An introduction to the wide variety of Irish music and dance forms.
by Eric Armstrong
Since so much of Irish music is geared towards dancing, it makes sense to take a look at the different forms of Irish dancing -- because here is not just one form. There are many. This section provides a quick introduction to them.
There are also styles of dance. Each dance form has its own regional styles, that developed back in the days when people didn't travel much, and there were no mass communications. In those days, every county, and sometimes every village had it's own stylistic variations on the music and dance, each as deeply rooted and traditional as those of the next town over. As in golf, local rules apply. Whereever you are, however they are doing the dance in that vicinity, that is the right way to do that dance!
There is actually a fair amount of money to played for playing dor the dancers
at a Feis, because it is musically quite demanding, and not that many people
can do it. (You have to play at strict tempos, for long periods, and do it all
It is also possible to get paid to play at a Ceili, although the sums are more modest. And although it is not as popular here, playing for set dances in Ireland is big business!
Irish music is made up of a huge collection of tunes. Each tune is a melody that contains two or more parts. Three or four parts is not unusual, but two parts is most common. So it is common to speak of the "A" part and the "B" part. Each part repeats once before moving on to the next part, and the entire tune is generally played twice.
In theatre, choreographers have the "Rule of Two". They say that the first time you do an interesting move, it gets their attention. Then, when you repeat it, they are mezmerized. But you never do it three times in a row, because then they'll find it boring! Irish tunes are like that, when the part repeats, you are just beginng to recognize the pattern when it moves on to the next part! Then, when the musicians come back to the first part, it is tantalizingly familiar, but just before you can grasp the pattern, it moves on again. It's definitely not boring.
When Irish dancers "step about" to a tune, they dance a compicated series of steps to the "A" part, and then repeat those steps on the left side when the "A" part repeats. Then they dance a different step to the "B" part, and repeat that step on the left side when the "B" part repeats.
The tunes are typically played in a session, where a bunch of musicians sit in a circle (or oval, when the space is cramped), and play together. Here, the advantages of pure-melody music become apparent. Since everyone is playing the same tune, the session can accomodate anywhere from one to hundreds of players, with no one stepping on anyone's toes. In fact, the more people that join in, the better and more full the music sounds!
These days, in what has become tantamount to a celtic revival, "slow sessions" have started up to give people a chance to play together and learn the music. (Thankfully, for those of us duffers who started up late in life.) In the process, sheet music can be both helpful and harmful. For tips on how to use sheet music so it helps, rather than hinders, your musical growth, see Using Sheet Music Effectively.
Although most tunes are short, several of them are generally strung together to make up a set. (There's that word again!) The choice of tunes in a set is one of the ways to exercise creativity in a music session. There are two common ways in happens. In the U.S., typically each person chooses a tune when their turn comes. Among a group of really good musicians, the next tune starts as soon as the last tune ends. So the first few notes are played solo, and as soon as people recognize the tune, they join in.
In Ireland, there is a different system. Among friends at a pub, there may be a long discussion over what tunes should be in the set, after which they play the set. Then there is time for some more socializing and talking over the events of the day, with some consideration given to the tunes to play for the next set. It's a less intense pace!
An Irish session tends to differ from its American cousins in other ways, too. For one thing, speed of playing is not the essence -- the important qualities are playing together and playing with feeling. ("Feeling" can be defined as playing with subtle variations in timing, tempo, volume, and tone, as well as using ornamenation like bends or slides in ways that bring out the emotions embodied in a tune.)
You can generally tell the Irish players in a session. They're the ones who break up a long string of fast-paced reels with a beautiful slow air, or who sing a ballad a cappella (without instruments). Irish players tend to find a slow air as enjoyable as anything played fast -- and frequently more so.
Another trait often displayed by Irish musicians, but rarely seen in the U.S., is the habit of starting a tune slowly. The first time through, they'll play it dead slow, milking all the feeling they can and showing the quality of the tune. Then they play through agains a little faster, and finally kick into 3rd gear and take off with a squeal.
Playing a tune slowly like that has a number of benefits. For one thing, you refresh your memory of how the tune goes before playing it at speed. For another, it gives you a chance to play with the interpretation of the tune and the ornamentation you may want to use, so you can exercise your expressive power, as well as your fingering speed.
Then, too, many a fast tune played slowly turns out to have a beautiful quality that never really surfaces when the tune is played more rapidly, so they can evokes an emotional reaction at slow speeds that they would not otherwise have. And it gives listeners a chance to set the tune in their ear, so they can figure out how to play it later on. (For more on that subject, see Playing by Ear.)
