Icelandic Music: Songs, Festivals and Traditions

Iceland Music

Music has long been a shaping force and an emotional outlet for Icelanders throughout the ages. From the Viking Age through to modern years, Icelandic music has stood out as unique and expressive for the Nordic people. 

The most popular and common of the Icelandic genres is folk music. Icelandic folk music has a long history on the island, with some of the most popular songs still being sung that originated back in the 14th century.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the history and significance of Icelandic music. Then, we will fast forward through the ages and talk about some modern artists that currently define the Icelandic music scene. Do you want to experience Icelandic music firsthand? 

What is the Importance of Music for Icelanders?

Music is an integral part of the culture and daily lives of Icelanders. You can tell the importance of music in Iceland because even though the island does not have immense popularity, it is the home of many famous modern musicians and bands.

Icelanders prize musical tradition, and being a musician is not viewed as a negative or ‘dead-beat’ job like many other western cultures. As a result, the music on the island includes a vibrant culture of music-making, ranging from classical music to folk and even contemporary rock music.

Part of the reason for the importance of music for Icelanders is the history associated with the music and their roots. History and remembering where they came from and how hard they worked to establish themselves on a formidable island has created a close association between the ancient styles of music mixing with the contemporary, just as Icelanders do now. 

Icelandic music started with Viking Rímur. The Rímur were songs sung to tell tales, typical a cappella. Music told much of Icelandic folklore in this way in ancient times. The Rímur would be full of tales about reality, such as brutal winters, love, and masculinity. However, they would also craft songs all about elves, the dangers of trolls, and other mythological creates that were said to live across the island.

It wasn’t until around the 18th century that Iceland began to be influenced by other cultures and their musical biases. The music scene on the island changed quickly as the Icelandic people were surprisingly receptive to the new forms of music. 

For example, in the 19th century, the first pipe organ was brought to Iceland. It was primarily integrated into the formerly a cappella singing in churches.

Then, later on in the same century, accordions and harmonicas came to the island. These became immensely popular and characterized the music from the island for most of that century, so much so that it is heavily associated with the music your grandparents might listen to as a heavy characterization. 

What is the Traditional Music of Iceland?

The Rímur is the most traditional example of music that has come from Iceland. These kinds of songs were created by the Vikings even before they moved to and settled Iceland. Thus, they weren’t only associated with Icelanders, but with Nordic cultures across parts of ancient Scandinavia. 

Interestingly, once Christianity became more prevalent in Iceland, the Rímur were banned as a way to drive out the pagan cultures that Icelanders once practiced. Over time, these bans and obstacles became less strict. In fact, as time went on, it became almost a game for priests to write Rímur of their own and have them performed in churches, a blending of the two once contradictory cultures.

Heyr himna smiður is an example of this, an old psalm in the ancient form of a rímur that is still performed today. Yet it was composed by Kolbeinn Tumason back in the year 1208.

Some of the purer forms of traditional Icelandic music were found in the North. That part of the country didn’t see as much change in musical influence since it was difficult to reach, especially a hundred years ago. That resulted in many of the songs and musical themes lasting longer in a less touched and informed way.

Another characteristic kind of rhythm that is found in many of the old Icelandic folk songs is Hákveða. It is largely disappeared from all modern music, but it was incorporated into Icelandic music for centuries. You can still hear the unique rhythm in some of these older songs. You can pick it out when you hear music which heavily emphasizes the last word in each section of the song.

What Instruments are Used in Icelandic Music?

There were only a few instruments that Icelanders have traditionally used. This is because many of their Rímur and hymns were made to be sung a capella. 

For example, when they would build churches, the entire main chapel would be constructed in ways to enhance the acoustics of the music. You can even watch videos of choirs performing in standard churches in Iceland to hear the way the hymns carry beautifully and hauntingly throughout the room.

However, there were a couple of traditional instruments used in Iceland. These were mostly used during chain dances that Icelanders called vikivaki. These dances have been performed by Icelanders during all kinds of festivities since the 11th century.

The two most popular traditional instruments in Iceland are the Icelandic langspil and the fiðla. In Icelandic, these translate to the drone zither and the fiddle. These were part of the celebrations involving the vikivaki dances.

One famous dance was performed to the ancient song Ólafur Liljurós. Even though the celebrations were often joyous, the lyrics to the music wouldn’t always sound the same. This particular song was about a man who is seduced by an elf woman and then later stabbed by the same woman while he rides his horse.

How is the Modern Music in Iceland?

There are quite a range of genres that are currently popular in modern Iceland. The most popular genre of many people and artists is Icelandic folk music. Some people the vibrant folk while others the contemporary music scene. Either way, Icelandic music is versatile and offers something from everyone. Basically, the genres range from electronic music to pop-rock to indie. 

What Kind of Music is Popular in Iceland?

There are five genres that make up the most popular kind of music in Iceland. These, and some of their associated artists, include:

  • Indie and pop-rock
    • Ylja
    • Of Monsters and Men
  • Alternative and metal
    • Birnir
    • Bjork
  • Electronic music
    • GusGus
    • Bloodgroup
  • Experimental
    • Ólöf Arnals
    • Hafdis Huld
  • Classical music
    • Traditional hymns, not many current classical artists even though it is still a popular genre in Iceland.

Some of these genres are popular because they closely relate to the ancient styles of music. For example, folk and classical music combine several of the more popular musical forms of expression from traditional Iceland.

One essential modern song in Iceland is Iceland’s National Anthem. The song is called ‘Lofsöngur or Ó Guðs Vors Lands.’ It was a joint composition, with the music being composed by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson. The lyrics were put to the song by Matthias Jochumsson. 

