Examining the effect of oral transmission on folksongs

Daniel Shanahan*, Joshua Albrecht

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Sociolinguists frequently examine the nature of gradual, internal shifts in languages and dialects over time, arguing for both cognitive and cultural factors, as well as those that might be somehow internal to the language itself. Similarly, musicologists have often argued that musical genres and even specific songs can be examined through gradual diachronic shifts, which seem to be especially accelerated in traditions that rely on oral transmission. For example, Spitzer (1994) examined the stemma of "Oh! Susanna" and noticed that it tended to become more pentatonicized at cadence points by dropping scale degree seven, and suggested that this might be true with folk songs in general. To test this, we employed both experimental and corpus-based paradigms. The experimental approach attempted to simulate oral transmission in a compressed timeframe by involving singers who heard and replicated short musical excerpts, and then would teach a colleague, who in turn passed it on to another participant. Similarly, we conducted a corpus analysis that examined the prevalence of descending stepwise endings in styles of music primarily transmitted orally compared with those transmitted primarily through notation. The experimental results suggest that cadence points in Western folk music are more likely to lose scale degree seven through the act of oral transmission, and the corpus study suggests that, although stylistic constraints play a large role in folk music, there might also be a relationship between transmission and physical affordances.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)273-288
Number of pages16
JournalMusic Perception
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2019


  • Affordances
  • Cadences
  • Folksongs
  • Oral transmission
  • Social learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Music


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