Even if we know very little about what Viking music sounded like, we can perhaps make an informed guess about what types of tunes they had and in what situations they were used.
Music for everyday life…
Music when working
When the Vikings sat two by two at their oars rowing up a river to get to a trading town, do you think they sat there without uttering a sound? Or when they pulled their ships over dry land at Hedeby? This kind of work is often made easier with a song to help. Often a rhythm is useful to keep everyone’s efforts coordinated, such as when pushing and pulling. Threshing and grinding corn are other examples of work made easier by a working song. Time also passed quicker singing a song when doing monotonous work. The work songs we know from more recent times and from other cultures often have a chant leader, perhaps the one with the strongest voice, to sing the stanza and then the stanza is repeated by everybody singing it. This is a tradition which is still carried on today in the armed forces of many countries. Another method is for the leader to sing a verse, with the rest joining in with the chorus, which is done in many sea shanties and Negro spirituals.
Lokk – The singing of messages and signals
Singing has been used as a way of making the human voice heard over long distances. Animals are called for and people can communicate with each other though far apart. This ‘lokk’ call varies from person to person and place to place, but seems to have certain common characteristics. For example, it starts with a long note which then drops to a lower note. This is followed by some short cries (which may, in turn, be followed by the names of animals if these are being called); there is then a call of a different tone. The ‘lokk’ is performed in a high pitched voice, as this carries better over long distances. Many varieties have sudden shifts from high to low notes. This form of singing is found in large parts the world and is thought to be one of the earliest forms of music. [Kurt Sachs, in “The Wellsprings of Music”, refers to this pattern as “tumbling strains” and mentions examples from the Australian Aborigines, Japan, Polynesia and Finland!]
Another form of music we believe to be very old is the lullaby. Even if we don’t know what a ‘Viking’ lullaby sounded like it was probably not very different from the ones we know from folk music of today. This is because a lullaby is to calm and soothe the baby and help it to fall asleep. The way of doing this is passed on from generation to generation, because babies are always babies. The lullaby is often monotonous, is sung in a low pitched voice and the melody often varies only 2-3 notes down and up. Many of the lyrics we know, such as those in e.g. today’s Norwegian folk music, are about family, pets and other familiar things, which the singer knows will make a baby feel safe and secure.
Children all over the world experience songs and music as part of their everyday lives. They hear lullabies when they are infants and, as they get older, they often become involved more and more with music-making themselves. The forms of music traditionally associated with the child’s world include nursery rhymes and the chants and songs which accompany the games they play (like ‘One, two buckle my shoe‘, from Britain)..
… and for festive occasions
The Vikings had many holidays through the year including rituals where singing and music played an important part. We know for example that seed-sowing in the Spring was accompanied by sacrifices to the gods, to increase the chances of a good harvest, and singing was a part of these ceremonies. When the Vikings became Christian the lyrics may have changed but songs continued to play a part in the Spring rituals.
During their lifetimes people pass through several phases, which in many societies are marked in some way or another – birth, baptism, confirmation, reaching adult status, marriage, and so on. The rituals accompanying these ‘passages’ from phase to phase often include songs or other music and these play an important part in the ceremonies.
At such events, the singing and music would often be provided by the assembled people themselves. We know little about how ordinary people partied because our sources are mostly the sagas which were concerned with kings and other important people. The sagas tell of traveling entertainers performing at court and these provided the music to accompany their performances. The ‘skalds’, who were concerned mostly with composing poetry and songs in praise of the kings and nobility, held these other entertainers in low esteem. The ‘skalds’ held themselves in higher regard but it is not certain that the ordinary people shared this view.
This post is also available in: Norwegian Bokmål