Description of the hungarian folk music

Description of the music


Largely Hungarian folk music is divided in two types of melodies:

  • Népdalok: (Old) Hungarian folk songs and
  • Magyar Nóta (song) or Nótak (songs): Hungarian city- or urban music, current Hungarian Folk Music. The distinction between these categories, however, is not always fully clear, since many of the better known népdalok also became popular as a Magyar nóta, although usually somewhat modified and played in the urban style. Two separate types of melodies with a special function, Verbunkos and Palotás, came up during the same period of urbanization as well.


These folk songs are samples of a rich musical trove. The database of the Hungarian Science Academy records over 150.000 songs originating from all rural villages of the Hungarians living within the Carpathian Basin of Central Europe. Some of these melodies reach back into centuries. Composers like Béla Bartók. and Zoltán Kodály (Wikipedia) realizing how exact the singing population preserved the not notated musical heritage of their ancestors, started from on 1905 to collect Magyar folksongs These songs had survived through many centuries as a heritage of a once flourishing Eurasian culture. During the 16th and 17th centuries Transylvania (Erdély), now part of Romania, and especially the region around Székely, was the center of Hungarian music. In fact Transylvania then was the only part of Hungary free of Turkish occupation. At the start of the eighteenth century in Hungary, during the so called Kuruc period of the fight for freedom against Habsburg, the nation produced the Kuruc songs. This period also produced a unique instrument, the tárogató, as playing in these Kuruc Noták (mp3). Many titles and lyrics of Hungarian folk songs remain a better reflection of Hungary’s cultural history than current national borders.
Most of these Népdalok were composed around longer existing poems. Today many Hungarians, even when living in foreign countries, not only know numerous of such old songs, but usually also most of their lyrics. This is reflected in large on-line collections with lyrics of Népdalok, like Daloskönyv (online collection of lyrcis)

Katonadalok or soldier (katona) songs form a separate category. They are often based upon emotional texts, sung by marching troops. For a YouTube video of some examples see: Kantonadolok. Below six kantonadalok samples out of the collection. Neither Kantonadalok, nor traditional military and weapon dances, like recruiting or Hajdú dances (YouTube) have much connection to the verbunkos (see below) other than their use for recruitment.


Style: Many Hungarian folk songs (Népdalok) go back for centuries. They include a broad variety of styles varying from slow songs to dance music like the csárdás. A good example of a Népdal Csárdás is given in the YouTube video Kalocsai Csárdás és mars The music uses a strophe structure, usually but not always isometric, that is in even numbers. Also Pentatonic or fife tone formations do occur, like in Repűlj a páva (mp3) with the five notes F G A C D.

Lyrics are the core of a Népdal, presented by one of more voices or a chorus. As a consequence there are several large on-line collections of lyrics of Hungarian Folk. Resolute and diversified rhythms are expressing the true soul and spirit of the related text.

Instruments: of the better known instruments the most commonly used for accompaniment are:

  • Violin or fiddle like in the YouTube video Csávási cigány csárdás
  • Viola: Characteristic for many songs is the use of a second violin or even better a viola as a so called “brácsa” (bratsch), supporting the songs rhythm by drawing together two or three (of the usual three) strings, like this YouTube video, an example of a single Bratch or this example of a bratch with a violin in Cigány Verbunk (YouTube video)
  • Double bas with violin, bratch and accordion in this Transsylvanian gipsy dance (YouTube)

Some of the more specific instruments used are:

  • Bagpipe like in Dancing for Hungarian Pipe Music (YouTube)
  • Cimbalom. (see picture below) This instrument is developed by Schunda in Pest from on 1874 as a larger version of the previously used Hammered Dulcimers. To day in some cases this instrument is also used to play Népdalok, like in this YouTube video: (2 violins, cimbalom. bratch and double bas) Its most common and typical use, however is to accompany the Magyar Nóta or Urban Hungarian Folk music (See below).
  • Cither or a cithers orchestra like the Szabó Ferenc Csoportja (YouTube)
  • Hurdy gurdy like in Playing on the tekerő (hungarian hurdy-gurdy) (YouTube)
  • Tambura: see Tambura, For an orchestra of Hungarian tambura’s see:
  • Ravnica – Hungarian Dance No. 5 – Tambura (YouTube)
  • Tárogató (taragot): a double-reed woodwind instrument, like the oboe, with a penetrating sound. ((mp3) Taragot players use it as a solo instrument. To day mainly the clarinet is used for this purpose.