It was officially adopted by Iceland as its national anthem in 1944 after it became its own independent country once again.

What are the Popular Songs in Iceland?

The most popular songs in Iceland by preddominantly Icelandic artists include:

  • Break My Baby, KALEO (6,890,480 YouTube views)
  • FLYG UPP, Aron Can (35,146 YouTube views)
  • Time, Sturla Atlas (116,706 YouTube views)
  • Wolves Without Teeth, Of Monsters and Men (16,401,178 YouTube views)
  • Segðu mér, Fridrik Dor (62,777 YouTube views)
  • Think About Things, Daði Freyr (37,497,001 YouTube views)

The last song has special importance for the modern Icelander since it was the Eurovision song for Iceland. Although Iceland has yet to win a Eurovision contest since its debut in 1986, Icelanders enjoy the contest immensely. Think About Things did quite well in the contest and became a global sensation after it was performed during the contest.

What is the Best Icelandic Music Playlist?

If you are looking to listen to a playlist to acquaint you with the music that Icelanders listen to or want an Icelandic playlist to listen to while you are visiting the country, here is our suggestion for the best Icelandic music playlist.

  • Rokk í Reykjavík – Friðrik Þór Friðriksson
  • Way Down We Go – Kaleo
  • Úlfur Úlfur – Bróðir
  • Emilíana Torrini – Jungle Drum
  • Mugison – I Want You
  • björk – it’s oh so quiet
  • All the Pretty Girls – Kaleo
  • Reykjavíkurdætur – Ógeðsleg ft. Kylfan
  • Little Talks – Of Monsters and Men
  • GusGus – Higher ft. VÖK
  • Þuríður Jónsdóttir: Flutter

What are the Popular Artists of Iceland?

There are quite a few popular artists that have come from Iceland. These artists represent a variety of popular genres, from alternative, electronic, and folk to hip-hop and rap.

  • Á Móti Sól
    • Genre: Pop
    • Popular song: Djöfull er ég flottur
  • Árstíðir
    • Genre: Alternative/Indie; Folk
    • Popular song: Ljod i sand
  • Agent Fresco
    • Genre: Progressive metal; Rock
    • Popular song: Bemoan
  • AMFJ
    • Genre: Hip-hop/Rap
    • Popular song: Baen
  • Amiina
    • Genre: Alternative/Indie
    • Popular song: Rugla
  • Anna Mjöll
    • Genre: Jazz/Pop
    • Popular song: The Shadow of Your Smile
  • Apparat Organ Quartet
    • Genre: Electonric
    • Popular song: Polyfonia
  • Ásgeir Trausti
    • Genre: Alternative/Indie
    • Popular song: King and Cross
  • Bang Gang
    • Genre: Pop/Rock
    • Popular song: Me Special One
  • Björk
    • Genre: Electronica/Folktronica
    • Popular song: Army of Me
  • Botnleðja
    • Genre: Rock
    • Popular song: Þið eruð frábær
  • Bubbi Morthens
    • Genre: Pop
    • Popular song: Žijeme len raz
  • Daði Freyr
    • Genre: Pop
    • Popular song: Think About Things
  • Daníel Ágúst
    • Genre: Pop/Rock
    • Popular song: Arabian Horse
  • Dikta
    • Genre: Alternative Rock
    • Popular song: Breaking the Waves

What are the Popular Bands in Iceland?

Although there are quite a few individual artists that come from Iceland, there are fewer bands that get together on the island and make it big. The two that stand out, not only in Iceland itself but also globally, are Kaleo and Of Monsters and Men.

Kaleo has many big hits and has traveled around the world on tours because of their popularity. The band includes four men from a small town close to Reykjavik. They have about 4 million monthly listeners on Spotify. The band falls under the contemporary alternative rock genre. Since their breakthrough album release in 2016, they have won Gold-albums, been nominated for a Grammy, and their music has been featured on many hit TV shows.

Of Monsters and Men is a band of four that formed in Reykjavik back in 2010. Their debut album in 2011 had them reaching the number 1 postion in the Rock and Alternative charts in Iceland, the US, Ireland, and Australia. Since then, they have gone on to win multiple awards and are continuously seen teaching the top of the Alternative charts.

What are the Music Festivals in Iceland?

The biggest music festivals celebrated in Iceland include Iceland Airwaves and Eurovision. These are quite popular and people come from all over the world to participate in Icelandic festivals. 

Iceland Airwaves is an annual music festival. It is held in Reykjavik sometime in early November and typically lasts for about four days. The point of the festival is to showcase new music, both Icelandic and international. Typically, the main sponsors for the festival are Icelandair and the City of Reykjavik.

Some of the most notable acts that have played here include Bjork, Timer Timbre, The Kills, Klaxons, Of Monsters and Mean, and Aurora.

Eurovision is another very popular music festival that is attended by millions from all around the world each year. It is held in a different city or country each year. It is immensely popular for Icelanders to watch. 2016 was the most viewed year, with 95.3% of everyone in the country who was watching TV watching the Grand Final of the contest.

What are the Important Music Institutions in Iceland?

The most reputable music institution in Icleand is also the oldest, the Reykjavik College of Music. Reykjavik is one of the central areas for music education. It also contains the Iceland Academy of the Arts where many people go to earn a Bachelor’s of Music for both Icelandic and English music.

The last of the musical institutions in Iceland is the Akureyri Collge of Music or Tónlistarskólinn á Akureyri. It is a comprehensive music school in Akureyri and was founded in 1946 as one of Iceland’s oldes and largest schools of music.