Thursday, 24 June 2010

Biological Folkology 101

I've kind of wanted to do a post on the big 'What is folk?!' question for a while now, but trying to find that answer has unleashed a whole new Pandora's box on me that I wasn't quite ready for. At the risk of sounding trite, music in general is too porous, inconsistent and bendy to fit into concrete categories, let alone be classified into a single genre.

But let's try anyway.

Back when I studied biology we learned about taxonomic keys. These help scientists to fit newly discovered forms of life into classifications so that no one accidentally discovers the same rare Amazonian lizard twice. Basically, it's like one of those 'What Kind of Romantic Lover Are You' quizzes from girls' magazines that I've never ever read before especially not the ones my sister buys and leaves on the coffee table. You start (I imagine) from a broad question that leads you to a narrow solution.

Internet, I've created my own taxonomic key just for you. It's not very sophisticated and will only tell you what Is Folk and what's Not Folk, but to me that really is the only important question in the whole world. So go ahead, enter a song of your choice and see how Luke's Folk Interpreter does.

(Allow me a little caveat before you begin, though. This is just my take on contemporary folk music. Like 'indie', 'alternative' and 'electro', folk has become a blanketing term for a wide variety of different music. What I call folk, pure traditionalist folkies would call something else. I guess part of folk's beauty is it's interpretable nature: if you want to label it folk, who am I to stop you? Anyway, I'm at risk of saying folk more than six times in a single paragraph so I'll let you read on.)

Luke's Folk Interpreter

1. Is there an acoustic guitar involved?
Yes (go to 2) No (go to 3)
2. Are there lyrics?
Yes (go to 4) No (go to C)
3. Is there a piano, or other suitably unamplified instrument involved?
Yes (go to 2) No (go to 5)
4. Would they play this at your local night club?
Yes (go to B) No (go to 6)
5. Is there a drum track or bass loop that accompanies the sound of your neighbours yelling through your shared wall to shut up?
Yes (go to B) No (go to 2)
6. Are there synthesizers, electronic beats or loops?
Yes (go to 7) No (go to A)
7. This is where it gets tricky. Does the melody "rely" on the electronic bits more than the unamplified instrument?
Yes (go to C) No (go to A)


The conclusion we scientists of folk can draw from the taxonomic key above is that any musical genre is difficult to pin down. Folk songs are perhaps a little easier (give me a guitar, three chords and some pretty words and I'll churn one out for you right now), but as more and more people discover synthesizers and loops this is bound to change.

Having said that, I'm quite proud of Luke's Folk Interpreter, and I implore you, no, no, I challenge you to find a song that clogs it up and spits out an ambiguous result. Go ahead, I'm waiting.

I'll start you off with a ditty from a band Wikipedia cleverly labels 'folktronica'. Tunng (don't worry, I had to look up how to pronounce it too) straddle the rarely-straddled line between beautiful folk and senseless noise and come away with a sound I've never heard before. This isn't the actual song I wanted to put up (if you can, get hold of 'With Whiskey') but I've just lost a hard-fought battle with html and jet lag and it was the best I could do.

To my twelve readers hundreds of daily visitors, I hope the folk lovers among you now have a better way to explain that boundless genre you invest so much musical credit into. If not, at least now you know what a taxonomic key is.

Don't Look Down Or Back by tunng


  1. David K24.6.10

    I thank IB biology and a very clever mind for this article. Great song at the end too, Luke.

  2. Ben Martin24.6.10

    I cannot beat "Luke's Folk Interpreter", it's quite frustrating.

  3. Good stuff, I think you've proven that science is directly applicable to music! I'm currently flying over Florida and what I really wanted to do was watch an episode of Flight of the Conchords but, seeing as they were going to charge me a whopping $2 for the priviledge, thought I'd just settle for a read of your blog instead - so never say your readers aren't loyal ;) I love Tuung by the way - the song 'Jenny' is worth a look-in as well.

  4. Loving the blog! Nick drake post was fantastic and this one was really interesting as well. I agree it's hard to fit things into this ambiguous genre of 'folk' especially nowadays when there are all these branches of folk nu-folk, etc. I feel luke's folk interpreter has done a good job in solving the mystery of 'folk' as a genre.

    However for me folk has always been a feeling more then a label. you know, like something feels folk rather then IS folk. It's like a warm, honest feeling. If the music retains that sense of purity, honesty and authenticity it feels folk to me. poetry is a very honest form of writing about your emotions or musings and a lot of 'folk' artists put their poems to music. they often use acoustic instruments which hold a much more purity and honesty then electric instruments which are easily adulterated by effects. all these things form this package which you can't really label but you can certainly feel it in the music.
    that's why I love folk music, it doesn't lie to you.

  5. The use I shall have for have no idea.

    Also, yay Sound Cloud! This one works on my browser. Sadly the other music player doesn't