding the 'baggage' by [dubious] association. "das Volk" with capital & inverted commas gives a totally different feel & even political aspiration, even though all it actually means is 'the people'. Sticking a capital letter on it changes perception. Native English speakers don't capitalise nouns in the same way as German does, so it adds weight they wouldn't perceive otherwise, but really… folk is just folk, folk are just folk, & most folk would probably agree. ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 8, 2023 at 18:32
  • @Tetsujin Well, I didn't want to write an answer to this question partly because it's so broad that it would be a thesis, and because there's probably scholarly stuff to be cited that I don't want to bother finding. But it's all tied up in the word "folk," as in "folk art," "folk culture," and yeah, it is part of this big 19th-century package about "the common man" etc. "Folk art" as outsider art, as something aesthetically noble or virtuous for various reasons, etc etc. Liszt goes way into "folk music" with a vein of nationalism, looking for a "true mythopoetic genre" etc etc, in.. Jan 9, 2023 at 16:33
  • @Tetsujin ... The Gypsy in Music, with cringy antisemitism and etc. If the OP wants to restrict the topic to talking about attributions of tunes, then "Trad. Irish" and "Irish folk tune" are pretty much synonymous, but (I maintain) "trad" dodges some of this legacy. If we're talking about defining contemporary genres, then it gets super messy: Mumford & Sons plays stadiums; they're no Woody Guthrie; but the word "folk" gets thrown around just because they own a banjo. Jan 9, 2023 at 16:36
  • @AndyBonner - that's always been my beef about "genres". I have some friends who are often on the 'folk circuit', but most people think they're a 'pop' band because of one hit they had, years ago. Wikipedia describes them thus… "Chumbawamba has been described as various genres including, anarcho-punk, pop, folk, world, dance, alternative rock pop rock, electronic, rock, and a cappella." Did I mention, I hate 'genres' & the pigeon-holing associated with it ;))
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 9, 2023 at 16:41

5 Answers 5


'Trad.' is sometimes printed as an author credit where 'Anon.' might be more appropriate.

'Folk' can refer to music from the oral (aural?) tradition. It can also refer to a style of popular music stemming from the 'Folk revival' of the 1940s and 50s and then merging with pop, rock etc. to encompass new material which could still be labelled as 'folk'.

Then there's 'Trad.' jazz, a New Orleans/Dixieland revival which (somewhat inexplicably) achieved Top 40 popularity in the late 50s-60s.

So it's hard to lock down exact meanings of 'Traditional' and 'Folk'. When you encounter the terms, dig deeper!

  • Oral or aural? Both. Oral is by mouth Jan 7, 2023 at 16:26
  • If you do the singing syllabus for abrsm you are expected to do an unaccompanied traditional song. The popular definition for that being a culturally relevant folk song without a known composer.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jan 9, 2023 at 14:21
  • Oh dear! Does it have to be ‘culturally relevant’ now? :-)
    – Laurence
    Jan 10, 2023 at 0:15

I'd go out on a limb here & say…

Traditional music 'already exists', whether we know who wrote it or not. It has no 'nationality' in & of itself; it could be British or Azerbaijani [to pick somewhere almost at random.] It has 'history' passed down from generation to generation until the point at which someone first wrote it down or even played it onto a recording medium. Look up the history of Simon & Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair, which owes a lot to Martin Carthy, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl[1]

Folk music is a 'genre', comprising both traditional songs & modern ones. It has many sub-genres. As a genre, all it seems to need to contain is a predominantly acoustic presentation and 'uncomplicated' chords. A folk group is likely to draw from its own national history & traditions, but not exclusively.

I'm not a great folk aficionado myself, but I've mixed/mastered a few albums for friends over the years who are.[2] I don't recall meeting anyone who ever said they were in a 'traditional band', they were all in 'folk bands' whatever type of folk they played, from one guy & guitar, through a cappella quartets, full band with mandolins, accordions & fiddles & even electric guitars with modern drums.

Is Dylan 'folk'?… sometimes. Is Taube?… I have no yardstick by which to measure. This is completely unfamiliar to me. Yes, I'd guess.
Are Flatt & Scruggs? ... not by the same measure. Personally, I think US country/bluegrass etc has grown away from 'folk' as the country itself grew away from its origins in Europe and Africa. By the same measure 'jazz' could be considered to be entirely of American invention. It wasn't brought from one 'old country' ready-formed; it was developed entirely within the US, based on cross-pollination of many different ideas. "Trad" jazz really has a very short 'trad' compared to many other music forms. It's really only about a century old.

[1] I'm sure I'd used this research in an earlier answer but I cannot trace it. Someone has tracked the origins of Scarborough Fair almost back to Neanderthal times <j/k> - ....Just Another Tune - "...Tell Her To Make Me A Cambric Shirt" From The "Elfin Knight" to "Scarborough Fair" [You're not going to read all of this in ten minutes…]

[2] At one time, they had a weekly live radio show on the BBC which they termed "Folk and Roots". Sadly, all that now remains is footage of a few live sessions - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p001d7kk/clips

  • Btw, I have been in scenarios in which "trad" is thrown around as a self-identifier: In Irish fiddling, people often say things like "I took classical lessons for a couple of years but then switched to trad." Jan 9, 2023 at 16:46

In this case the definitions provided by Wikipedia are actually pretty much in accordance with the post I've been trying to write on this subject: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folk_music

"Folk music is a music genre that includes traditional folk music and the contemporary genre that evolved from the former during the 20th-century folk revival. "

I would add that another way of looking at it is that 'folk' is the category, whilst 'traditional music' is one of the strands within 'folk'. There's also a fair amount of subjectivity in play in the edge cases as to where 'folk' crosses over into rock or electronica, let alone where 'traditional music' merges into 'folk' ...


Intellectual property rights are one way to distinguish.

From an IP perspective "folk" is just another style, but "traditional" means no authorship, no ownership, can be established. You can record, perform, publish actual "traditional" music without restriction. You can't do that with Bob Dylan's "folk" music, you will get sued for copyright infringement. Songs like Happy Birthday fit into cultural tradition, but strictly speaking are not "traditional" music, because you can get sued by the owner of the song if you use it without permission.


Things are complicated further in that folk melodies and songs are often used in compositions by known composers.

Sometimes the traditional song is adapted by a composer so well that the folk song goes extinct and is replaced by the composers adaption.

For instance, the traditional Spanish song "El testament d'Amelia" is very much a traditional song, but was made famous by the composer Miquel Lobet.

Whether his work was a mere transcription or if he took a melody and composed a song from it remains unclear.

Although now most version would accept it as a traditional song even if it has a known author.

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