Our blog serves as regular motivation for you to speak the Irish language. Find posts about culture, videos where you find how to say certain phrases, and member interviews to tell you about their experience of learning the language.

Jigs and Reels and Hornpipes, Oh My!

2005-06.killarney.Cill Áirne (14)

So you’re thinking about traveling to Ireland, and one thing you’re really looking forward to is hearing some traditional Irish music…maybe even listening in on a real Irish “trad” session!

Get the "Gaeilge Gach Lá Newsletter"

Irish Every Day - that's our motto at Bitesize Irish. Get our free weekly newsletter for tips and content for how to achieve it in your life.

There’s only one problem…you know absolutely nothing about Irish traditional music (other than that you like it), and you’d like to learn a little bit before you go. No problem! We aim to please! Here’s a very basic primer on a few of the types of tunes you’re likely to encounter in a typical Irish music session.

First, some basics

Irish traditional music is almost entirely an aural tradition. That is, the music is passed along by learners listening to and emulating experienced musicians rather than by printed “sheet music.”

In fact, many traditional Irish musicians don’t read music at all. Those that do tend to rely on it much, much less than do other types of musicians. One thing you definitely won’t see at a real, traditional, session is a music stand!

It’s often said that you can’t learn to play Irish music properly from printed music, and I have to agree. If you simply play the tunes as they may be written down on the page, they will not sound authentic (and a real Irish musician will be able to spot you as a poser from a mile away!).

When it comes to playing Irish music, there’s simply no substitute for doing a lot of listening (which is why I’m going to include several music videos in this post)!

That said, written music can be a useful way to pass on tunes to people who already have a good feel for how Irish music should be played. It’s also a useful way to describe the various types of Irish music to people who may be more familiar with working from written music.

I will be including some terminology from written music in my descriptions, but don’t worry if they don’t mean anything to you…I’ll include other ways of identifying tune types, as well as the tune samples, so you’ll have a good frame of reference.

And a bit of terminology

“Songs” vs. “tunes”: Non-musicians sometimes refer to all music as “songs,” but in reality, “song” only refers to music that is actually sung.

While some Irish sessions do welcome singers, most of them are purely instrumental. A piece played entirely on instruments is referred to as a “tune” rather than a “song.” (Sometimes you’ll hear “tune” pronounced “choon,” especially in the north!).

“Tune” vs. “air”: Typically, in Irish music, “tune” refers to the actual piece being played (for example “What tune was that?” “Oh, that was ‘The Road to Lisdoonvarna.'”). “Air” refers to the melody of the tune (“How does the air to that go?” “Here, let me play it for you.”).

“Air” vs. “slow air”: As I said above, “air” used by itself simply means the melody of a particular tune. “Slow air” on the other hand, refers to a particular type of tune: typically the air of a song from the sean nós singing tradition when it’s played as a purely instrumental piece.

So many tunes; so little time!

There’s no way I could possibly describe every type of Irish tune you may encounter in one post (well, maybe I could, but your eyes would probably glaze over long before I got to “strathspey” and “waltz”!), so in this post I’m only going to talk about three basic types of dance tunes: jigs, reels, and hornpipes.

Whatever other tunes you may encounter at a session or a dance, you stand a really good chance of hearing one or all of these. So let’s dive on in!


Before you ask…no, they’re not ALL jigs! Jigs are so closely associated in peoples’ minds with Irish dance music that the uninitiated seem to think that “jig” is just another word for “Irish dance.”

A jig is a particular type of tune; one that’s marked by a very distinctive “pulse” (underlying rhythm), as you’ll see (or rather, hear). It’s very handy that this particular “pulse” has the same feel as the word “jiggedy!”

“JIG-ged-y, JIG-ged-y, JIG-ged-y, JIG-ged-y…” Try repeating that as you listen to the tunes below. If you can keep this “pulse” going along with a tune, you’ll know you’ve got a jig on your hands.

There are four basic types of jigs — single jigs, double jigs, slip jigs, and slides. They all have this same underlying “jiggedy” pulse going on. The main differences between them are the note patterns and the time signatures.

