Music of Iceland

Last updated

The music of Iceland includes vibrant folk and pop traditions, as well as an active classical and contemporary music scene. Well-known artists from Iceland include medieval music group Voces Thules, alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, singers Björk, Hafdís Huld and Emiliana Torrini, post-rock band Sigur Rós, post-metal band Sólstafir, indie folk/indie pop band Of Monsters and Men, blues/rock band Kaleo, metal band Skálmöld and techno-industrial band Hatari. Iceland's traditional music is related to Nordic music forms. Although Iceland has a very small population, it is home to many famous and praised bands and musicians.


Folk music

Icelandic music has a very long tradition, with some songs still sung today dating from 14th century. Folk songs are often about love, sailors, masculinity, hard winters, as well as elves, trolls and other mythological creatures, and tend to be quite secular and often humorous. Bjarni Þorsteinsson collected Icelandic folk music between 1906 and 1909, and many of the songs he encountered were accompanied by traditional instruments like the langspil and fiðla, which are among the few musical instruments traditionally played in Iceland. Chain dances, known as víkivaki, have been performed in Iceland since the 11th century at a variety of occasions, such as in churches and during the Christmas season. An example is "Ólafur Liljurós", an Icelandic víkivaki folk song dating to the 14th century, about a man who, while on his way to meet his mother, is seduced, kissed, and stabbed by an elf woman while riding his horse, then eventually dies.

Iceland's isolation meant that, until the 18th century, foreign influences were almost completely absent, which resulted in the maintenance of a particular rhythm, called hákveða , lost in other Nordic countries and considered one of the main characteristics of Icelandic folk music. Hákveða refers to a special emphasis placed on some of the words of a song, often the last word of each sentence in each verse. In the following example, taken from the song "Ólafur Liljurós", hákveða is shown in italics:

Ólafur reið með björgunum fram, villir Hann, stillir "Hann,
hitti hann fyrir sér álfarann, þar rauði loginn brann,
Blíðan lagði byrinn undan björgunum, blíðan lagði byrinn undan björgunum fram.

Rímur are epic tales sung as alliterative, rhyming ballads, usually a cappella. Rímur can be traced back to the Viking Age Eddic poetry of the skalds and employs complex metaphors and cryptic rhymes and forms. [1] Some of the most famous rímur were written between the 18th and early 20th centuries, by poets like Hannes Bjarnason (1776–1838), Jón Sigurðsson (1853–1922) and Sigurður Breiðfjörð (1798–1846).

In the early 18th century, European dances like polka, waltz, reel and schottische begin to arrive via Denmark. These foreign dances are today known as gömlu dansarnir or literally the "old dances". After their arrival, native dance and song traditions fell into serious decline. For a long time, rímur were officially banned by the church. Paradoxically, many Icelandic priests were keen in making rímur. Rímur remained popular recreation until the early 20th century. In recent years, efforts have been made to revive native Icelandic forms. For example, a modern revitalization of the Rímur tradition began in 1929 with the formation of the organization Iðunn. [2]

Protestantism has also left its mark on the music of Iceland. Hallgrímur Pétursson wrote numerous Protestant hymns in the 17th century. In the 19th century, Magnús Stephensen brought pipe organs to Iceland, soon to be followed by harmonium pumped reed-organs. "Heyr himna smiður" ("Hark, Creator of the Heaven") is probably the oldest psalm which is still sung today; it was composed by Kolbeinn Tumason in 1208.

The music of Iceland includes vibrant folk and pop traditions and is expanding in its variety of sound styles and genres. Well-known artists from Iceland include alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, singers Björk, Hafdís Huld and Emilíana Torrini, and post-rock band Sigur Rós, as well as electronic music groups like GusGus. Iceland's traditional music is related to Nordic music forms.

