In her capacity as Honourable Secretary of the International (Advisory) Folk Dance Council, Maud Karpeles (1885–1976) organized the International Conference on Folk Song and Folk Dance, held at the Belgian Institute in London, 22–27 September 1947. Delegates from twenty-eight countries participated, mostly appointed by the governments of their respective nations, as well as a UNESCO representative, Vanett Lawler. The conference was paid for by a small fund held by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), representing profits from the International Folk Dance Conference and Festival held in 1935, an additional £100 from the EFDSS itself, and the same amount from an anonymous donor.
On the afternoon of Monday, 22 September 1947, the Vice Chairman of the conference, Steuart Wilson (1889–1966), proposed “that an International Folk Music Council be formed”. The motion was carried by a show of hands. In the following days, a provisional constitution was adopted, and Officers and an Executive Board were appointed for one year.
The Officers were:
- Ralph Vaughan Williams (UK; President)
- Poul Lorenzen (Denmark; Vice President)
- Albert Marinus (Belgium; Vice President)
- W. S. Gwynn Williams (UK; Treasurer)
- Maud Karpeles (UK; Secretary)
The Executive Board consisted of:
- Renato Almeida (Brazil)
- Natko Devčić (Yugoslavia)
- Duncan Emrich (USA)
- Douglas Kennedy (UK)
- László Lajtha (Hungary)
- Claudie Marcel-Dubois (France)
- Petro Petridis (Greece)
- Ole Mørk Sandvik (Norway)
- Ahmed Adnan Saygun (Turkey)
- Klaus P. Wachsmann (Uganda)
- Louise Witzig (Switzerland)
In the same year, IFMC appointed 140 music and dance experts as correspondents from 35 countries and regions. On 13–18 September 1948, the first IFMC conference was held in Basel, and the first Bulletin was published. In 1949 the first issue of the Journal of the International Folk Music Council appeared, and the Council was one of the founding members of the International Music Council. The Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council replaced the Journal in 1969. The name change to the International Council for Traditional Music occurred at the 26th World Conference in Seoul on 27 August 1981. The name of the journal then became the Yearbook for Traditional Music.
The first President of the Council was English composer and folk music collector Ralph Vaughan Williams (1947–1958), followed by Jaap Kunst (1959–1960), Zoltán Kodály (1961–1967), Willard Rhodes (1967–1973), Klaus P. Wachsmann (1973–1977), Poul Rovsing Olsen (1977–1982), Erich Stockmann (1982–1997), Anthony Seeger (1997–1999), Krister Malm (1999–2005), Adrienne L. Kaeppler (2005–2013), and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco (2013–2021).
The first Secretary General of the Council was Maud Karpeles (1947-1963), followed by Robin Band (1963-1965), Barbara Krader (1965-1966), Felicia Stallman (1966-1967), Christian Ejlers (1967-1968), Connie Matthews (1968-1969), Graham George (1969-1981), Dieter Christensen (1981-2001), Anthony Seeger (2001-2006), Stephen Wild (2006-2011), Svanibor Pettan (2011-2017), and Ursula Hemetek (2017-2021). Among the institutions that were host to the Secretariat were the Danish Folklore Archives (Copenhagen, Denmark), Queen’s University (Kingston, Canada), Columbia University (New York, USA), UCLA (Los Angeles, USA), Australian National University (Canberra, Australia), University of Ljubljana (Ljubljana, Slovenia), and University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna (Vienna, Austria).
Since 2017, the Council has been registered as a non-governmental organization in the Republic of Slovenia.