You are here

Solo Interpretations of Bavarian Folk Music

The zither, with its full range of tones, is perfectly suited for solo interpretations of folk music. Folk music, with its close ties to folk dances and folk songs, is an expression of the regional identities from which it has evolved. In this article, zitherist Uwe Schmid provides an excellent survey of traditional Bavarian folk music.

Bavarian folk music is closely associated with folk dances and folk songs. Bavarian folk music was usually played by several musicians who divided the melody, harmony and especially the rhythm of the dance music between various instruments for specific tone color. Furthermore, there was an important social function in folk music, meaning that playing with others is actually more important than the pure result. Nowadays, however, there is a development towards concert music, therefore the solo interpretation becomes more important.

When this music was created in the 18th century, the zither as we know it today had not yet been developed. Due to the large variety of possible sounds, however, it became the main instrument for Bavarian folk music.

The zither can do both melody and harmony and has the largest number of tones of all folk music instruments. These are the main reasons why it became more and more popular for solo interpretations of folk music.

When analyzing Bavarian folk music we have to look at four different areas:

Formal Structure

1. Formal Structure

Traditional Bavarian folk music originates from the dances of the 18th and 19th centuries. That's why the structure is connected to the respective dance steps. The style of the dance dictates speed and character of the piece. Generally there are pieces in 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4 time. Some of the 3/4 time pieces are the landler or ländler, the waltzer, the mazurka, the polonaise and menuetten. Some of the even time ( 2/4 and 4/4 ) pieces are the polkas, the schottisch, the galopp, the boarischer and the marsch. ( German spellings )

Usually the folk music pieces have the following structure: part A is repeated, followed by part B written in the dominant key, which is repeated as well and then part A is played again without repeat and then part C, also known as the Trio, usually in the subdominant key. About 70 per cent of the pieces follow this form. Other forms include using the same theme in neighboring keys or improvising n themes originating from the same parts like a rondo form.

Following are some of the main types of folk music, focusing on regional identities and speeds.


The name landler, ländler or landlerischer most likely comes from an area in Austria called "landl". Other sources describe it as the "dance of the country people". In early forms the landlers were in two parts of 8 bars each. The tempo was played according to the dance steps. The main groups of landler are distinguished by the area they come from:

Slow landler ( Tegernsee ) MM = 72-90
Steier landler ( Austrian ) MM = 100-120
Fast landler (Neiderbayern ) MM = 152-160


The name means "to turn". The waltz was developed from the landler and the Deutscher Tanz and is structured in the same way: two parts ( sometimes more ) with 8 bars each. Later the typical folk music waltz became more complex, consisting of three parts:

Part A - 16 bars plus repetition
Part B - 8 or 16 bars plus repetition
Part A
Part C - 16 or 32 bars with repeats

Mostly the melody is like a landler, but at a faster speed, usually a combination of quarter and half notes. Again the speed depends on the originating area and can vary from MM 160-192.


This dance originated in Poland. It spread all over Europe in the 19th century and overcame the ethnic, regional dances. Because of the typical dance steps the speed slower than that of the waltz - MM 120-132.


This is quite a slow dance, also derived from Polish customs. It is used today as the opening of a typical Bavarian folk dance event. The speed is around MM = 70.


The minuet is from the middle 17th century and was the customary form of music lessons. In country districts it was played for festive occasions. The tempo of the "bauernmenuetts" for this reason is a little slower than that of the classical menuetts. MM = 80-92.


The name comes from "pulka" meaning half, or half-step. Beginning in Prague in 1840 the dance spread quickly all over Europe and most major cities went crazy about it. Slowly the country regions adopted the new music. The slower forms were danced in and around Munich, whereas the faster versions, also known as the Bavarian Polka, became popular in Austria. In today's folk dance culture the faster round dance is known as the Bohemiam Polka.


The boarischer comes from the Bavarian polka and is extremely popular today, oth as a dance and concert versions. The early form of the dance was a variation of the Rhinelander. Later forms were combined with typical polkas and the classifications in today's folk dance cultures are:

slow - boarischer, rheinlanders
moderate - polka, schottisch
fast - galopp, dreher and fast polka


In peasant traditions the march was seldom used. It was played for the walk to church, to city hall, to the house of the bride, or the house of the honored persons. In the old forms of marches the accompaniment in only on the main beat, seldom on the off beat. The tempo is slower than the military or parade marches.


