Transmitting Musical Heritage

  • Bill Hewitt

    Bill Hewitt


The word ‘Heritage’ has unpleasant loaded connotations in different settings.  There are expectations that we’re looking at a mythical thing.  Certain values are placed on music that has a perceived heritage.  Musicians are often overwhelmed by heritage (traditions/roots).  Notions of what their heritage is can colour the kinds of music employed in events where they are considered to be transmitting their musical heritage.  Heritage can restrict your way of viewing your music.

Heritage is a very broad and malleable term.  When we’re talking about heritage in music we use key words like folk roots tradition.  These mean subtly different things but are also synonymous.

Everyone can claim a heritage for themselves.  One person’s heritage is another person’s pop song.  The value of this when calculated by others involves notions of authenticity. On the other hand, others often see something significant in your heritage that you don’t see, or don’t consider important.

Music is a vessel for personal and group histories.  There is an important legacy people want to pass on by passing music and heritage to their children/others.  Value and worth are key ideas here.  This develops individual musical heritages.

There is difference between the heritage of the group and heritage at an individual musician level.  While it is concerned with a whole chain of traditions, the individual personal reflections of experience remain influential and valid.  There is an intensity felt towards our individual heritage.

Heritage is lived in family memories, in place, space and practice.  Heritage happens through making music, it is in the instruments, the ways of playing them, and the ideas about the sounds. It’s in the stories, the musical repertoires, instrument materials and the sounds.

Placing diverse musical heritages next to each other heightens these passions.. individuals can be ambassadors in this environment.  Protective and defensive in order to keep its preciousness but proud and eager to share and dare to innovate.  Safe in their knowledge of roots of their heritage they can stretch out to build new experiences/sounds.

There are differences between value, repertoire, musician skill and type of instruments.  Each carry iconic weight, and while many would recognise that of performers and repertoires, we can also highlight the strong meanings associated with particular instruments.  They can carry the weight of heritage and the resonance of religions, cultures and social behaviours.  Vocal music in this context can be the voice of the culture as much as of the individual singer.

Heritage is tied to place.  There is a diverse range of music being made across Sheffield.  People and music from across the globe live within the city.  When musicians experience displacement it intensifies their attitudes and approach and sense of ownership of their heritage. Within England there is no peril to general culture, however its musical heritage is perceived to be under threat. People want to support and advocate for their music.

Place is felt as an important component in different and often complex ways. Yet, nationhood and ethnicity aren’t necessarily central to perceptions of heritage music and there is considerable discomfort when associations and stereotypes are drawn to heritages that musicians don’t personally associate with. Loaded representations of heritage can relate to ideas of indigeneity, something that maybe contemporary musicians veer away from.

Heritages are built through interactions, both through conscious learning and everyday experiences. These can be intensified by perceptions of the past.  This becomes internalised and is uncovered through new transmissions, sessions, performances, rehearsals, discussions, teaching etc…

Heritage is what you make it, it’s always changing.



Running the fiddle event has allowed me to reflect more on my own feelings about teaching approaches in relation to the fiddle tradition I most identify with, ie ties with Northumberland through my family and certain deceased players (Will Taylor predominantly). I don’t play like the generation of musicians I admire and with whom I spent scant time as a learner- I doubt I teach like them (I can’t really remember the details of the transmission to me), and yet the idea I have of their musical legacy is a source of a certain confidence for me in transmitting my own take on that heritage. But as I have tried to express before, you don’t have to have sat down X number of times with some “named” old player to have your claim to a tradition “ticked off’ by some authority. It’s not a royal line. We all, as players, are part of the continuum…the word authenticity has that unfortunately loaded/fetishised quality of culturespeak and is quite different to the humanistic therapy sense of being faithful to and congruent with an idea of self

Nancy Kerr


No, I think often they are and I think often people do have an informal musical heritage and you do ask people and they say I learn it from my grandma or whatever the classic traditional folky way of learning but also what really stood out to me was we’ve got a Turkish song in the Babelsongs repertoire and someone said, I think I’ve probably mentioned this before, I got this off a CD of traditional Turkish lullabies that someone bought me when my son was born! And I just think that’s great, that’s great, and that’s fine who am I to say that you haven’t learnt it in your folky traditional, no authentic, I use the authentic word now. I’ve learnt a lot of folk songs off of CDs and I look folk songs up on the internet when I need to find them and you know people learn tunes from CDs and it’s not always, and I don’t see why it makes it less of your cultural heritage then. These were traditional Turkish songs, they were, but if they were Turkish pops songs I would still say it’s people’s musical heritage.

Ella Sprung


Yeah, we’re trying to be, I’m trying to be as open as possible in terms of something you’ve learnt off a CD is fine, whatever you consider is part of your musical heritage but even saying those words people are going to have this idea of heritage ok that needs to be something in my mother tongue for instance or a gospel tradition might not be part of my heritage or I don’t know but yeah I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative thing but it’s shaped by those things I think but that’s ok. I’m trying to think of other themes of songs, do you remember the theme of Kieron’s song?

Ella Sprung