There are so many different types of music it can be hard to figure out what categories it all fits into. For instance, vernacular music is a term for many different kinds of music, including pop and folk. Since folk and popular music continue to evolve, many artists and songs from different eras fall under the umbrella of vernacular music.
If you find yourself asking, ‘what is vernacular music,’ read on. There’s a lot to learn!
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Definition: What Is Vernacular Music?
Most simply, vernacular music is the opposite of cultivated music. But, the vernacular music definition goes much deeper than that. Vernacular music is often informal, made, or internalized by the everyday person, not the haute-culture of the opera house or the classical arrangements made by trained artists.
Admittedly, this distinction is less apparent as time marches on and technology and mass media bring our worlds closer together. That’s because the formal training to create written compositions of music isn’t strictly necessary anymore. It wasn’t always this way, and it took incredible contributions from composers and songwriters to bring music to the masses.
Consider that with the growth of recording technology and composition software, people who don’t read music on staff paper can compose symphonies without ever entering a concert hall. A relatively simple beat and some rhythmic sentences might have once been poetry, but now it’s mass-market music, sold as rap or hip-hop. This is all vernacular music.
The hybrid of cultivated and vernacular music is meshing more and more. However, it’s only a matter of time until a new type of music enters the public domain but remains outside the boundaries of ‘high culture,’ providing a new kind of vernacular music. For instance, until George Gershwin brought his visionary compositions to life, orchestral music was only for the elite.
Post-Gershwin, opera, and sweeping orchestral arrangements were part of the typical musical parlance and remain ubiquitous today. To better understand vernacular music, let’s look at some evident characteristics and specific examples.
Vernacular Music Characteristics
So, what is vernacular music? It’s probably the basis for all music, from both a historical and societal perspective. The first time a human made a song, there wasn’t written music or complicated scales to follow, and the sounds weren’t cultivated for the opera house, concert hall, or church. It was a natural expression of the innate artistic ability of our species.
Similarly, alongside society’s significant musical advancements, there has always been a simpler, more basic ‘music of the people.’ For example, while the expressive sonic masterpiece of Pink Floyd’s album, The Division Bell, was enjoying a run at the top of the charts in 1994, artists like the Wu-Tang Clan and The Notorious BIG were dropping tracks with little more than the spoken word.
The characteristics of vernacular music aren’t always low-tech, folksy, or instrumental. That’s much too narrow of a sampling. Instead, it might be better to say that vernacular music is public, available, and digestible to anyone and everyone who hears it. Sometimes, even if they don’t want to listen to it, it becomes part of the fabric of society.
You can also divide vernacular music into two separate domains. First, there is folk music or music that is communal, shared, and passed down orally.
A good example of this style is the work songs of a sharecropping family in the antebellum South passed down from generation to generation. Then there is a separate category of popular music, which is more audience-centered, like an Elvis #1 hit designed in a studio.
7 Examples of Vernacular Music
Let’s look at specific examples of vernacular music from a few different eras and formats.
Run’s House – Run DMC
Vernacular music is something that is drawn from a common experience. For disaffected urban youth growing up in the 1970 and 1980s, that experience was punctuated by a new sound: Rap music. Where the rock and roll acts of the 1960s expressed anti-war themes felt by millions of Americans, acts like Run DMC plugged into the energy of those city-dwellers who felt forgotten by much of society.
This song’s simple refrain of asking ‘whose house’ was the sort of call and response that was a hallmark of vernacular music in the gospel tradition. It was also a foundational rap song and video that spurred much of today’s music.
I’m So Lonely I Could Cry – Hank Williams Sr.
Hank Williams’s recording of I’m So Lonely I Could Cry is a haunting ballad that is plainspoken and relatable. It’s not the sort of music considered pop by modern standards, and it’s almost an archaic version of much of contemporary country music. But, it stands on its own out of Williams’s immense song catalog for its melancholy arrangement and lyrics.
There is a clear line to be drawn between early vernacular music through this form and the folk music of artists like Bob Dylan.
Get Rhythm – Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash has a lot of songs in his catalog. Few demonstrate the transition from one era of vernacular to the next better than Get Rhythm. A simple, repeating bassline running up and down the guitar drives the rhythm, but it’s set off by the melodic diddies and the shuffling cadence of the lyrics.
Cash learned to sing while working alongside his mother in the fields. He knew the work songs of the hardscrabble African Americans and other sharecroppers. With his resonant voice, he was able to give life to these traditional folksongs and combine them with the rhythm and blues hooks of the delta.
St. Louis Blues – W.C. Handy
W.C. Handy was a pioneering player and composer of blues. He didn’t create American blues music but adapted many vernacular styles into what would become known simply as “the Blues.” He was able to weave elements of various regional musical dialects into his works.
Though a trained musician, he established his style by incorporating elements of various styles, including black folk music, into an overarching schematic that would become the foundational structure of modern music. By adopting the vernacular style of major scales with flat third and seventh chords, he brought the sounds of the delta blues to a wider audience.
