For comparatively unpopulated countries, the Nordic nations’ influence on global music has been enormous, with an extraordinary diversity and creative output in a multitude of genres. Scandinavia is a bastion of quality classical music and folk traditions; household names like ABBA, A-ha and Björk have sold tens of millions of albums internationally; and the region’s contribution to the metal scene is legendary. There’s an excellent range of music festivals throughout, covering everything from chamber music to cutting-edge electronica.
Classical & Traditional
Grieg and Sibelius are the big names in Nordic classical music and both helped – by their music and by their enthusiastic collaboration with other artists and writers – create a romantic nationalism that was an important factor driving eventual Norwegian and Finnish independence. Across the region, classical music is loved and cared for, with state-of-the-art concert halls, festivals and musical education. Finland, in particular, produces an astonishing number of top-grade classical performers and conductors.
Traditional music includes a range of folk styles. Particularly noteworthy are the Icelandic rímur, chants from the sagas that have preserved an ancient form of oral storytelling, and Norwegian folk, which incorporates the distinctive Hardanger fiddle.
The Sámi of Lapland use a traditional form called the yoik (joik). Part chant, part poem, part song, it is an a cappella invocation or description of a person or place that has huge significance in Sámi culture. In recent years, Sámi artists have incorporated yoiking into various styles of modern music with great success. Artists to look out for include Wimme, Mari Boine and Ulla Pirttijärvi.
Pop & Beyond
Bursting onto the scene in the 1970s, ABBA brought Swedish music bang into the international spotlight. Their phenomenal global success paved the way for spiritual followers like Roxette and Aqua and set the trend for Scandinavian artists to sing in English. Singing about love, dancing and normal suburban life, ABBA won the hearts of a generation and beyond.
With the path to stardom from Scandinavia now an easier one, the region has cranked out pop and rock success story after success story in the decades since. A-ha, Europe, Ace of Base, the Cardigans, the Rasmus, the Hives, Robyn and Mando Diao have made it big worldwide. Björk, who almost deserves a musical category to herself, brought lonely Iceland into the picture and has been followed by bands like Sigur Rós and Of Monsters and Men.
Jazz is strong across the region, particularly in Norway and Denmark with a thriving local scene backed by international festivals. Electronica has also been a strong suit, with '90s dance-floor legends like Darude backed by more recent arrivals such as Avicii, Eric Prydz, Kygo and Galantis. Reykjavík, in particular, has a brilliant scene. Hip hop has also gained traction across the region, especially in Finland and Iceland.
The Heavy Stuff
Though its influence isn’t quite what it once was, with many millennials preferring Norwegian electronica or Finnish hip hop, Scandinavian bands have been immensely influential in the harder rock and metal scenes, with several metal subgenres basically invented here.
Norway started the trend in the 1980s, with a thriving black metal scene and outrageous antics. It has continued to produce quality bands, with famous names on the black and death metal side of things including Emperor, Burzum, Mayhem, Darkthrone and Dimmu Borgir.
Finnish metal bands have achieved notable international success, with HIM’s ‘love metal’ and Nightwish’s gloriously symphonic variety the most prominent. The 69 Eyes, Apocalyptica (who are classically trained cellists), Children of Bodom and Finntroll all represent different genres. Lordi memorably brought the scene to Eurovision, winning in 2006 with Hard Rock Hallelujah.
Sweden has produced legends like Bathory, who moved from hard black metal to a more melodic style based on Viking mythology, Sabaton, Hammerfall, Dark Tranquillity and Therion. Denmark has a thriving scene but its bands haven’t, in the main, had quite the same international profile. They can, however, claim Lars Ulrich, the Metallica drummer. The Faroes chip in with Týr’s Viking metal and Iceland’s most famous metallists are Sólstafir.