Whatever the reason, you will often find Irish musicians playing slowly, even when they are capable of playing like lightning. Perhaps it because they appreciate the music so, or perhaps it is because they know their listeners will. Maybe, in fact, it is the tremendous feeling for the music accounts for the appreciation the Irish show both for skilled players (as you would expect), as well as for beginners. Maybe what the Irish really appreciate is the underlying feeling for the music that is held in common between the listener, the already-skilled, and the not-yet-skilled.
It wouldn't be fair to characterize it as a raging debate, but there is a bit of conflict over the role of accompaniment in Irish music. Traditionalists point out that the music has survived for several hundred years without it, and that it really isn't needed. Modernists insist that it sounds good and doesn't do any harm. To add to the confusion, here are my own viewpoints on the subject!
One night, listening to world-class musicians at a concert, it became clear to me that, at that level the music doesn't really need accompaniment. Slow tunes provided beautiful, haunting melodies that needed no chords. Fast tunes were played at such blinding speed, and with so many ornaments, that there wasn't any room for accompaniment. There was no space to squeeze it in! In fact, that I noticed that when a guitar accompanied a soloist, it pretty much muddied up the proceedings. The soloists had been playing notes so quickly, in fact, that it was at times difficult to discern them all! But with the added guitar chords, I noticed that there was frequently no hope of hearing the individual notes -- they just sort of blended together indistinguishably.
On the other hand, many of the tunes were accompanied by a bodhran (Irish drum), and I found that its muted tones did not interfere with the melody, and it added rythmic emphasis. So maybe the drum doesn't count as "accompaniment".
And then there are the "rock anthems" where the guitar work drives the tune into orbit. For examples, see the recordings mentioned in my list of the Top 40 Irish Tunes. A few stellar examples are Dennis Cahill ("cah-hill") accompanying Martin Hayes, Michael O'Domhnail ("Mih-hail O'Donnel") on Sweeney's Buttermilk, and Junji ("gin-gee") Shiroda playing with the band Tipsy House, who tends to put a tune into orbit.
Finally, there are the average musicians whose tunes are frequently enhanced by a good accompaniment. I once listened to a group of intermediate musicians that included two fiddles, a flute, a tin whistle, a bouzouki (overgrown mandolin), a mandolin, and a bodhran. They were on stage, and even though they played together well, the whole ensemble sounded incredibly thin. It was only when the acoustic guitar chimed in that the music came to life!
To quote one session player (Paul Kostka), "In Irish music, the melody is king". Although chords are typically used when accompanying a singer on a guitar or cittern, they are not part of the instrumental tradition.
Although it is common, these days, to see a guitar or other chording instrument in a session, that is largely because Irish music has become more widely known in areas of the world where accompaniment is the norm. For that reason, many of the new tune collections that are printed up have chords in them. But in the old, traditional collections, there is not one chord to be found.
No one knows the exact number of Irish tunes, but the number must be well into the 10's of thousands. It is not uncommon for an "old master" to have learned 2 or 3 thousand. We know that the famous traveling harp player O'Carolan composed some 3,000 tunes, because his were collected. But his are unique because they were collected! There were many traveling musicians in his day, all of whom composed tunes for their hosts, in the same way he did.
So the number of tunes known today, even if we could gather them all and count them, would still be a fraction of all the tunes ever written. We can only guess at how many have been lost. But we can take comfort in the Darwinian process of selection -- we can be relatively certain that the best tunes have survived, on average, because those are the ones that have been repeatedly played, and passed on from one musician to another down through the centuries.
As in the dancing, there are hundreds of regional styles in the music. Although the advent of recordings and communications media have tended to have a homogenizing effect, there are still "local variations", wherever you go.
Style is defined by what kinds of tunes are played, which ones, and how they are played -- in particular by what kinds of ornamentation a musican uses, and where the ornaments are placed.
Irish music has a large collection of ornamentaion possibilities, in fact. Each ornament is an embellishment that musicians can add to a tune, at their discretion. So even though the tunes are fixed, the musicians can get very creative in how they are ornamented, so as to make the tune their own.
There is only one tradition that displays higher levels of creativity. In Indian and Arabic music sessions, players join together in playing a common theme, and then take turns improvising variations on that theme, while the remainder of the group softly plays the basic version. Themes based on devotional chants, in particular, can be both exciting and spiritually moving. (An improvisation is called taksim ("tahk-seem").
The most common ornaments are the slide (where one note blends smoothly into another), the cut (an extra, higher note of extremely short duration, also known as a grace note), the tap (a lower grace note), and the roll (a series consisting of the note, a cut, the note, a tap, the note, all played in the space of the original note).
