Here are… the best commentaries I’ve seen on the difference between “songs” and “fiddle tunes,” and how certain fiddle tunes have a few sung passages, but still are not considered “songs.”
It has become far too common for people, usually those who should know better, to use the word “song” for any piece of music. Songs have words that they may be sung; tunes have notes that they may be played.
There are some oldtime/fiddle tunes that include sung passages, a few lines sort of shouted out to break the monotony of the incessant tune in a long dance… While the words themselves may vary (floating/zipper verses) in a tune that has ’em, a given tune generally either does include them, or doesn’t. Sung intervals don’t generally get spontaneously added later on in the history, except maybe for Uncle Dave Macon’s comedic embroidering on well-known tunes of his time. I guess some tunes just lend themselves more to that than others, or give more room for voiced syllables within the fast-paced fiddling.
The main thing about oldtime fiddle tunes, although many of them are as pretty as sung songs, is their rhythm– because they are, first and foremost, dance music. They are more related to session tunes in the UK than to sung music of the US. They evolved in the US into un-dance-ably fast bluegrass style, as instrumental interludes between sung bluegrass music in a set or jam.
Some tunes are known nowadays both in bluegrass circles and in oldtime circles, though they are played somewhat differently as to speed, ornamentations, and technique.
The difference between Fiddle Tunes and Cowboy Songs,
by Ryan Thomson,
A letter I received:
Hi! I’m a student at Cal Poly State University and I’m studying to get a music minor. I am
doing my senior project on fiddling and had a couple of questions for you. First of all, is
there a distinguishable difference between fiddle music and cowboy songs such as red river
valley or the streets of laredo? I’m having trouble defining what fiddling is exactly and
thought I might try and define what fiddling is not…
Also, are there certain songs that you consider specific to a certain style or are most songs
played in different fiddling styles, but just played differently?
You ask a good question. “Songs,” and “Tunes,” are two different things! A song has words,
but a tune is usually instrumental only. Most fiddle music consists of “tunes,” which can be
described as “dance music.” Cowboy songs are not tunes, but “songs,” because they have
words, and were originally composed for people to sing.
I can play the melody of a cowboy song on my fiddle, but it is still considered a song, and
not a “fiddle tune.” Most fiddle music is dance music, and designed to be danced to, and
not designed to have words put to in order to sing. Occasionally, however, someone will be
intrigued by a fiddle tune’s melody, and be inspired to put words to it. In that case I
suppose it could then be defined as either a tune or a song, depending upon how it was
performed and whether it was first either a tune or a song.
Your other question refered to styles. There are a lot of general rules but no absolutes. I’d
say that most traditional tunes (out of the tens of thousands that exist in many ethnic
fiddle traditions from many countries) are usually played in only one style. There is a much
smaller subset of tunes that are played in several styles.
For example, Many thousands of Irish and Scottish jigs(tunes in 6/8 time) are never played
in bluegrass style, because 99.9% of bluegrass doesn’t use music in 6/8 time. On the other
hand, a certain handful of Irish or Scottish reels(in 2/4 or 4/4 time) are regularly played in
bluegrass or other American styles, even though they were originally played only in
Scottish or Irish style.
Another example is in traditional Jewish Klesmer music. Some klesmer tunes are also
played as Romanian fiddle tunes, and vice versa. They are recognizable as the same tunes,
but played in different styles depending upon whether they are played by klesmer bands or
Hope this helps! Ryan Thomson
This article by Ryan J Thomson copyright © 2001
[permission to reprint requested from Ryan on 103016]