Folk music typically has strong harmonies present. Vocal harmony is an essential element of most folk songs that have been written and played. Vocal harmony is generally a pleasant-sounding music that is played at the same time as (or around) the melody, which includes the main notes of the music. Music can have varying degrees of harmony. It is the interplay of several melodies or the playing of many notes together that can create the harmony in a song. It is often the harmony together with the melody of a song that makes it so appealing and pleasing to listen to.
Historians believe that music that has various elements of modern day western world harmony in it has probably originated from the countries of Western Europe. Folk music is more the traditional type of music that arose in the countryside in small towns and villages. The songs that are sung may vary over time in an area as different people alter the traditional folk songs and introduce new instruments and styles. The impact of this is to influence and change the harmony, so that songs over time may sound somewhat different.
Features that are important in more recent folk music include the melody, lyrics and, of course, the harmony. The harmony helps to emphasize the message that the song is trying to convey. Since folk music is so lyrical, this becomes very important. Folk music is very much based on telling a story and the harmony acts to emphasize and highlight this.
The older more traditional folk music tended to have more of a monophonic nature. In other words, harmony was not important in these early pieces of folk music. They focused more on a simple tune or single melody. It was only many years later that harmony started to become more important in folk music. Harmony is used to add texture and mood to the music, to add to the overall melody of the music that is being played.
The harmony that was introduced in folk music was often relatively simple at first, only becoming more complex later as musicians became more creative and inventive. Folk music of Southern and Central European countries did become more polyphonic. It means that the melody of songs was combined with other elements, including harmonies.
Harmonies started to be integrated into many folk songs starting in the 1800s. Often, string instruments were used to accompany the main melody of the song. Instruments such as banjos, mandolins and guitars were all used in folk music.
Polyphony in folk music can arise in different ways, for instance, they can play a sustained note with a stringed musical instrument that will underlie the melody of the song. In other cases, a method known as parallel singing is used. In parallel singing the same tune is performed by more than one singer at the same time. This is common in folk music in such countries as Italy and Spain and in certain Slavic regions of the world.