Scottish traditional music should be…

posted 23 Sep 2014 04:02 by Simon McKerrell   [ updated 23 Sep 2014 04:09 ]

How do we collectively conceive of Scottish traditional music?

The results of my survey sample of the community of Scottish traditional music are in, and I’m trying to process some of the mass of information. Between March and August this year, I ran an online survey questionnaire in order to gather evidence about the people that are involved in Scottish traditional music. This was a purposive sample where I deliberately targeted the community of practice through web fora, my own website, mailing lists, and publicized the survey via BBC Radio Scotland to encourage participation. I also posted notices about the survey on some key websites including and others, to encourage those with an interest in Scottish traditional music to take part. The resulting sample size (excluding those who did not express an interest) was 280.  

There are many fascinating results which I will be talking about at the Understanding Scotland Musically conference next month at Newcastle University, but for now I’d like to concentrate on one particularly interesting set of responses to the question ‘Scottish traditional music should be…?’. I posed a sort of a Likert scale multiple choice question asking which of the pre-determined characteristics were most relevant to your understanding of Scottish traditional music. The following chart shows the basic outline of the responses:

Taking those responses that answered either ‘relevant’ or ‘very relevant’ together, and also bunching the ‘completely irrelevant’ and ‘very slightly relevant’ responses together, gives the ability to make some broad observations about how we collectively feel about what Scottish traditional music should or might be.

From a scholarly point of view, the most surprising aspect is how strongly people rejected the criteria of ‘oldness’ as a constitutive characteristic of Scottish traditional music (STM). This has been the key criteria of authenticity in the folkloric and musicological scholarly discourse for the last 200 years. But it seems today that 93% of people who play, sing and listen to Scottish traditional music feel that it’s now completely irrelevant or only very slightly relevant. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers how thoroughly mediatized and professionalized Scottish traditional music has become. But there is little doubt now that the consensus amongst this sample anyway would have no difficulty assigning the label ‘traditional’ to a newly composed tune or song. This would have been unthinkable for many revivalists, and certainly for those in the Celtic twighlight movement at the end of the 19th century, and is undoubtedly connected to significant post-war social change.

What was less surprising of course was that 73% of respondents agreed that STM should be orally transmitted and that 68% of them also felt that STM should be composed in a traditional style. This is very interesting to me because it confirms both that a key characteristic of this musical genre still rests on its method of transmission and communication between people, and also that 68% of people also felt that the sonic characteristics of traditional music are relevant or very relevant to their understanding of it as traditional music. When this is combined with the rejection of any ethnic or racial element to STM as demonstrated by the 65% who responded that the nationality of the composer was completely irrelevant, it makes for a strong endorsement that people understand ‘traditional Scottish music’ to be defined by its form and transmission, and not by any sense of the music’s age or ethnicity.

This is of course has implications for all of us whether we work in the music industry, the academy, in teaching, performing or public policy. It demonstrates to me at least, that people still regard orality and how they learn as a key part of what traditional music is, but that the sonic aspects and the musical structures are now perhaps more salient than the provenance of a tune or song. Many challenges here for scholars, but also perhaps quite refreshing too, in that the 19th century links between racial or ethnic nationalism and folk music have been well and truly consigned to history–this can only be a good thing. What it does do however, is throw the attention on to how we define Scottish traditional music, how we fund it, what we count as STM, and how we teach it. And finally we must bring our attention back to the notes themselves and their relationships to text and media, and how we understand them as listeners, fans, audiences, both in person and in today’s digitally mediated world.

Here is a download of the basic survey results.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s