Icelandic popular music today includes many bands and artists, ranging from indie and pop-rock to electronic music. It is also increasingly becoming recognized for its vibrant and growing metal and hardcore scene. [3] [4]

One widely known Icelandic artist is eclectic singer and composer Björk, who has received 13 Grammy nominations and sold over 15 million albums worldwide, including two platinum albums and one gold album in the United States. [5] Another is the post-rock formation Sigur Rós and its lead singer Jónsi. Widely known outside Iceland, they were immortalized in an episode of The Simpsons [6] and more recently in an episode of Game of Thrones . [7]

Indie and pop-rock

According to the Icelandic label Record Records, the indie pop-folk group Of Monsters and Men is Iceland’s biggest act since Björk and Sigur Rós. Their debut album My Head Is an Animal , as well as their first single “Little Talks”, reached high positions in single and album charts worldwide. In 2013 they won the European Border Breakers Awards. Singer-songwriter Ásgeir Trausti did likewise in 2014, and ever since has been successfully touring Europe and the U.S. with his melodic-folk-pop songs, which he sings both in his native language Icelandic and in English. Female singer-songwriter Emiliana Torrini is an established Icelandic artist. Her song "Jungle Drum", from her 2008 album Me and Armini, is well known abroad and reached number one in the German, Austrian, Belgium and Icelandic single charts. Her latest album Tookah, released in 2013, reached the Top 50 album charts in several countries.

Other artists that are attracting attention outside Iceland include the electro-pop group FM Belfast, indie pop / rock / folk band Kaleo as well as the singers and composers Sóley and Sin Fang, who are both known as founding members of the band Seabear.

Alternative and metal

The alternative and metal scene is vibrant with Icelandic bands playing large festivals in Europe and the United States. The metal-band Sólstafir is widely known outside Iceland. Already back in 1999 they had a contract for their debut album with a German record label. The Viking-Metal Band Skálmöld played two sold out shows with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in the capital’s concert hall Harpa in December 2013. [8] Agent Fresco combine metal, rock and alternative elements with the unique voice of singer Arnór Dan Arnarson and have also gained international attention. The instrumental post-rock and alternative-rock band For a Minor Reflection is widely known since supported Sigur Rós on tour back in 2009. Their sound is often compared to Explosions in the Sky or the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai. Dead Skeletons are not only known for their unique psychedelic-rock sound but also for their artwork and an art gallery in Reykjavik run by front man and singer Jón Sæmundur Auðarson. [9] The Vintage Caravan, founded by two of the members in 2006 when they were only 12 years old, have played festivals in Europe, including the Wacken Open Air and toured with bigger bands like Europe and Opeth.

Iceland also has a thriving extreme metal scene which is gaining recognition abroad. [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] The black metal band Svartidauði are widely considered a central figure in the development of the Icelandic black metal scene. Many of the scene's most significant albums were recorded and produced at Studio Emissary, a recording studio set up by Irish musician Stephen Lockhart [15] , and the cassette label Vánagandr has also had a significant role in the development of the country's black metal scene. [13] In 2016, the music festival Oration MMXVI debuted as Iceland's first black metal festival, and subsequently returned for two final instalments in 2017 and 2018. [15] In 2016, black metal band Misþyrming were selected as one of Roadburn Fesitval's artists in residence. [16]

Electronic music

The techno house group GusGus is one of Iceland’s most successful exports in the field of electronic music. So far they released nine studio albums. The latest Lies Are More Flexible came out in February 2018.

Other artists include DJ duo Gluteus Maximus, Hermigervill, Bloodgroup and Sísý Ey.

The international franchise Sónar held their first festival in Reykjavik in 2013 with a long roster of international and local electronic acts.


Ben Frost, born in Melbourne, living in Reykjavik, is bringing together electronic soundscapes with classical elements and noisy tunes. His latest album, Aurora , was released in June 2014.

Classical elements also characterize the symphonic music of Icelandic born composer and singer Ólafur Arnalds. Other widely known experimental bands are Múm and the high school originated Hjaltalín.

The trio Samaris have gained attention, especially in Europe, and have played festivals all over Europe. Their self-released EP, Stofnar falla, received positive reviews and was followed by their self-titled debut album, released in July 2013.

Mengi in Reijkjavik is a centre for avant garde music, experimental music and contemporary music. The organisation organizes performances, exhibitions, conferences and runs a recording studio and a record label.