Single and double jigs

Single and double jigs are both played in 6/8 time. The only real difference between them are the note patterns.

A single jig leans toward a pattern of eighth notes (or “quavers”) followed by quarter notes (or “crochets”). If you’ve heard the English Christmas carol “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In,” you’ve heard a single jig.

This pattern gives a single jig an almost “skipping” feeling.

A double jig leans toward a pattern of repeating eighth notes (if you look at a double jig written out in music notation, you’ll see lots of groups of three eighth notes beamed together, two groups to a measure).

If you’ve heard “The Irish Washerwoman,” you’ve heard a double jig.

In the video below, the man first plays a double jig (“The First Night in America”) followed by a single jig (“Come in From the Rain”). Ignoring the antics with the drink and the rather heavy bass, it’s a good illustration of the difference between the two types of jigs!


Feel that “jiggedy” pulse going?

Slip jigs

A slip jig is similar to a single or double jig (and can incorporate either, or both, note patterns), but is played in 9/8 time. This gives it a slightly more lilting, more leisurely, less driving, feel than the single and double jigs.

That “jiggedy” pulse is still there, though!

“The Butterfly” is a classic slip jig.


Some would say that a slide isn’t technically a jig, but it fits the same basic pattern. The only real difference between a slide and the other three is the time signature: 12/8 in the case of a slide.

Slides come predominately from County Kerry.

Here’s a slide I particularly like: “Denis Murphy’s.” There’s that “jiggedy” pulse again!

Another well-known slide, which our friend Mary Murphy has actually put words to, is The Road to Lisdoonvarna.

2005-06.killarney.Cill Áirne (18)


Reels are the rock and rollers of the Irish trad world. Musicians love to play them hard and fast (though they’re often more appropriately played at a moderate speed for dancers).

If you listen to a reel, one of the first things you should notice is that it doesn’t have that “jiggedy” pulse going on. The pulse is driving, and grouped in fours:

“ONE-two-three-four, ONE-two-three-four, etc.”

If you like using a word to remember how the pulse of a reel should go, a good one is “watermelon“:

“WAT-er-mel-on, WAT-er-mel-on, etc.”

For you music readers out there, reels are often notated in 4/4, but usually played in cut time (2/2).

You’ll often hear reels played at céilí dances

Here’s one of my favorite reels, “Scully’s,” played relatively slowly for a sean-nós dancer:

Here’s a nice trio of favorite session reels, “Silver Spear,” “Pigeon on the Gate,” and “Father Kelly’s,” played at something closer to a regular session speed:


If jigs skip and lilt and reels drive, hornpipes swagger.

Generally played more slowly than other session tunes, with a definite “roll” to their gait, hornpipes came to Ireland from England, most likely brought by sailors.

They were originally written for sailors to dance to in the cramped conditions aboard ship. In fact, the classic “sailors’ hornpipe” is danced almost entirely in place.

You’ll find Irish hornpipes written in 2/4, 4/4, and cut time. What sets them apart is dotted rhythm (usually a pattern of dotted eighth notes (quavers) and sixteenth notes (semiquavers).

This gives them a bouncy feel that, along with (usually!) a slower playing speed gives them that “swagger” I mentioned.

If you’re not a music reader (or if you just like having a mnemonic), a good mnemonic for most hornpipes is “upsy daisy.”

“UP-sy DAI-sy, UP-sy DAI-sy, etc.”

Try it with the two hornpipes in the video below! First is the first hornpipe I ever learned: “Harvest Home” (also known as “The Cork Hornpipe”), followed by another well-known Irish hornpipe, “The Boys of Bluehill”:

(These are played at close to session speed, but a bit faster than one would use for dancers)

Of course, there’s more!

Of course, there’s lots more to the world of instrumental Irish music than jigs, slides, reels, and hornpipes! Polkas, waltzes, and mazurkas; barn dances and highlands, marches and strathspeys and slow airs…it’s quite a list!

With these few styles under your belt, however, you’ll feel a bit more at home at your first session! Just don’t forget to give the musicians a hearty “maith sibh!” (my shiv) or “mo cheol sibh!” (muh khyohl shiv!)  — “well done!” or “bravo!” — from time to time! We all love to feel appreciated!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

19 thoughts on “Jigs and Reels and Hornpipes, Oh My!”

