属於一个民族或人种团体的音乐类型，在社会各阶层中人尽皆知，而通常由口头传统保存下来。对於民间音乐的历史及发展的知识大致是猜测得来的，仅偶尔会在历史记录中发现民歌的乐谱和对民间音乐文化的描述，反映出知识阶级的漠视甚至敌意。随着基督教在中世纪欧洲的发展，人们试图压抑民间音乐，因为它与异教仪式及异教风俗有关，而未受教化的歌唱风格也受到贬抑。文艺复兴期间，新的人文态度鼓励人们接受民间音乐为质朴古式歌曲的体裁，作曲家广泛使用这种音乐，民歌曲调常被作为经文歌与弥撒的素材，新教赞美诗也从民间音乐取材。17世纪，民间音乐逐渐从知识阶级的意识中消失，但到18世纪晚期再次成为艺术音乐的重要元素。在19世纪，民歌被视为「民族之宝」，地位等同於有教化的诗歌。全国性和地方性的合集出版了，这种音乐成为提升民族意识的一种手段。自1890年代以来，民间音乐一直以机械录音的方式被搜集和保存下来。出版品和录音提高了人们的兴趣，在传统民间生活及民俗奄奄一息的时候，民间音乐的复兴成为可能。第二次世界大战以後，田野录音的档案在世界各地受到开发。当研究工作通常涉及未受城市流行音乐和大众媒体严重影响的「可靠」（也就是较古老的）题材时，格思里（W. Guthrie）、西格（P. Seeger）、巴布狄伦等歌手兼歌曲作者发挥了影响力，把这种体裁扩展到大幅保留传统作品之形式及简易的原创音乐。
Music held to be typical of a nation or ethnic group, known to all segments of its society, and preserved usually by oral tradition. Knowledge of the history and development of folk music is largely conjectural. Musical notation of folk songs and descriptions of folk music culture are occasionally encountered in historical records, but tend to reflect primarily the literate classes' indifference or even hostility. As Christianity expanded in medieval Europe, attempts were made to suppress folk music because of its association with heathen rites and customs, and uncultivated singing styles were denigrated. During the Renaissance, new humanistic attitudes encouraged acceptance of folk music as a genre of rustic antique song, and composers made extensive use of the music; folk tunes were often used as raw material for motets and masses, and Protestant hymns borrowed from folk music. In the 17th century folk music gradually receded from the consciousness of the literate classes, but in the late 18th century it again became important to art music. In the 19th century, folk songs came to be considered a “national treasure,” on a par with cultivated poetry and song. National and regional collections were published, and the music became a means of promoting nationalistic ideologies. Since the 1890s, folk music has been collected and preserved by mechanical recordings. Publications and recordings have promoted wide interest, making possible the revival of folk music where traditional folk life and folklore are moribund. After World War II, archives of field recordings were developed throughout the world. While research has usually dealt with “authentic” (i.e., older) material not heavily influenced by urban popular music and the mass media, the influence of such singer-songwriters as W. Guthrie, P. Seeger, and B. Dylan expanded the genre to include original music that largely retains the form and simplicity of traditional compositions.