Classical music


Classical music came to Iceland comparatively late, with the first Iceland composers working in the western, classical tradition emerging in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Among them was Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson, who is considered to have been the first Icelandic professional composer. [17] Among his contributions to Icelandic music is the national anthem, Lofsöngur. Belonging to this first generation of Icelandic composers were Sigvaldi Kaldalóns and Sigfús Einarsson, and Emil Thoroddsen, best known for their songs with piano accompaniment. The most significant Icelandic composer in the first half of the 20th century was Jón Leifs.

Today, Iceland has a vibrant classical music scene, with numerous composers of contemporary music achieving international success. [18] These include Haukur Tómasson, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Daníel Bjarnason, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Hugi Gudmundsson.


The first proper orchestral concert in Iceland was held in 1921, in conjunction with the royal visit of Christian X of Denmark, the reigning monarch of Iceland. The ensemble created for the occasion was given the name Hljómsveit Reykjavíkur (The Reykjavík Orchestra), and performed sporadically in the years that followed under the direction of Sigfús Einarsson and Páll Ísólfsson. Following the founding of the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service in 1930, and the festivities at the 1000th anniversary of the Alþingi, and through the pioneering work of musicians like Franz Mixa, Victor Urbancic and Róbert A. Ottóson, this ensemble was slowly transformed into the professional symphony orchestra known today as the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra resides in Harpa, Reykjavík's largest concert house, and holds weekly concerts in its Eldborg hall.

Additionally, a number of musical ensembles regularly perform in Reykjavík, playing music that ranges from Baroque to contemporary music. These include Reykjavík Chamber Orchestra, CAPUT ensemble and Nordic Affect. Several classic music festivals are held in Reykjavík and all around Iceland annually, including Dark Music Days and Reykjavík Midsummer Music. [19]

Icelandic classical instrumentalists have achieved success internationally. Undoubtedly, the most famous Icelandic citizen within the world of classical music is the Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who settled in Iceland with his Icelandic wife Þórunn Jóhannsdóttir in 1968, following their defection from the Soviet Union. He was awarded Icelandic citizenship in 1972. [20] Other notable, Icelandic classical instrumentalists with international careers include Sigurbjörn Bernharðsson, violinist and member of the Pacifica Quartet, [21] Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir, violinist, [22] Víkingur Ólafsson, pianist, [23] [24] and the cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir. [25]

List of Icelandic music artists

National anthem

The national anthem of Iceland is "Lofsöngur", written by Matthías Jochumsson, with music by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson. [26] The song, in the form of a hymn, was written in 1874, when Iceland celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of settlement on the island. It was first published under the title "A Hymn in Commemoration of Iceland's Thousand Years".

Music institutions


Iceland hosts a variety of music festivals. The biggest festival is Iceland Airwaves with over 9000 guests. It takes place in the central area of Iceland’s capital city Reykjavík for five days at the beginning of November. There is also an up-and-coming festival, Secret Solstice, which was held for the first time in the summer of 2014, June 20–22. The festival took place at the Laugardalur recreational area, also known as Hot Spring Valley, which is located just 15 minutes from downtown Reykjavik. There are also a number of intimate and transformative festivals that happen year-round in the countryside, such as Saga Fest in Selfoss and LungA Art Festival in Seyðisfjörður.

Other festivals are:


Concert hall Harpa held its opening concert on May 4, 2011. Bigger concerts are held in sportshalls Laugardalshöll, Egilshöll and Kórinn. Theaters such as Gamla bíó, Bæjarbíó and Iðnó are used for concerts. Austurbær is an old movie theater.

Smaller concerts are held at smaller venues or pubs located mainly around capital area.

Record labels

Some of the labels mostly concentrate on one genre, whilst others are promoting many types of music. 12 Tónar and Smekkleysa run record stores in Reykjavik.

Producers and studios

Related Research Articles

Sigur Rós Icelandic band

Sigur Rós is an Icelandic avant-rock band from Reykjavík, active since 1994. Known for their ethereal sound, frontman Jónsi's falsetto vocals, and the use of bowed guitar, the band's music incorporates classical and minimal aesthetic elements. They have been nominated for and received various awards throughout the years.

