Bulgarian folk music is among the older varieties of folk music that has survived in the modern world, and perhaps it was this aspect of it which attracted listeners to it in the first place. Many years ago when Bulgaria became independent, folk music was widely encouraged by both the authorities and the population, which made folk music one of the most vibrant and important elements in the country’s culture. Today, it has been somewhat revived but still retains certain characteristic features. For instance, folk music is a genre of music that is closely tied to its origins, which can be both geographical and cultural. But then again, the revival has occurred in a broader context, and the Bulgarian folk music is just one among many.
Most Bulgarian folk music is structured in odd meter, which means that the beats are of varying lengths, and they often alternate with the rhythm, which is normally quarter note, half note or full measure. The majority of Bulgarian folk music, however, takes place in seven, five, three and two time signatures, with some minor variations taking place in the time signature of certain dances. Some dances, for instance, may have their own unique time signature altogether. Most of Bulgarian folk music is written in treble and bass clefs, which have both treble and bass notes, while the instruments other than the piano and the harmonica are rarely used.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Bulgarian folk musicians, besides their distinct style and musical structure, is that they tend to develop their sounds according to the changing time signatures. This feature is present in a number of other folk traditions, and it is particularly apparent in Bulgarian music. Bulgarian music, for example, has evolved to take on the same characteristics of folk tradition as European classical music, in the sense that the same notes and rhythms are played over again, but in a different time signature. For example, the simple phrase “Busek tro chav” (bey music) would be played over the air on the harmonica, a long chord would be played on the piano, and a complex piece, such as the Bulgarian national song “Tscharits”, would be performed on the lute (the same instrument as the guitar).
Unlike the rumba, the Gypsy, or the tango, which feature intricate single steps or quick changes of meter, the basic rhythm of Bulgarian folk songs and dances is usually very tight. In many cases, the music goes through repeated measures without pause or change in rhythm. It is this tight rhythmic style that gives this music its distinctive sound, as compared to other forms of music where the pace can vary considerably and suddenly change. The Gypsy’s “rosary” dance, for example, consists of three rounds of footwork, each consisting of four steps, each following exactly as it appears in the original version. Although the original song was originally meant to symbolize abstinence, in Bulgarian this dance also has religious references.
There are several other factors that distinguish this form of music from other forms. Perhaps the most recognizable characteristic of Bulgarian folk music is its use of rhythm. Unlike many Eastern European countries, Bulgarian music often contains rhythmic beats (known as ankletiko), which are used to emphasize particular details in a song, or to suggest movement in a melody. Often, the beat is played in one of two ways: as an octave (for example, when the first note is reached) or as a sinus drumbeat (for example, when the beat reaches the third note).
Another hallmark of Bulgaria’s rich history and musical heritage is its dependence on folk instruments, particularly on the lute. Although the banjo (a stringed instrument similar to a violin, but with a wood body and a sharp finish), the guitar, and the bagpipes are also used, the lute is the instrument of choice for many Bulgarian folk songs. The instrument is said to have been introduced by the Bulgarian Emperor in the 6th century, and legend has it that he picked out a lute from a crowd and simply strummed it for enjoyment. The instrument was highly valued by Bulgarian royalty, and its fame spread throughout the country. Some of the most prominent singers of Bulgaria can be heard playing the lute – most notably, Grigorijski Simeonov, who is thought to have written some of the country’s most famous songs.