This dance springs from older Bavarian dances. It is a round dance with time ( meter ) changes ( 2/4 and 3/4 ) and also tempo ( speed ) changes. Tuning and waltz steps change with the tempo. It is important that the melody is played prominently so that the dance step changes can be discerned. It is the most beloved dance in Bavaria today and is heard at every folk dance. Each region has its own version:

Bairischer in Altbaiern
Schweinauer in Mittelfranken
Schleifer in Schwaben
Heuberger in Schwarzwald

Today the name "Zwiefacher" is used for this category not only for the two different meters, but also when it has two different melody sections.

2. Rhythm

In folk dance music the melody and the rhythm are both important, as both elements orient the dancers. The rhythm is fundamental throughout the beat and the melody. Following are some general rules for rhythmic structure.

In landler and waltzes the second beat is very short, while the first and the third beats ring longer. If you play a quarter note after an upbeat in the melody, it is also short.

In 2/4 and 4/4 pieces, i.e. polka and boarischer, the basses and also the chords between them are played very short. The important notes of the melody are also played short, and all other notes usually played legato.

These little characteristics are very important as they make the interpretation a Bavarian style. Each dance has not only its melody, but also a unique inner rhythm which shows in its

melodic movement
melodic rest points
rhythmic accents and emphasis

The principal point of accompaniment should be a musical segment of the melodic movement, played in the rhythmic support of the melody.

Today our musical habits use a very monotonous bass/chord accompaniments where it would be better to make variations by using a walking bass or a melodic accompaniment harmony in broken chords instead. ( Waltzer bar 6 and 15 for walking basses - and Polka bar 8 for melodic harmony )

Another important point is to play with alternating basses, changing from root to fifth basses while playing. When changing to dominant or dominant seventh chords, the first bass should be the fifth of the dominant: for example, in key of C -

C c G c / D g7 G g7

C ( bass ) c ( chord ), G ( fifth bass ) c ( chord ) / ( change to dominant ) D ( bass ) g7 ( chord ) G ( bass ) g7 ( chord )

3. Harmony

Bavarian folk music typically is in major keys - minor keys or chords are heard very seldom, also diminished and augmented chords are seldom used. The harmony construction of Bavarian folk music is basically three chords: 1. position ( tonic, 4. position ( subdominant ) and 5. position ( dominant ). The dominant is used interchangeably with the dominant seventh in today's music. The change in harmony occurs almost always at the beginning or end of a measure.

Folk music has, as a rule, 8 or 16 measures. In many instances the first eight bars state the theme; in eight bars the first bar is in tonic key, second and third bar in dominant, fourth bar back to tonic and the remaining like the beginning or the sixth bar might be in subdominant. Another group of themes might begin the first eight bars of the theme with the dominant, travel to tonic in the second bar and change back and forth between these two for the piece.

4. Melody

Melodic structure of Bavarian folk music depends very much on its harmony. The melody is usually taken from the three note chord figures of a position, or from scales of a key. A good folk music piece is elementary in nature: In other words, the melody figures are simple and uncluttered. There are few tones per line, moving up or down and returning again to its beginning point.

In 1977, Uwe Schmid completed his training as a certified zither teacher at the music academy in Trossingen. He became known internationally as a zither teacher and lecturer in numerous, specialized seminars for the zither and folk music.

Uwe Schmid is also in demand as a soloist, in Germany and abroad. From 1980 to 1995 he performed regularly in Austria and Hungary. In 1984 he performed in the USA and in 1999 he made a two-week concert tour in Japan.

His musical activities also include accompanying for vocal groups (e.g. the Eichenauer Viergesang) and playing in well-known folk music ensembles (e.g. Toni Goth-Sextett). With the "Zither duo Uwe Schmid & Georg Seidenspinner" he received special recognition beyond the borders of Bavaria.

He particularly likes original zither compositions as well as demanding solo interpretations of traditional folk music. His repertoire also includes small works from the classical period, better-quality popular music, and compositions of his own.

Uwe Schmid fascinates his audience with his unique, unconventional style of zither playing and the resulting unmistakably beautiful tone in a great variety of timbres.

At present Uwe Schmid can look back on more than 15 CD recordings and continues to appear on radio and television.

Do you have stories or experiences pertaining to the zither that you would like to share with the community? If so, contact us.