Northern Europe is rich with history, culture, art, music, and fish! I am particularly talking about the countries within the Scandinavian Peninsula: Norway and Sweden. But when we talk about Scandinavia, it consists of not only these two countries, but also Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands.
Thanks to movies, television, and video games about Vikings and their history, we already have an idea about the fascinating and enticing music that originates from these countries. The type of music used in media that portrays Scandinavia is usually Nordic folk music; this is just one genre of many from the Scandinavian region.
Music of the Viking Era
Music was surely a central part of Norsemen culture throughout the early Middle Ages, just like it was for the rest of Europe during their time.
The music of the Vikings expressed the impressive affairs of exploration, unwavering courage and/or victory in battles. It also represented the fabled stories of their folklore and mythology, which was passed down from generation to generation by their predecessors.
Due to this, it is easy to distinguish that music played in the Norse regions was in everyday life and during festivals or celebrations. Music expressed all sorts of emotions, they sang when they were happy or sad, they sang love songs and even lullabies to their children.
However, during the Viking era there were no musical notations. So much of the knowledge we know about their music arises from historical reconstruction and archaeological finds.
Shortly after the Viking era expired, a musical system was introduced to notate songs. This notation system is the only reason we know of the very famous Danish folk song, I Dreamed a Dream. It was partially written down on a piece of wood, found all the way back in the 14th century and to this date, this song is the oldest discovered from the Nordic countries. Originally, it was written using a Runic script in Old East Norse, a dialect from the ancient Norse language which has evolved into modern Danish and Swedish.
Skaldic poetry was also performed by bards to entertain royals and nobility of Scandinavia during the Viking Period. The bards often accompanied their poetry with folk music to heighten the entertainment.
In modern day, Iceland, alongside the Faroe Islands, are the most conservative when it comes to music. Their folk music is truly a preservation of the Viking age with a significant Gaelic influence.
Unfortunately, we know little information about Nordic tunes that the Vikings once sang because of the lack of notation. However, the musical instruments they used are known. Some of these include:
Cow’s or Goat’s Horn
The Vikings made a type of recorder out of a cow’s or goat’s horn, and they bore holes into the horns just like a flute. They would typically have four to five holes in them depending on the size of the horn as naturally, they can vary.
Historians believe that some horns did not have any holes and were used as blast horns during battle. There is no archaeological evidence of this, however, the Bayeux tapestry in France, made shortly after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, has depictions of Viking men playing horns without holes.
Many flutes have been found in Scandinavia from the Viking era. These flutes were mostly crafted from the leg bones of animals such as cows, deer and large birds. Mostly, they carried three holes, but some flutes have been found with up to seven in them.
This instrument may surprise you as the panpipe is not normally associated with Vikings but Andean music instead. The oldest Viking panpipe found was in York, England in 1976, dating all the way back from the 10th century.
The Viking panpipe is made from a small slab of wood (originally boxwood) with holes in the side, bore with different depths to create different pitches.
The jaw harp is a rather strange looking instrument that is played with your mouth. It has a flexible metal ‘feather’ attached to the frame which I can only describe as looking like a mushroom. You hold the frame firmly against your teeth that are parted by an inch, using your jaw and mouth as a resonator. Once you pluck the feather, one key tone is produced and the overtones that play alongside it vary depending on the shape of your mouth and the position of your tongue.
The tagelharpa translates to horse-hair harp as the strings are made of horse-hair. This is a four-stringed lyre that is bowed and was once widespread within Scandinavia. However, this instrument is mainly played in Estonia today.
Vikings used other instruments too such as percussion (rattles, shakers and drums). Although there are no archaeological finds of drums from the Norsemen, it is believed they were using something similar to the Irish bodhran drum or that of the skin-headed drums of the Sami people in northern Scandinavia.
Nordic Folk Dance Music
European nobility once were the gatekeepers for traditional dances and Scandinavia was no exception. With time, these dances were fashioned by commoners and in most cases, remained an integral part of their lives through generations; long after nobility traded their dance traditions with new, stylish practices.
