Banjo Music Theory

“Listen to “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” again and again, learn to play the banjo and sing it yourself over and over again, study every printed version, give up your career and maybe your family, and you will not fathom it.”

— Robert Cantwell, “Smith’s Memory Theatre: The Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music New England Review, Spring-Summer 1991, p. 388.

To what extent can 20th century recordings of banjo music also serve as a kind of archive that might allow us to reconstruct the history of the musical tradition? To answer that question, David Garner suggests, we may need to delve deeper into technical analysis of banjo music in order to really begin to understand its rhythmic and melodic structures. Maybe, he suggests, we ultimately can fathom how and why these banjo songs sound as they do.

On the sub-pages to this section (which you can visit using the navigation bar above or to the right), Garner offers a series of transcriptions and analysis of a wide range of banjo songs and some reflections on what he has learned from transcribing and analyzing these recordings. These include transcriptions of different versions of the song “Coo-Coo.” Part of the question he is asking is: What makes a particular song a song? What is consistent across different versions of a particular song?


Because of rights issues we are not able to share recordings of most of these songs, but have provided links to sites where they can be purchased or accessed.

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