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Why do Danes love group singing at family gatherings?

The Local Denmark
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Why do Danes love group singing at family gatherings?
People join in a group song arranged by local community during the Covid-19 lockdown, March 2020. Photo: Mads Joakim Rimer Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

If you’ve been to a wedding, birthday or confirmation in Denmark you’ll probably have experienced the phenomenon that is the 'fællessang' or group singing.

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Most common at weddings, milestone birthdays or confirmations for young teenagers, the Danish group song usually takes place at some point after the beginning, but before the end of the meal when everyone is still sitting and gathered.

Somebody will go around handing out sheets of paper which will contain several verses and choruses of a song. The song sheets might also be decorated with photos of the birthday boy or girl or the happy couple.

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Everyone will get a sheet which, on which a line at the top explains the tune to which the song will be sung. It will be a well-known song in Denmark but as a foreigner, you’ll probably never have heard of it.

Then it will be time to sing.

Everybody stands up and as the music begins you must sing along with everybody else. The lyrics will not be the original lyrics to the song (not that you know them anyway), but a completely new adapted version written by one of the guests.

These new lyrics will be all about the person or couple being celebrated at the party, perhaps including anecdotes about their life and shared experiences with the person who wrote this song, such as holidays, achievements or other major events (and sometimes also minor ones).

There may be one or two guests who sing along with gusto to this new song’s maiden (and only ever) outing, but most people will murmur and mumble their way through it.

It’s not so bad, you might think. It’s just a bit of fun, a little bit of singing that will soon be over. Wrong. There are usually at least five verses (plus choruses) and maybe more than ten, which means that this excruciating experience of mutual singing can feel like it goes on forever.

Danes are generally known for being reserved and sensible in the public sphere, but you won’t hear anyone complaining about joining in with the group song, and it usually gets plenty of words of encouragement after the event.

So what is it about birthdays and weddings that makes group-singing awkward lyrics to an ancient Danish tune such a well-loved custom?

It should also be noted that this tradition is popular everywhere: regardless of age, geographical location, political viewpoint or income level, all Danes keenly take part in party group singing.

READ ALSO: Five Danish children’s songs international parents will inevitably have to learn

A survey conducted by YouSee on behalf of newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad in 2021 found that one in two Danes consider group singing to be a national custom in Denmark, and that three in four consider songs in Danish to be an important part of the national cultural legacy.

The survey also found that group singing was popular across age groups, geographical location, and political affiliation, backing up the sense that you’re likely to experience it wherever you go to attend a gathering like a wedding or confirmation.

The survey was part of an article series by the newspaper focusing on songs from the Højskolesangbogen (book of songs for folk high schools), which were written with the purpose of being sung by groups at folk high schools, Danish adult education institutions based on the ideas of eighteenth-century philosopher N. F. S. Grundtvig.

While it therefore seems that group singing is backed by centuries of Danish tradition, singing in groups also brings people together outside of folk high schools.

A researcher in religious history from Aarhus University’s Grundtvig Centre who has researched the custom of group singing told Kristeligt Dagblad at the time that group singing could be considered a “signature cultural practice”, meaning something that Danes feel distinguishes them from other national identities.

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It is becoming increasingly popular as an activity in modern Denmark, the researcher, Katrine Frøkjær Baunvig, told Kristeligt Dagblad.

“I see it more as part of a cultural experience trend, where you buy a ticket to a singing event and go there and sing because you think it will be good for yourself,” she said.

In Spring 2020, many people in Denmark took part in group singing events -- sometimes involving singing from balconies or out of apartment windows -- in initiatives aimed at helping national morale during the coronavirus crisis.

A researcher from a different field made comments that appear to support the notion of group singing as something that promotes a feeling of togetherness and belonging to a community.

“We primarily sing for the sense of community we get from it,” Lea Wierød Borcak, a postdoc in Musicology at Aarhus University in 2021, told Kristeligt Dagblad.

“Singing together is one of the most eminently unsurpassed ways to bring people together,” she said.

“I think that singing is an important ritual in itself for many people. What you actually sing is not so important, but when we mark these big milestones in life, we sing,” she also said.

 

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