Music in Iceland

By | September 22, 2020

Iceland has a rich music scene with strong traditions and great genre breadth even with a relatively small population. Musicians like Björk and Sigur Rós have gained great international popularity and contributed to Iceland’s distinctive place on the European music scene.

Folk music

Icelandic folk music is documented from the Middle Ages and has preserved several archaic styles. A special singing practice is tvísöngur, twangang, that is, two-part singing in quintessential parallels, traditionally dating back to around the year 1000. Of younger date, the dance songs (vikivakar), which have narrative lyrics and performed by vocalists and choirs (circumcised), further spiritual songs and shows, playwrights, epic and lyrical shows. The only known folk instruments are fiddle and long game: string instruments used for accompaniment of song. The knowledge of folk music was only deepened after Bjarni Thorsteinsson began in the 1880s with systematic collections. The result of his work was in 1906-1909(Íslenzk Þjóðlög) and contains music from the oldest manuscripts, printed sources and recorded folk music.

Birch at the Roskilde Festival in 2007


As early as the beginning of the 12th century, the bishop of Hólar, Jon Ogmundsson the saint, established a school for church singing and poetry and appointed a French priest as a teacher. From the 1200s originated a proper Office of rhyme (Officium Sancti Thorlaci) in memory of Bishop Torlak.

The first Icelandic songbook (1589) and the exhibition book (1594) were designed according to Danish models. The fair was in use until the end of the 19th century.

Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (1847–1927) was the first to devote himself entirely to art music, and for the 1000th anniversary of the landmark in 1874 he wrote a cantata from which the national anthem Ó, the god of our country, is derived. Following him were several composers with a special interest in vocal music : Árni Thorsteinsson, Sigfús Einarsson, Friðrik Bjarnason, Björgvin Guðmundsson, Sigvaldi Kaldalón and Jón Leifs. Leifs tried to create a national music related to Icelandic folk music. Other mentioned are Páll Ísólfsson and Bjarni Thorsteinsson.

Among composers who are influenced by recent directions include Karl Otto Runólfsson and Jón Thórarinsson (a student of Paul Hindemith, among others ). Folkloristic features are found in, for example, Hallgrímur Helgason, Jón Nordal, Jón Ásgeirsson and Skúli Halldórsson. Modern trends are also evident in composers such as Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Leifur Thórarinsson, Thorkell Sigurbjörnsson, Páll Pampichler Pálsson, Herbert Hriberschek Ágústsson, Gunnar Reynir Sveinsson, Jónas Tómasson and Haflidi Hallgrímsson. The electrophony has its advocates in Magnús Blöndal Jóhansson, Atli Heimir Sveinsson, Thorsteinn Hauksson and Kjartan Ólafsson. New emerging composers from Iceland include Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Daníel Bjarnason.

The first orchestra was founded in 1921 by Thórarinn Guðmundsson; Iceland Symphony Orchestra (Symphony Orchestra of Iceland) was founded in 1956. Choral and choral music is widespread. Choirs like the Plýfón Choir and the Hamrahlíð Choir have attracted international attention.

Iceland has had its own opera scene since 1979. Operations and operettas are also performed at the National Theater in Reykjavík, and the National Theater also has its own ballet company, founded in 1973, and its own ballet school.

Among artists who have asserted themselves abroad are pianists Haraldur Sigurðsson, Árni Kristjánsson, Rögnvaldur Sigurjónsson and Gísli Magnússon, violinists Björn Ólafsson, Guðný Guðmundsdóttir and Ruth Ingolfsdottir, cellists Einar Vigfússon, Gunnar Kvaran and Haflidi Hallgrímsson and opera singers Pétur Jónsson, Stefán Iceland, Ari Johnsen, Maria Markan, Einar Kristjánsson, Magnus Jónsson, Guðrún Á. Simon, Kristinn Hallsson, Sigriður Elin Magnúsdóttir, Guðmundur Jónsson and Guðjón Óskarsson.

Popular music

Iceland has a vibrant environment when it comes to rock and popular music. The Sugarcubes group put the country on the international pop music chart in the late 1980s, and in the 1990s, the vocalist from this group, Björk, characterized himself as a distinctive solo artist. One of the most famous bands in recent years has been Sigur Rós. The Mezzoforte group has gained great international popularity with its fusion embossed expressions with elements of jazz and pop.

Several Icelandic musicians and composers have received the Nordic Council Music Prize: Atli Heimir Sveinsson (1976), Haflidi Hallgrímsson (1986), Björk Guðmundsdóttir (1997), Haukur Tómasson (2004), Anna Thorvaldsdottir (2012) and Gyða Valtýsdóttir (2018).


In recent years, music education has developed significantly. Reykjavik Conservatory and Teacher College educate musicians and music educators. Other music schools are established around the country.