Folk music is the oldest form of music in Romania, with a rich and diverse history, dating back to the Roman Dacian period. In general, it is characterised by its Balkan-style rhythms and the prevalence of the violin; though the style of music varies by region, as each has its own preferred instrumentation and multi-ethnic populations have necessarily had an impact on musical styles and traditions. The folk music of Dobrogea (in south-east Romania) may be similar to that of Muntenia, but the Tartar, Turkish and Bulgarian populations have their own unique sounds. Bucovina (in the north of Romania) features music which incorporates some of the oldest instrumentation in the country, but like many musical traditions in Romania, more modern instruments, such as the accordion and the saxophone, have been introduced to the melodic lines over time, featuring alongside the tilinca (a rare, metal tub instrument) and the cobza (a string instrument that is part of the lute family).
Romanian folk music is generally very lively, especially party music, but there is also a sentimental form of song which is known as a doina: a sad song that is in free form and comprised of ornamented melodic elements. Such songs are usually about the loss of homeland or one’s love and are found throughout Romania; though they are less common in Transylvania and Moldavia. Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, when in his twenties, was greatly inspired by Romanian folk music, after he heard a peasant woman singing indigenous songs in a small Romanian village. He immediately set out to learn more about this form of music and his passion – even obsession – for it contributed to its endurance and its influence on 20th century musicians; especially those native to Romania.
One of Romania’s most celebrated figures in popular culture is the folklore singer and actress Maria Tanase, who rose to prominence in the 1930s, and who has been described by some as the Romanian Edith Piaf, while currently, George Zamfir, otherwise known as ‘King of the Pan Flute’, is one of the world’s most popular folk musicians, having sold 40 million recordings worldwide. His career spans over five decades. It is often the case in classical music and more modern music that Romanian composers have in some way been inspired by the styles and patterns of traditional folk songs and dances.