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Ryan & Brennish Thomson

Updated Feb 2, 2024

The difference between Fiddle Tunes 

and Cowboy Songs,

by Ryan Thomson

A letter I received:

Hi! I'm a student at Cal Poly State University and I'm studying to get a music minor. I am doing my senior project on fiddling and had a couple of questions for you. First of all, is there a distinguishable difference between fiddle music and cowboy songs such as red river valley or the streets of Laredo? I'm having trouble defining what fiddling is exactly and thought I might try and define what fiddling is not...


Also, are there certain songs that you consider specific to a certain style or are most songs played in different fiddling styles, but just played differently? 

thanks, Katy


Hi Katy,


You ask a good question. "Songs," and "Tunes," are two different things! A song has words, but a tune is usually instrumental only. Most fiddle music consists of "tunes," which can be described as "dance music." Cowboy songs are not tunes, but "songs," because they have words, and were originally composed for people to sing. 


I can play the melody of a cowboy song on my fiddle, but it is still considered a song, and not a "fiddle tune." Most fiddle music is dance music, and designed to be danced to, and not designed to have words put to in order to sing. Occasionally, however, someone will be intrigued by a fiddle tune's melody, and be inspired to put words to it. In that case I suppose it could then be defined as either a tune or a song, depending upon how it was performed and whether it was first either a tune or a song.


Your other question referred to styles. There are a lot of general rules but no absolutes. I'd say that most traditional tunes (out of the tens of thousands that exist in many ethnic fiddle traditions from many countries) are usually played in only one style. There is a much smaller subset of tunes that are played in several styles. 


For example, Many thousands of Irish and Scottish jigs(tunes in 6/8 time) are never played in bluegrass style, because 99.9% of bluegrass doesn't use music in 6/8 time. On the other hand, a certain handful of Irish or Scottish reels(in 2/4 or 4/4 time) are regularly played in bluegrass or other American styles, even though they were originally played only in Scottish or Irish style. 


Another example is in traditional Jewish Klezmer music. Some Klezmer tunes are also played as Romanian fiddle tunes, and vice versa. They are recognizable as the same tunes, but played in different styles depending upon whether they are played by Klezmer bands or Romanian violinists.


Hope this helps! Ryan Thomson

This article by Ryan J Thomson copyright © 2001

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