By Joe Fago
I don’t claim to be an expert in the history of Irish music, or even a particularly skilled practitioner. I’m an enthusiast who’s had the good fortune to play with and learn from some very knowledgeable and talented players. Hopefully I can properly convey their knowledge in an accurate and useful manner.
This overview is written for beginners and musicians who have had little exposure to Irish dance music. My wish is that it will give them a better understanding of the nature of Ceol Rince na hÉireann – the dance music of Ireland.
Irish traditional music can be deceptively simple and repetitive, almost trance-like. Its driving, bouncing rhythm reflects its original function of propelling communal dance.
In Irish traditional music, melody is of paramount importance. In fact, some will argue that the tunes are pre-harmonic – that is, purely melodic – and the use of chordal accompaniment is a modern (and therefore slightly suspect) innovation.
Many tunes do not seem to have a set key or tonal center, so asking what key a tune is in is sometimes met with heated discussion. To confuse things more, there is extensive use of modes, especially Ionian, Aeolian, Dorian and Mixolydian, which technically aren’t keys at all. Many tunes are simply a law unto themselves.
There are various time signatures that are rarely encountered in Western popular music like folk or rock n’ roll. While reels are usually notated in the familiar 4/4, double jigs are in 6/8, slip jigs are in 9/8 and slides are notated in 12/8.
Generally speaking, most Irish tunes are made up of two sections, referred to as the A part and the B part (sometimes the B part is called the turn). If a tune contains additional parts, they are referred to as the C part, the D part, etc. Each part is usually eight measures, for a total of sixteen measures in a regular two-part tune.
Each part is made up of a series of musical call-and-response phrases. For example, a tune might start with a two-measure melodic phrase, and then musically “answer” it with a two-measure phrase. Then the first theme is repeated, and then a concluding two-measure passage wraps up the musical thought.
The B part is usually an elaboration or somehow musically related to the A part, often containing nearly identical material.
Usually, each part of a tune is played twice in a row – the A part twice, followed by the B part twice. This is considered to be “once through” the tune, a total of 32 measures, and a tune is usually played two or three times through.
After this it’s common to segue into another tune, play that tune several times through, then move on to another tune, etc. These groups of tunes are called sets. Sets can constructed spontaneously or may be pre-arranged. Some sets of tunes are well known around the world, usually because of a famous or much-admired recording.
So hopefully, you can imagine how a long, intimidating piece of music might actually be made up of reoccurring, bite-size phrases. It also helps explain, a little, how accomplished players can amass a repertoire of thousands of tunes, and learn new ones so quickly. They instinctively look for and identify these patterns.
A distinctive feature of Irish music is the use of ornaments – flourishes of quick notes and percussive effects to embellish the melody and emphasize the rhythm. Musicians use an arsenal of techniques like rolls, cuts and triplets to add interest. Many techniques are unique to a particular instrument such as the uilleann pipes or the flute, and difficult or impossible to transfer to another instrument.
There is some improvisation, but it is relatively limited compared to many other musical genres. Each time through the tune, phrases can be subtly altered, notes can be ornamented differently; swing and emphasis can shift to suit the mood of the player.
Some consider ornamentation a kind of improvisation. In most jazz, blues, bluegrass, country and rock, musicians will improvise by soloing over an established chord progression, varying the melody line for artistic effect. In Irish music the melody – the progression of notes – remains relatively constant, and it’s the individual notes of that melody that can be treated differently.
That’s not to say variation of phrases within a tune doesn’t occur. But Irish players tend to employ melodic improvisation with restraint.
This section refers to fiddle styles. Some of these observations apply to other instruments. Or they might not.
There are as many different fiddle styles within Irish music as there are districts and counties, indeed, as many as there are towns and individual players. But generally there are considered to be four main styles, situated on the west coast of the island; running from north to south, they are the Donegal style, the Sligo style, the Clare/Galway style, and the Sliabh Luachra style.
Renowned fiddler Tommy Peoples claims that there really aren’t regional styles, but rather that in the different regions people learned from and copied the notable fiddle masters of their area. As generations changed and different individuals came and went, the styles changed as well. It’s ironic (or a bit of confirmation) to note that People’s exciting, distinctive playing is often held up as the epitome of “Donegal” style!
Donegal style is said to be most closely related to Scottish music and given the proximity that’s understandable. It is very fast, often using single bow strokes with less ornamentation. More than other parts of Ireland, its repertoire contains Scottish tune forms, such as highlands and strathspeys.
Sligo style is fast, highly ornamented and bouncy. It’s possibly the most prominent of Irish styles, in a large part because of the influential recordings of Michael Coleman, made in New York in the early part of the last century. It’s said that entire villages would turn out to hear the latest recordings from the States, and fiddlers everywhere tried to copy his advanced, highly imaginative settings of tunes.
The music of the Clare/Galway region is sometimes characterized as the “blues” of Ireland. Often played at a slower pace, with a great emphasis on soulfulness and lift, there is a greater tendency to use unusual keys (for Irish music) like G minor or B flat.
The music of Sliabh Luachra (Irish: mountain of rushes) is from the Cork/Kerry border area near the headwaters of the river Blackwater. Here the tradition of dancing has remained strong, and this is reflected in the strongly rhythmic nature of the musical style. Tune forms like slides and polkas are more common in this region than elsewhere.
Some people feel that a discussion of regional styles is about a hundred years too late. With the advent of recordings and increased travel, the different styles have cross-pollinated and largely disappeared, they say. There are, however, musicians dedicated to preserving various regional approaches and repertoires. There is also seen to be an emerging “international” style of Irish music, aided by the internet and influenced by classical, jazz, folk and rock sensibilities. It’s exciting that these different styles can come together and coexist at a session.
For this small glimpse into the incredibly rich world of Irish music, I’m indebted to Judy and Sean Fallon, Patrick Ourceau, Brian Conway, Liz and Yvonne Kane, Matt Cranitch, Harry Bradshaw, Peter Cooper and countless members of the discussion group at thesession.org. All the true parts are theirs, all the mistakes are mine.
Joe Fago (June 25, 2008)