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I am blind, and I have been playing traditional Irish, Scottish, English, etc. music since the 1970s but I’ve never encountered a really clear explanation of the differences between the different types of jigs and slides. Nobody publishes traditional music in braille, and although if I magnify print music enough, I can read it, I still have to memorize it so it’s just easier to do the whole thing by ear. I really like your mnemonics, although there are always exceptions to the rule. For instance, The Sailor’s Hornpipe does not follow the Hornpipe pneumonic. I would also like to add that even though I play at a session and enjoy it very much, I dislike the way reels are played most of the time. They are played faster than anyone could conceivably dance to them, and new people who join a session are driven from playing many times because of the speed. I don’t know how the”rules” for sessions got started, but I wish some of them would change. These tunes need to be treated like music, not like competitions. Just saying. Thanks again for the article because I enjoyed it very much.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Barbara. That is such a pity that sheet music for traditional Irish music is not available. Traditional Irish music is still mostly learnt by ear so it is a part of the tradition, one could say. Thank you for your interesting and informative input!

  2. Thank you so much now I can understand the difference time signatures when I am playing my Irish music –Jigs reels and Hornpipes. It’s great to understand the difference between the fast Irish tunes .

    kindest Regards

  3. Christine and Joss

    While trying to assist my daughtee, Joss, with this large project assignment dumped on her without much noticd to all the fabulous info you’ve so kindly provided. This is, hands down, 1 of the best simply explained traditional irish music and the corresponding dances. My daughter has some mild developmental delays language developmental delays (both expressive and receptive language delays), yet she was able to conpmletely undestand your blog and all explanations. Thank you so much for taking our Irish culture and transforming it to words my child could comprehend, watch videos on, and finish her crazy project. There aren’t enough words to express our appreciation and gratitude!! THANK YOU!!!

  4. This blog post is one of the best, clearest explanations of the rhythms that distinguish jigs, reels and hornpipes. I come back to it time and again since you posted it. Thanks so much!

  5. Such great music. I need to learn HOW to do the “Cork Hornpipe” but can’t find it on any DVD – any suggestions?? (I did learn it growing up in Dublin, but that was so long ago, I forgot most of what I learned 🙁
    Please help??
    Thank you 🙂

    (808) 292-4068

    1. Hi Jean,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I just googled “Cork Hornpipe” and I know it by the name of “Harvest Home.” I know that the Dubliners played it under the name of the “Cork hornpipe” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SBTkt18Tjo.

      Here’s a tutorial on Youtube on how to play it on mandolin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=50YU3kHvDoE There’s also a great fiddle tutorial available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9bLEURTj8g

      If you wanted, you could download a tutorial and burn it to a DVD.

      Le meas, (Sincerely,)

  6. Scully’s Reel is actually Scottish, not Irish. It is the Scottish variation of King of the Fairies; if you listen closely, you’ll hear the resemblance. And the dancer you’ve posted dancing to it is dancing Scottish hardshoe, not Irish Sean N’os, and while the steps are old-style Scottish hardshoe steps, that particular dance is a modern dance devised by Ron Wallace (www.ronwallace.org/). There are many videos of Irish Sean N’os dancers dancing to reels available online now, so you should post one of them instead. Here is an example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJ9eF_h-rMc&list=PL8434F8D8D3F670BB.

    1. scolleys reel came first then king of the fairies.reel dancing and reel music are indigenous to Scotland not Ireland, as are ceilidhs

  7. coming from a dancer, reel dancer are almost never hard shoe dances (save the treble reels), and the faster reels played in the video of three are the speed to which many of our steps are danced to 🙂

  8. This is what I like most about the Irish music I heard here. Good listening, easy to follow, upbeat(usually)and non-threatening, as so much other, current music will be. I’d like a copy, either a CD or download, of Mary Murphy’s music.

    And, thanks to Eoin, I was able to catch some of what Mary sang in Irish on Lisdoonvarna. Top Shelf, that!