This urban music is a musical style starting to develop during the end of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century. In the preceding first decades of the 19th century the virtuoso gypsy violinist János Bihari (1764 – 1827), also involved in the development of the Verbunkos,(see below) was the most famous leader of a Gipsy orchestra. He certainly has composed folk songs as well,, but since he could not read nor write music, his inheritance is based upon memories of later musicians.

Usually this urban music is also referred to as “Gipsy Music”, since often played by Gipsy bands. Typical Gipsy music, however, usually has a different style, (mp3) as can also be noticed in some more samples of Gipsy songs below. With the rapidly growing popularity of the Magyar nótak, also Hungarian and German musicians started to play this music. Unlike most Gipsy musicians they were trained to read music. The same Hungarian musical heritage also contributed to many operetta areas. In fact the many Hungarian orchestras, regularly playing in Vienna, caused a mutual influence both on melodies and style of playing.

Three songwriters should be mentioned that played an important role in the early development of the Magyar nótak: Dankó Pista (1858 – 1903), Kálmánn Simonffy (1814 -1853) and Elemér Szentirmay (János Németh) (1836 – 1908) The Gipsy violinist Dankó Pista (Wikipedia) has composed over 400 songs, many of which still are well known, like the samples of 30 songs of Dankó Pista below . Just these 30 songs provide an excellent impression of the core of the Magyar Nótak. This also holds true for songs still popular to day likesthe samples below of songs of Kálmánn Simonffy and of Elemer Szentirmay. Although there were much more song writers, of most of them only one or a few songs have survived the living tradition. Some writers just wrote one single song, still well known.

At the turn of the century one of the best known composers was Árpád Balazs (1872 – 1941). He also was actively engaged in classical music and he had knowledge of music writing. To day quite a number of his approximately 200 songs still are popular: see samples of Arpad Balazs songs below. On the other hand of the 500 songs written by the appreciated songwriter József Dócsy (1863 – 1913) only a few songs still are popular. See Jószef Dócsy songs below.

Surprisingly in the two decades immediately preceding 1945 over 20.000 new songs were written, mainly by dilettantes, however, without compositional experience and in many cases of a to poor quality to “survive”. Successfully song writing became the fruit of chance.

During the first decades of the 20th century this compelling music became quite popular in many Western countries. As decribed below, this was particularly the case in the Netherlands.

Fortunately this music still is popular in Hungary, as is shown in two stimulating YouTube videos, that of a concert in Paris of young Hungarian musicians and that of Potta Géza muzsikál a Hungarian family with friends, playing and singing Hungarian folk songs.

Even to day orchestras playing Magyar nóták also play many of the better known Népdalok, although in the urban style of the Magyar Nótak. In this way the two different styles, originating from the urban and the rural society, respectively, developed into a modern mixture of Hungarian folk music, with less clear borders.

Verbunkos and Palotás

At the end of the 18th century, the verbunkos was a mans dance, played and danced at soldier recruiting. The word “verbunkos”, (plural “verbunkosok”) derived from the German word “Werbung”, and was related to the recruitment for the permanent army of the Habsburg Empire. In the interest of recruiting the military authorities used dances that people liked to dance. In that way many Hungarians became soldier. In the early period recruiting took place mainly among the peasant population. Around the end of the 19th century the verbunkos also became a favorite dance among civilians. Many of the Hungarian soldiers became hussars, since horse riding was an element of their living.

Partly the verbunkos was related to local folk tradition, and usually based upon a song with text. However, since the noble and slender upper-class layer more or less refused to consider the existence of folk music, the later part of the verbunkos was influenced by classical and non Hungarian music, like German or Italian, rather than by folk music. The earlier mentioned famous violin player János Bihari, composed folk music and several verbunkos melodies, like a first version of the Rákóczi March.

Below some samples in this collection of a Verbunkos based on local tradition and some of a Verbunkos in a more classical style

A particular variety of a slow and noble walking dance is called palotás like the Bihari palotás.(mp3) (see also some palotás samples below). Palota is the Hungarian word for palace. The palotás usually was followed by a fast dance. During the 20th century, however, a newer type of dances replaced this ancient majestic music. Finally the palotás was played at ceremonial weddings only.