GusGus band

GusGus is an electronic band from Reykjavík, Iceland. Although initially a film and acting collective, the group is mostly known for its electronic music. The group's discography consists of ten studio albums.

Iceland Airwaves

Iceland Airwaves is an annual music festival held in Reykjavík, Iceland in early November.

One Little Indian Records is an English independent record label. It was set up in 1985 by members of various anarcho-punk bands, and managed by former Flux of Pink Indians bassist Derek Birkett. In the 1990s it set up a number of subsidiary labels.

Guðlaugur Kristinn Óttarsson is an Icelandic musician.

Jónsi Icelandic musician

Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson is an Icelandic musician; he is the vocalist and multi-instrumentalist for the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. He is known for his use of a cello bow on guitar and his falsetto or countertenor voice. He is blind in his right eye from birth as a result of a broken optic nerve from the brain. He is openly gay. Apart from Sigur Rós, Jónsi also performs together with his partner Alex Somers as an art collaboration called Jónsi & Alex. They released their self-titled first book in November 2006, which was an embossed hardcover limited to 1,000 copies. The two also released the album Riceboy Sleeps, in July 2009. On 1 December 2009, Jónsi's official website,, was launched in anticipation of his debut solo album, Go, which was released on 5 April 2010. After the release of the album, Jónsi promptly started a tour across North America and Europe, featuring songs from the album plus a few other selections, planning to tour from March to September.

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson Icelandic musician

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, also known as HÖH, is a musician, an art director, and allsherjargoði of Ásatrúarfélagið.

Amiina is an Icelandic band composed of Hildur Ársælsdóttir, Edda Rún Ólafsdóttir, Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, and Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir. They have frequently performed live and in the studio with Sigur Rós. In 2009 Magnús Trygvason Eliassen and Guðmundur Vignir Karlsson joined the group on a permanent basis.

Nordic popular music, also referred to as Scandipop, are known for its biggest bands like ABBA, Roxette, a-ha and Aqua. These are by far the biggest non-metal acts to come out of Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

Kraumur Awards is a music prize, organized by the Kraumur Music Fund, awarded for the best albums being released in Iceland.

Daníel Bjarnason is a composer and conductor from Iceland. Bjarnason studied composition, piano and conducting in Reykjavik, before going on to further study orchestral conducting at the University of Music, Freiburg. He has had a number of works commissioned and debuted by Los Angeles Philharmonic.

The Icelandic Music Awards are the official annual music awards given in Iceland to commemorate the musical achievements of the year.

Volta Tour

The Volta Tour was a tour by the singer Björk that focused on her album, Volta. Overall, 48 songs were done on the tour focusing on many tracks from Debut through to Vespertine, though mostly from Medúlla and Volta, the former of which did not receive its own tour. The tour band consisted of drummer Chris Corsano, musician Mark Bell, pianist Jónas Sen, musician Damian Taylor and a 10 piece female Icelandic brass section. Many of the songs evolved considerably during the tour, including "Innocence" which was re-done so as to incorporate brass elements. Live performances of the track "Declare Independence" made heavy use of the ReacTable, an electro-acoustic music instrument with a tabletop Tangible User Interface, which is played by Damian Taylor. The Tenori-on was used heavily in performances of "Who Is It". A live DVD and CD of the Volta tour was released as part of Voltaïc. The tour was Björk's first in four years and saw her play countries that she had not played in over ten years.

A five days music event is held annually at the Folk Music Center in Siglufjordur North Iceland. The festival commences on the first Wednesday of July every year.
The main focus is on Icelandic folk music and Scandinavian folk music as well as world music and folk dances. 15-20 concerts are held in different locations of the town, f.e. the church, lokals and the Herring Era Museum. During the festival, workshops on music and old handcraft, and lectures on both Icelandic and foreign topics are held.

The following is a list of notable events and releases of the year 2017 in Icelandic music.

The following is a list of notable events and releases of the year 2016 in Icelandic music.

