Up until today, I always thought Old Time Fiddling just meant old time tunes played on the fiddle, and that Old Time Fiddling was synonymous with Bluegrass Music, but I was wrong. I started reading about Classical Violin versus Bluegrass versus Old Time Fiddling.
Classical violin is music that is played as part as part of the classical tradition. There the violin is played along with other instruments, either in a symphony or in some other group configuration. There is also a formalized system of instruction, and learning to read written music is an essential component. In other words, the music is transmitted and learned through written notation, and there are also very strict rules about how the music is to be played and the techniques that are to be used.
Bluegrass music evolved from old-time fiddling music. Bluegrass music is mainly a vocal style, where the instruments support the voices. No single instrument dominates. Instead, the fiddle, banjo, mandolin or guitar take turns playing breaks or solos, while the other instruments play back-up. In some ways, bluegrass is akin to jazz or dixieland, because the instruments taking solos or breaks freely improvise off the main melody, while the rest of the band lays down a solid rhythmic foundation. In addition to influences from Jazz and Dixieland, bluegrass also draws heavily on the blues. This is expressed most often in notes played by the fiddle and sometimes the mandolin and the guitar.
Old Time Fiddling (OTF) is playing folk music or the “music of the people” on a violin. OTF is not associated with any formalized system of instruction and reading music is not part of it. The music is typically transmitted and learned by ear, and there is a number of perfectly viable ways of doing things. There is a lot more room for individual expression and just more flexibility. There are three distinctive features of OTF.
Heavy Emphasis on Rhythm
OTF is intimately associated with dancing. In the old days, and even now in the Appalachian South, folks would get together for dances and many times the music was provided by a single fiddler. Many of the tools and techniques of OTF were developed to enhance the “dance-ability”….to make the folks want to get up and dance. This is unlike the case with the classical violin, or even the bluegrass fiddle, where the rhythm is being provided by other instruments, and the music itself is intended mainly for listening, rather than dancing. OTF is intended to function as a one-man-band with the melody and rhythm wrapped up into one package. OTF sounds good all by itself. The way in which OTF adds all this rhythm, and drives people to want to dance, is primarily achieved through the bowings.
The Use of Drones
A drone refers to a note that is continuously sounded in the background. There are probably several reasons why this has become part of the tradition of OTF. Droning was a common feature in some of the traditional music people played on the fiddle, including music played in the Celtic tradition, and this is part of why droning gives this music a sound we may think of as more traditional or “ancient”. Another reason for droning is that a second note increases the volume of the fiddle, which comes in very handy if you are trying to be heard above a room full of dancers. Droning also helps to make the different rhythmic bowing pattern stand out even more, which again enhances the “dance-ability” of the music.
In classical violin, the strings are always tuned to the same notes, G, D, A & E, which fiddle players typically refer to as “standard” tuning, and in OTF it’s common to use other tunings. This is really an essential part of OTF sounds. One of the main reason for alternative tuning is the droning, as these particular tunings make it much easier to incorporate drones. Unlike standard tuning, which is used to play songs in any key, these alternate tunings are specific to a certain key. This is why the bulk of the OTF repertoire is in certain keys, in particular the keys of D, A & G. Beyond learning how to play a style that sounds great and makes you want to get up, stomp your feet, and dance, learning OTF also instantly connects you with a large and wonderful community of other musicians that you can sit down and play music with anytime, anywhere. OTF and the music associated with it is really tailor made for playing with others.
Here’s a good example of OTF music. Tommy Jarrell – Fire On The Mountain
If you would like to add any insights to Old Time Fiddle music, please use the comment section below. Thanks.