Very few documents exist from the previous millenium, therefore little is known about the history of the Faroe Islands prior to the second World War (at which point they were being used as a NATO base). Documents that do exist, however, are chain songs. Chain songs are ballads, which are defined as ”. . . a poem meant for singing, quite impersonal in manner, narrative in material, probably connect in its origins with the communal dance, but submitted to a process of oral tradition among people who are free from literary influences and fairly homogenous in character, one cannot be sure of general assent” (Gummere, 2). Faroese ballads rhyme on the end word of each verse-line and have varying rhyming schemes for choruses. The verses are generally sung by at least one songleader—typically two or three—as they start each verse, the rest of the people join in as they remember. The songleaders do not sing the chorus or ”niðuirlag;” this gives them time to remember what the next verse is. This can be particularly helpful as many ballads are dozens of verses in length; for example, Sigmundskvæði consists of eighty-five verses, with a few different niðuirlagur throughout.
The ballads themselves utilize repetition, a trait common to oral tradition. They are also written as strict narrative—no flowery or sensationalist language, perhaps matching the generalized stoicism of the Scandinavian culture. Some ballads center around the Norse deities; others around historical events. Sigmundskvæði, for example, uses repetition not only within eldra and yngra, but between them as well. This helps to link the two together outside of character names and themes. The ballads also use foreshadowing and prophecy, as the tale of Sigmund’s gold ring being the cause of his untimely death.
The melodies are medieval and follow a dorian modal pattern (the most common mode, most certainly used in Gregorian chant and secular music), and are polyrhythmic—seven beats per ballad stanza, with a stevið pattern of six beats—irregular compared to modern music, which is generally tonal and has an even, consistent meter. The songs fall into three separate categories: kvæði, vísur, and tættir. Kvæði are heroic ballads which focus on the struggle of the hero (compared to Danish ballads which focus on chivalric ideas and romanticism). Vísur are folk-ballads, Danish medieval ballads, or more modern pieces; in this setting the other is most concerned with the first definition: ballads which do not fit the kvæði format. The Tættir are satirical ballads that though written in the same form as the kvæði, but fall outside the Renaissance. Other forms of music consist of Kingosálmar (church music) and Skjaldur—songs for children sung by adults—the similarity among each form of music being that all are vocal music. Instruments were relatively unknown in the Islands until the last few generations (although the harp has been mentioned in ballads).
Inseperable from the ballad is the dance. Until Faroese dance became popular in ballroom settings in other countries, it was always referred to as ”the dance”. Jens Chr. Svabo gives the following description of the dance in 1782: ”--you holds hands and make a circle, big or small according to the size of the room. If this is too narrow for the number of dancers, the ring has to be broken, as they say; c: the one side of the circle, is bent in, and, if the room permits, the circle is bent in several places. . . . The steps of the dance are of the simplest. You take two steps to the left, stop, move the right foot over beside the left, then towards, the right, and so on--” (Skúlabókagrunnur, 13). Along with the dance is the stevið or ”stomp pattern” to accompany each song, which has been argued as being a critical facet of the ballad and dance to keep everything aligned. The stevið pattern is arranged in groups of six beats to follow the footsteps and loops under the melody, causing some beats to be split over measures.