Now, the ‘blue notes’ of a major scale are known as the flat third and seventh, and they feature in almost all rock, jazz, and blues recordings of the 20th and 21st centuries.
House of the Rising Sun – Woodie Guthrie
With a repeating, simple bass diddy played on the low strings of a six-string guitar, a gently strummed rhythm, and an old song’s cuttingly evocative lyrics, Woodie Guthrie’s interpretation of this commentary on society’s descent into amorality is a perfect example of vernacular music.
With little more than an idea and a guitar, he uses simple folk music phrasing to fashion his own version of a song that has uncertain origins. Some speculate that its melody may come from an old Irish ballad. But all that’s really known is that it’s been recorded by dozens of artists.
Fortunate Son – Credence Clearwater Revival
This American anti-war rock song wouldn’t have been possible without three things: an unpopular military action in Vietnam, African-inspired rhythm and blues music, and honky-tonk music. This makes rock and roll music in general, and Fortunate Son in particular, examples of second-generation vernacular music born from a hybrid of other styles.
Gold Watch and Chain – Mother Maybelle Carter
Maybelle Carter’s Gold Watch and Chain is an amalgamation of the best parts of multiple formats of music. Gospel, the cowboy ballad, call and response, and the shuffling rhythm of the prairie worker all come together in what was a nascent form of country music.
This is the sort of song that carried far across the American airwaves, and it’s symbolic of this entire type of vernacular music. It is also a forerunner to some of the folk performers who went on to bridge this style of music with rock and roll in the 1950s and 60s.
5 Top Vernacular Musicians
Each distinct in their own right, these are five top names to think of when you’re considering vernacular music. There are countless artists who could appear here, but this is a sampling that spans formats.
George Gerswhin brought classical influence and orchestra sounds to popular audiences. As a youth, he worked as a ‘song plugger’ playing on-demand in department stores in a time when recorded music was still of poor quality. Honing his talent, he continued with work as a recorder, arranger, and producer, developing a keen ear for popular sound.
As a composer, he created some of the most influential musical works in American history, like the Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, a collection of jazz standards, and the famous opera, Porgy and Bess.
The works of Scott Joplin are mostly synonymous with the ragtime musical format. He had some formal musical training as a pianist, and he had the talent to adapt the local music he heard as a Texarkana youth into a more polished sound.
Joplin’s piano skills and innate ability allowed him to tighten up what was often a sloppy honky-tonk sound, blending it with the gospel and folk music around him and creating a more refined version that became known as the classic American rag. This style was trendy in the early 1900s, and Joplin is one of America’s most influential songwriters.
Benny Goodman was a swing music composer and performer. Swing grew directly out of jazz and even blues music to an extent. But those foundational elements were the music of only segments of the population. Though exceedingly popular in certain quarters, they had never spread across the country.
That all changed when Goodman brought racially-integrated jazz groups together, performing for massive audiences and developing a popular vernacular. Despite some who derided the music and others like the Nazis who outright banned it, the genie was out of the bottle when Goodman’s orchestras exploded in popularity and gave birth to the big band era of swing music and dancing.
Hank Williams Senior
Hank Williams Senior personifies the sounds of early 20th century American country music, which didn’t even really exist until he defined the genre. The hillbilly twang of Williams’s voice is as distinctive as the raw emotion of his songs.
The music proved exceptionally relatable to the American public, as Williams went on to become one of the most famous and influential singer-songwriters in history. None of it would have been possible without the influence of Williams’s early guitar lessons from African American player Rufus Payne and his immersion in vernacular music of the past.
The works of Aaron Copeland sometimes fall into different styles and categories of music. When taken as a whole, they created entirely new vernacular music. His compositions were accessible and populist, often incorporating themes of pioneering spirit, Americana, and self-determinism.
Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid, and Fanfare for the Common Man are probably the best examples of his vernacular style.
The History of Vernacular Music
In a traditional sense, hillbilly music, nascent jazz, gospels, spirituals, and delta blues are the foundational genres of what many consider vernacular music. With a border lens, it’s apparent that there are also distinct offshoots of these types of music that fit into the vernacular box. And the roots of vernacular music go back even further.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, when waves of European immigrants landed in what would become the United States, they each brought with them a musical tradition. Enslaved Africans had their own traditional music, and the combination of the two led to a watershed moment in musical history.
If you’re looking for the genesis of vernacular music, look to the mingling of these two styles and their immediate descendants: Spiritual and gospel music, instrumental dance music, and early American ballads.
The progression continued, though things don’t always land neatly into categories. Traditional American vernacular music may feel a bit outdated, but with a wider view, you quickly realize that its modern forms are all descendent and thriving.
What Is Vernacular Music? Final Thoughts
Whether it’s an African slave’s work song, a hillbilly’s anonymous ballad, or a Mexican corrido, vernacular music is an expression of musical emotion, often without any formal schooling, training, or theory as a foundation. There are also plenty of cases where exposure to one vernacular form and schooling in another created an entirely new format as a result.
Vernacular music spans history, evolving with the people and the sounds of their daily lives.