An Introduction to Traditional Swedish Fiddling and Why It’s so Lively!

Mari Carlson

This blog was written by SMT’s very own Mari Carlson in anticipation for her upcoming Swedish fiddling workshop on May 16th—click here to sign up now!

If you’ve ever heard Swedish as a spoken language, you’ll recognize the pronounced diphthong — the sing-song lilt and melodic cadence of the language.

Similarly, the polska is a Scandinavian type of dance that is as Swedish as the diphthong. The polska is a dance tune, or, rather, an overarching term for various subsets of polskas from different regions. Its rhythm defines its melody and also gives it direction, drive, and an invitation for the listeners to MOVE!

Characterized by its 3/4 meter, it bobs along with heavy emphasis on 1 AND 3, and often soars on 2. This emphasis on 1 and 3 distinguishes the polska from other 3/4 categories found across genres, such as waltzes, airs, mazurkas, and lullabies, just to name a few. The polska rocks back and forth like these musical numbers, but with an extra undulation called “svikt” in Swedish. Svikt describes the pattern that dancers draw as they progress across the floor to a polska.

So, enough talking, let’s play some dance music!

In my upcoming workshop, I’ll be teaching a polska called “Fin Er Du (You’re Fine).” Students will be introduced to the music through movement; before picking up our instruments, I will ask participants to actively listen to the piece by swinging their arms and nodding their heads so they can find the rhythms of the piece. We’ll then learn to sing the words so that by the time we play it with our instruments, the song is already in our limbs and our heads and it can come out as naturally as possible!

I learned this tune from Margaretha Mattson, a fiddle teacher and performer from Orsa, the Rattvik region of Sweden known for its fiddle traditions (as well as the painted wooden Dala horses). Many summers ago, Margaretha brought a group of young fiddlers (called a lillaspelmanslag, or little fiddling club) to collaborate with a group of young fiddlers I led in Minneapolis. Together, we exchanged tunes and good times at an annual July fiddle camp.

Screenshot of a man playing the nyckelharpa from video below!

Although I will be focusing my presentation on fiddling the tune with insights on bowing and accents, the workshop is open to all instruments! Swedish folk music groups often include guitars, flutes, and the national instrument of Sweden, which is a sort of keyed violin called a nyckelharpa. Drums and bass are not common, but they have been used in more modern settings.

I look forward to helping my students learn tunes by ear in the traditional folk style—but in addition to following the traditional approach, I incorporate celebration and joy in my teaching. I teach tunes appropriate to the seasons so they can be used at holiday gatherings or other festive events. In Sweden, fiddling often accompanies weddings, funerals and even walks in the woods. We laugh a lot—at our mistakes and our triumphs… sometimes in the same phrase!

So if you’re interested in learning this holiday tune, I will be hosting my workshop on May 16th, the day before Norwegian Independence Day! The tune is Swedish, but there are words we will sing in Norwegian since Sweden and Norway both celebrate the end of school on this holiday.

Click here to sign up or learn more about the workshop — or watch the video below to hear a polska in action!