Páll Ragnar Pálsson, born in Reykjavík, July 25, 1977, is an Icelandic composer.

Neopagan music

Neopagan music is music created for or influenced by modern paganism. It has appeared in many styles and genres, including folk music, classical music, singer-songwriter, post-punk, heavy metal and ambient music.

Gyða Valtýsdóttir is an Icelandic musician and multi-instrumentalist and winner of the 2019 Nordic Council Music Prize. She is a member of the experimental music group Múm and has released full length two solo albums, Epicycle (2017) and Evolution (2018), created music for films, installations, and dance.

Bergur Þórisson is an Icelandic musician, composer, and audio engineer. He is one half of the neo-classical post-rock duo Hugar, musical director for Björk, and frequent collaborator of Ólafur Arnalds.


[31] [32]



  1. Rich, G. (1977). Icelandic Rímur. The Journal of American Folklore, 90(358), 496-497. doi:10.2307/539626
  2. Cronshaw, pgs. 168-169
  3. "Invisible Oranges Iceland metal article". May 1, 2014. Retrieved May 5, 2014.
  4. Kim (January 28, 2013). "Icelandic Metal is the Best Kind of Metal" . Retrieved May 5, 2014.
  5. Booking Entertainment. "Björk".
  6. Sigur Rós. "sigur rós scores an upcoming episode of 'the simpsons'".
  7. Reed, Ryan. "Sigur Ros Share Gloomy 'Game of Thrones' Cover". Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  8. Benjamin, Tómas Gabríel. "Gourmet Viking Metal". Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  9. Auðarson, Jón Sæmundur. "About Dead".
  10. "The Top 10 Metal Bands From Iceland". Metal Hammer. 2016-08-29. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  11. "Snow, Booze, and Blood: Icelandic Black Metal Is Still on Top". Noisey (in Danish). 2016-02-24. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  12. "Ten Bands Setting Iceland's Black Metal Scene Ablaze". Bandcamp Daily. 2017-10-12. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  13. 1 2 "Scene Report - Icelandic Black Metal - Terrorizer". Terrorizer. 2016-03-31. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  14. "Look To The North: Why Icelandic Black Metal Is The Next Big Thing - Heavy Blog Is Heavy". Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  15. 1 2 "Snow, Booze, and Blood: Icelandic Black Metal Is Still on Top". Noisey (in Danish). 2016-02-24. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  16. (2015-10-01). "Misþyrming Is Roadburn Festival's 2016 Artist In Residence - The Reykjavik Grapevine". The Reykjavik Grapevine. Retrieved 2018-03-11.
  17. "Briefly About History of Icelandic Music". The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies. The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  18. Dammann, Guy. "Ice and fire: the classical music scene in Iceland". The Guardian. The Guardian. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  19. "Iceland Music Export: Festivals". IMX: Iceland Music Export. Útón: Útflutningsskrifstofa íslenskrar tónlistar. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  20. "ÍSMÚS: Icelandic Music and Cultural Heritage". ÍSMÚS. ÍSMÚS. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  21. Schweitzer, Vivien. "Review: The Pacifica Quartet Interprets Composers' 'Last Words'". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  22. "Nordic Music Council Prize: Nominees". Nordic Council Music Prize. Nordic Council. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  23. Hewett, Ivan. "Review: Philip Glass: The Études, Barbican, review: 'a well-oiled machine'". The Telegraph. The Telegraph. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  24. McCreary, Alf. "Review: Ulster Orchestra is pulling out all the stops". Belfast Telegraph. Belfast Telegraph. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  25. da Fonseca-Wollheim, Corinna. "Review: Argento Chamber Ensemble Brings Out Mahler's Inventive Side". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 13 November 2016.
  26. "The Icelandic National Anthem". musik og saga. Retrieved November 11, 2005.
  27. Iceland Music. "About Iceland Music".
  28. Útón. "Um Útón".
  29. Iceland Music Information Center. "About".
  30. Samtónn. "Um Samtónn".
  32. "About Dead".
  33. "sigur rós scores an upcoming episode of 'the simpsons'".