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Why is group singing such a popular custom in Denmark?

Emma Firth
Emma Firth - [email protected]
Why is group singing such a popular custom in Denmark?
Fællessang in Roskilde Photo: Niels Ahlmann Olesen/Ritzau Scanpix

If you’ve been to a wedding, birthday or confirmation in Denmark, you’ll probably have experienced the Danes' enthusiasm for a group sing-along, called 'fællessang'.

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You're at a Danish gathering. It's a special occasion and there's food and drinks aplenty. Suddenly, you're met with a sheet of paper containing several verses of a song. The lyrics have been created for the occasion but the melody is well-known (to the Danes). Everybody stands up, the music begins, and before you know it you are singing. Welcome to fællessang

"We are a singing society, we conceive ourselves as a singing people; it is part of our culture and Danish mentality," Lea Wierød Borcak, senior researcher at the Unit for Song Studies at Aarhus University and Sangenshus, Herning, told The Local.

"One of characteristics of group singing which foreigners notice is that we sing at virtually any occasion. Small parties and public speeches, pubic gatherings, almost every social occasion we sing," she added. 

Fællessang An example of fællessang. Photo: Jakob Boserup/Ritzau Scanpix

The tradition of group singing comes from the well-known Danish cultural figure N. F. S. Grundtvig. He was a a pastor, author, poet, philosopher, historian, teacher and politician who had a big influence on school education at the end of the 19th century.

"It was an important part of the legislation that children should sing," Borcak explained.

"Grundtvig wrote an immense amount of folkelig songs. It's hard to translate folkelig directly but it means popular songs that everyone can understand and sing along to but songs that also have a depth and historical context. So people singing these songs get acquainted with their history. Grundtvig really believed in the power of singing to unite people and make them feel as a group," Borcak said.

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The Højskolesangbogen (book of songs for folk high schools) was written in 1894, with the purpose of being sung by groups at højskole -  Danish adult education institutions based on the ideas of N. F. S. Grundtvig. The book has been updated and is still used today, although school singing is not as widespread as it once was, when an entire subject was dedicated to songs.

EXPLAINED: How does the school system work in Denmark?

Fællessang Askov Højskole in Vejen with the Højskolesangbog, used for group singing in folk high schools across Denmark. Photo: John Randeris/Ritzau Scanpix

"I think that today, the reason for the significance of group singing also lies in our collective memory as Danes, of previous times in which group singing played an important role", Borcak went on to explain to The Local.

"During the German occupation there were these very large singing events, in which hundreds of thousands of Danes would meet up to sing. It was an act of keeping together in times of crisis.

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"These singing events during the German occupation were persistently referred to during the Covid-19 pandemic. Morgensang, performed every morning on DR and group singing from balconies were used during lockdowns as a means to show our mutual responsibility to each other, to keep together but also apart, as the motto went.

"Danes conceive themselves as having a strong trust culture and by singing together, we express this trust culture, as we perform our mutual trust in each other," Borcak said.

Phillip Faber Phillip Faber led a daily group singing programme on broadcaster DR during the coronavirus, called Morgensang.  Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix
 
 
Fællessang A family sing from their window in Nørrebro, Copenhagen during the coronavirus lockdown in March 2020 as part of the initiative "Nørrebro sings to each other from a distance." Photo: Olafur Steinar Gestsson/Ritzau Scanpix
 

Lea Wierød Borcak's recent research at Aarhus University and Sangenshus, has shown a new development in the Danish singing culture.

"We are beginning to see the flourishing of a type of singing event, in which singing is the only reason for gathering. These events are called marathon singing.

"It originated in Copenhagen in Vartov and has spread to the rest of the country, where all you do is sing, from morning to evening with the goal to just sing as much as possible.

"Group singing used to be more about communicating a message and now it’s more about enjoying the musical performance with others, so that's a new development", Borcak noted.

Fællessang Children taking part in group singing at a school in Copenhagen in 1994. Photo: Sine Fiig/Ritzau Scanpix
 
So strong are the benefits of group singing, the current culture minister. Jakob Engel-Schmidt, wants all Danish schools to have morning singing assemblies.
 
"What we can see in research, is that the more you sing in childhood, the more likely you are to sing later in life. So singing in your early years influences how well you respond to singing and how safe you feel in singing with others," Borcak noted.

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"What is so special about fællessang is that it’s a kind of singing in which it’s not for showing off, it’s a completely a participatory act. So it's deliberately focused on creating group cohesion and lowering the boundaries between you and others. It's designed for expressing and belonging together."
 

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