Blog post written by Audrey Nickel
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!
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?
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.
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.
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!