Different instruments use different techniques to play the ornaments. For example, the banjo uses triplets (fast picking in sets of 3) for ornaments, since a note doesn't sound long enough to add a grace note to it. On the fiddle, a finger generally flys on to the string and then flies off again (a cut) to accomplish the same kind of thing.
There is also a particularly Irish way of playing some instruments. For example, piper Brian Howard (who manufactures a mean low whistle, as well as a bodhran) mentioned that the tin whistle is played as though it were part of an Irish bagpipe. Instead of starting and stopping notes, you keep a constant stream of air, and tap (quickly finger a lower note, but only for a moment), or cut (raise a finger on a higher note) to divide the note, so you hear two notes. The effect is that of a continuing drone, so instead of hearing "Dee Dee Dah" you hear "DeeeDeeeDah".
Because there are many ornamental possiblities, and many places in a tune where ornaments can be added, accomplished musicians will play a tune differently each time they run through it. In general, they will play a tune more simply at first, and add ornaments as they go.
There are five basic kinds of tunes in Irish music, the waltz, the reel, the jig, the hornpipe, and the polka. Here is a short description of them.
This section describes the prototypical form for an Irish tune. Many tunes follow this form to a greater or lesser degree, and some follow it almost to a "T". Although other forms exist as well, this form is so common that it is worth considering the others in terms of how they differ from the "standard".
This form applies mostly to jigs and reels, and somewhat to hornpipes.
We've already discussed that fact that most every tune has an A-part and a B-part. Some simple songs have only one part, and some tunes have more than 2 parts, but the vast majority have two parts. A graph of the tune might look like this:
Part Phrase A A1 A2 A3 A4 B B1 B2 B3 B4
In general, each part consists of 4 phrases. (Again, it's true often enough to qualify as a good rule of thumb.) In many tunes, the A3 phrase is a repeat of the A1 phrase. That is an important feature of a beginner-friendly tune.
The second part almost invariably starts off with a melody that is in a higher range than the A part, but the ending of the second part (the B4 phrase) is often the same as the ending of the first part (the A4 phrase). That is another feature that makes a tune easier to learn, and which "brings it home" to a musically satisfactory conclusion. Ofen, too, the B3 phrase is a repeat of the B1 phrase, which is great for beginners.
It bears repeating once again that these features characterize the most common "prototype" for a tune. Not all tunes share all of these characteristics. But a large percentage share a good number of them.
Just so you know, one name you'll hear a lot about in Irish music is O'Carolan. He was a traveling harp player who composed a couple of thosuand of beautiful tunes. We know he played by ear, because he was blind. We also know that he was a classical composer. As a result, he frequently reuses phrases of the music, as you would expect, but he reuses them in places you wouldn't expect!
An O'Carolan tune might use part of a phrase from the A part down in the B
part and then, a few bars later, it might use the second half of that phrase.
As a result, the tune sounds familiar, and is quite pleasing to listen
to, but it can be tricky to learn, because you keep losing your place! One beautiful
waltz he wrote called Si Bheag Si Mohr ("she bag she more") is like
that. (A word to the wise!)
This section describes the most common instruments you'll find in an Irish music sessions. Others show up occasionally. For example, a piano or a guitar might be present. But pianos are rare because they are so large. And guitars, although they tend to show up frequently in sessions these days, are not quite "in the tradition" well enough to be listed here. (Because the guitar is tuned in 4ths, it doesn't lend itself as well to playing the melodies as stringed instruments that are tuned in fifths, like a fiddle, banjo, or mandolin. That tends to make it accompaniment-only instrument in a session.)
One day, a bass drum even showed up, to be followed moments later by a tuba! But, I hasten to add, that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience (Thank God). On the other hand, you haven't lived until you've heard a tuba doing it's oom-pah thing and making mincemeat of an Irish tune.
The instruments described below are the ones that most closely associated with Irish music. (Some, like the banjo and mandolin, are fairly recent imports. But most of the others have been around for a while.)
You can skip the remainder of this section if you have no interest at all in music theory. Lots of musicians who play by ear get along just fine without any of this stuff. But if you like to have a sense of the "big picture", then this section will give you a small map of the territory.
There are four main keys in Irish music: D, G, A and C. Of these, the keys of D and G make up 70% or 80% of the tunes, and D is probably something like 50% all by itself.
The key of D has two sharps (F# and C#), G has only one (F#), while A has three (F#, C#, and G#). The key of C, of course, has no sharps or flats.
However, while American popular music tends to either the major or minor modes of a scale, Irish music tends to use the dorian and mixolydian modes, as well. Those concepts aren't quite so hard to grasp as the names would make you think, so we'll take a very quick look at them before going on.