The Nordic dance folk music varies massively from our Viking era counterpart.
It consists of a diversified amount of rhythms, inspired by western Europe’s classical music. The most prevailing dance rhythm is the Polska which is in 3/4 (three beats to a bar) although the schottische, polka, and waltz are other recurring dance rhythms.
Commonly, the polska rhythm accentuates the first and third beats in the bar. There are many variations of the Polska rhythm, and generally the accompanying dance conforms to the differences, though many local dances have been lost to time.
For example, the Bingsjö polskahas a smooth melody and rhythm so the dance consists of continuous and steady footing. Whereas the Boda Polska’s melody is uneven and choppy, meaning the footing is less smooth.
The majority of traditional tunes in Scandinavian dance music are written in minor keys. However, there were many tunes in keys not classified as major or minor, but are known as modes. Uses of modes still exist within Scandinavian music, however they are mostly absent since the accordion became popularly used.
Kulning is a Scandinavian vocal technique used to call livestock such as cows or goats down from the mountains. This type of musical form is often associated with Swedish and Norwegian women as they were commonly the ones to tend to the herds and flocks, however, there are recordings of men kulning as well.
The most well-known use of Kulning within media is in the Frozen film franchise. You hear it during the intro song Vuelie in the first film, and again in the second film as the calling sound that is singing to Elsa.
Kulning is a high-pitched vocal technique. You sing a loud call using your head voice so it can be used to communicate and hear over long distances. Kulning has an almost siren-like, haunting tone to it and often conveys a feeling of sadness due to the wide use of blue tones.
How to Create Your Own Scandinavian Music
The Music we consider to be Norse is purely a system developed by modern entertainment by fusing different types of folk music, often with massive Gaelic influences. This is because very little facts are known about music from the Viking age. Saying that, there are many different types of Scandinavian music to recreate, but for the purpose of sounding cinematic we are going to stick with Nordic folk music from the Norsemen age.
Monophony is used a lot in Scandinavian music. Essentially, monophonic texture is any time in a track where only one melody is heard without harmonies or other pitched instruments.
This could be done with literally anything, a violin, cello, fiddle etc. However, in Scandinavian music, it’s normally the vocals that are the lead melody accompanied by drone-like textures; a continuous note on the cello or horn etc.
You can add unpitched, rhythmic content, like drums, to these monophonic sections as well if you want. Your whole track doesn’t need to practice monophony however, definitely sprinkle it in every so often.
Pretty much most of the instruments I have mentioned in this article are perfect to use. However, it’s difficult to find free VST samples (if you’re composing digitally) of traditional Viking instruments. Saying that, it is easy to find substitutions of said instruments.
For example, if you can’t find a Tagelharpa, use a fiddle instead. You’ll need a bass drum, harp, bone or wooden flute, a horn of some kind, metallic percussion and more specifically a hammered dulcimer (this is more a Gaelic instrument but used a lot within Viking music), hurdy-gurdy, and Kulning-esque vocals (if you want to include vocals that is.)
I use Logic Pro X when composing and they offer users a free VST library. Within the world tab you have a woodwind section which has a medieval recorder which is a good substitute for the bone flute. There are other free instruments in this library you can use such as the Celtic hammered dulcimer, medieval lute and a generic european folk drum kit. Obviously, if you want more specific instruments you may have to do some research to find the perfect VSTs, or buy your own instruments to use. Spitfire labs do an amazing, free dulcimer VST which I have personally used within my tracks.
Key and Time Signatures
This is relatively simple as most Scandinavian tracks are in minor keys. You can use any natural, melodic, or harmonic minor keys you want or research different modes to use.
Often Scandinavian music is written in 3/4 timing (6/8 if you’re really into your Viking metal!) However, this is not fundamental when writing. The main characteristics of tonality comes from the uniquely haunting instrumentation and key signatures, not the timing.
I have written my own Scandinavian soundtrack which follows the life of an Arctic fox cub called Sylvi. You can listen to this on soundcloud.