The singing of sailors working the capstan, wheat threshers in the fields, women at their spinning wheels and cradles – these were the kinds of songs that Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) liked. The songs resonated not just because of their rough and lively charm – Herder was, anyway, more interested in texts than tunes. He liked the songs because of what they seemed to represent. Like Plutarch, who believed that the manners of a people were best described by the state of their music, Herder thought that, of all the arts, music was the most instructive to the investigator of man. Since music was indicative of a people's mindset (Herder called it die Denkart des Volkes), these dignified folk songs, ballads and epics provided a window into the collective character: knowing a people's music meant knowing the people themselves. With this in mind, our musical Linnaeus set off from his Baltic home to collect and categorize the voices of the people in song. Two collections, Alte Volkslieder (1774) and Volkslieder (1778/9), were the outcome. In the process, Herder contributed forcefully to the concept of national music, he gave name to Volksmusik, and he pioneered the study of music from an ethnological perspective.
Of course, Herder was not alone in cultivating an interest in musical difference. Decades earlier, British song collectors had been similarly motivated by a desire to access something ancient and authentic in exotic music.