For an excellent explanation of these concepts, see Chris Smith's book, Celtic Back-Up for All Instrumentalists, published by Mel Bay.
Now, we all know the major mode. If a tune is in the key of D, then the tonal center of the song is the D note. How do you know the tonal center? Well, if you hold a D note through the whole tune, it will sound good. And the tunes almost invariably ends on the D note, because that's the tone that feels like "home" -- the place where all the tension is resolved and you can relax, because you're done.
The minor mode, on the other hand, uses the same key signature but has a different tonal center. Take a tune in Am (A minor) for example. The A note is the tonal center for the tune. When it ends, it all comes back to A. And an A drone will sound good throughout the tune. But the key signature for that tune is the key of C. In other words, you are using all of the notes from the C scale, but you are arranging them in such a way that you keep returning to A. You move away and come back, move away and come back, in such a way that the listener hears A as the tonal center.
The sense of a "tonal center" is totally a matter of perception. It is evoked in the listener by virtue of that repetition of, and movement that centers around, the root note of the piece. Jazz musicians like to play around with that sense, by moving away to another note and then lingering around there long enough that you begin to feel that is the tonal center, and then moving on to somewhere else, before eventually brining it all back home to the original tonic note.
Now, if you've ever looked that keys of a piano, you may have observed that there is no black key between the B and C notes, and between the E and F notes. That pattern, starting from C, defines the notes of the scale. The black keys are the sharp (or flat) notes. The white keys are the normal notes. So starting from C, and working up to the next C on the piano, you have C to D (whole step, with one black key between them), D to E (whole step), E to F (half step, with no black key between them, and so on. The pattern is C - D -E+F - G - A - B+C, where the half steps are between the 3rd and 4th notes (E and F), and between the 7th and 8th (B and C).
If you were to apply that same pattern, starting from the A note, you would have the A major scale. The notes of that scale would be A - B - C#+D - E - F# - G#+A. Note that three sharp keys have to be employed to keep the same pattern of half steps and whole steps. Because the key of A major is essentially identical to the key of C major, a tune will sound pretty much the same when played in either scale, it will just be slightly higher or lower in pitch
But when you play a tune in the key of A minor, you use the notes in the C-scale but starting from the 6th note in the scale (A). That creates a different pattern of notes: A - B+C - D -E+F - G - A. Now, the half steps are between the 2nd and 3rd notes, and between the 5th and 6th. The difference in the pattern creates a different feeling in the music because, when you move away from the tonal center, you are moving to different notes that evoke a different mood.
The following table compares the key of A minor to that of A major.
Key Notes A major A B C# D E F# G# A A minor A B C D E F G A
You'll notice that the 3rd note of the scale is lowered a half step in the minor scale (from C# to C) and that the 6th and 7th notes are lowered, as well (from F# to F and G# to G). The other notes are unchanged. It mostly the lowered 3rd that gives the minor scale its distinctively melancholy sound.
If you got the concept that the minor scale starts from the 6th note of its relative major (so Am starts from the 6th note of the C scale), then you've got the most important idea you need to grasp. Making a different note in the scale the tonal center of a tune changes the pattern of tones that are played around it, so the intervals the listener hears are changed, which in turn creates a different response.
As a point of terminology: Modes that come from the same scale are all relatives of one another, so A minor is the relative minor of C major, and C major is the relative major of A minor. On the other hand, modes that have the same name aren't related at all! So the A minor scale isn't related to the A major scale. It's kind of like two guys named Mike. They may have the same name, but their from different families..
The only thing left to understand about the dorian and mixolydian modes then, is that the dorian mode starts on the second note of the scale, and the mixolydian mode starts on the 5th note of the scale!
It is left as an exercise for the reader to work out the patterns of notes that result. Take a look at them and see what you can observe. What notes change from the major scale of the same name? What notes stay the same?
The resulting patterns combine parts of the major and minor scales. So the dorian mode will feel like a minor mode (due to the minor 3rd), while the mixolydian mode will feel like a major (due to the major 3rd). But in the second half of the scale, the feelings are reversed! The second half of the dorian mode is major-ish, while the second half of the mixolydian mode is minor-ish.
To summarize, here is a table showing the key signatures and their associated modes. The most common modes are shown in bold.
Key Signature Key Sharps Scales A f#, c#, g# A maj B dor E mix F min D f#, c# D maj E dor A mix B min G f# G maj A dor D mix E min C C maj D dor G mix A min Based on note of scale: 1st note 2nd note 5th note 6th note
Note that the difference between D major and D mixolydian, and between E dorian and E minor, as well as between A mixolydian and A dorian, is whether the tune contains a C# or a C-natural note.
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