A glossary of some key terms associated with Irish music and culture. From the various types of tunes like jigs, reels, and airs, to the distinctive instruments such as the uilleann pipes and bodhrán, to terminology related to dance forms, historical contexts, significant musicians, and regional styles, this glossary provides a starting point for anyone looking for a basic understanding of the context of Irish traditional music.


Types of Irish Traditional Music

  • Air (Aer): A melody or tune, often slow and expressive.
  • Barndances: Rhythmic tunes similar to hornpipes, often played at rural gatherings.
  • Ceili Music: Played for group dancing at social events, it’s vibrant and communal.
  • Highland: A Scottish dance tune, fast in tempo, similar to a reel but with a different rhythm.
  • Hornpipes: Distinguished by their syncopated rhythm, often in 4/4 time, hornpipes are slower than reels.
  • Jigs: Characterized by a lively 6/8 time signature, jigs are popular for dancing.
  • Laments: Slow, emotive tunes expressing sorrow or mourning.
  • Marches: Used for processions and parades, varying from slow to fast tempos.
  • Mazurkas: Adapted from Polish folk, these are less common but present in Irish music.
  • Planxties: A type of composition created by harpists, notably Turlough O’Carolan.
  • Polkas: Upbeat and quick, simple in structure, common in certain Irish regions.
  • Reels: Fast-paced tunes in 4/4 time, a staple in Irish music, known for their lively and driving rhythm.
  • Session Tunes: Tunes played at session, an informal gathering of music played in pubs or social settings.
  • Set Dances: Tunes associated with specific traditional dances, often performed at ceilis.
  • Slides: Similar to jigs but played at a slightly quicker tempo.
  • Slip Jigs: In a 9/8 time signature, slip jigs are more fluid and complex than regular jigs.
  • Slow Air: A slow, expressive rendition of traditional melodies.
  • Strathspeys: Borrowed from Scottish tradition, featuring a distinctive rhythmic style.
  • Waltzes: In 3/4 time, these tunes have been adopted into the Irish folk repertoire.

Musical Techniques and Terminology

  • Bounce: A technique in playing, particularly in stringed instruments, giving a lively, bouncing rhythm to the music.
  • Cran: A technique used in playing the uilleann pipes, involving a complex fingerwork pattern.
  • Cut: A quick grace note in traditional Irish music, particularly in wind instruments.
  • Double Cut: Two quick grace notes in succession, used as an ornamentation in traditional Irish music.
  • Long Roll: A prolonged ornamentation involving a series of grace notes.
  • Ornamentation: Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music involves the use of various embellishments to accentuate the rhythm and decorate the melody.
  • Short Roll: A shorter version of the roll, an ornamentation in traditional music.
  • Tap: A percussive technique, especially in step dancing or in playing instruments like the bodhrán.
  • Trill: A rapid alternation between two adjacent notes, used as ornamentation in music.
  • Triple Roll: A complex roll involving three grace notes.


  • Fiddle: The Irish version of the violin, crucial in traditional music.
  • Uilleann Pipes: A unique form of Irish bagpipes, known for their distinct sound.
  • Tin Whistle: A simple, high-pitched fipple flute.
  • Low Whistle: A larger whistle, an octave below the tin whistle
  • Flute: Traditional wooden flute, keyless and distinct in sound.
  • Bodhrán: A traditional Irish frame drum, played with a tipper.
  • Concertina: A small, hexagonal accordion-like instrument.
  • Button Accordion: Diatonic button instrument, widely used in Irish music.
  • Harp: An ancient, iconic Irish instrument.
  • Banjo: Four-string, often tenor, adapted for Irish music.
  • Mandolin: Similar to the banjo but with different tuning.
  • Bouzouki: Originally Greek, adapted for use in Irish music, mainly for rhythm.
  • Guitar: Often used for accompaniment, frequently in alternate tunings.
  • Harp Guitar: A combination of guitar and harp.
  • Low Whistle: A lower-pitched version of the tin whistle.
  • Melodeon: A type of button accordion.
  • Harmonica: Occasionally used in Irish music.
  • Piano: Used in more contemporary arrangements.
  • Piano Accordion: Chromatic button accordion.
  • Spoons: A percussive instrument made from two spoons.
  • Cittern: Similar to the bouzouki with a distinct sound.
  • Octave Mandolin: Larger and lower-pitched than the standard mandolin.

Learn more about the Instruments of Irish Traditional Music

Irish Dance

  • Step Dancing: Known for its precise, intricate foot movements, often performed in competitions.
  • Set Dancing: Group dances in square formations, traditional in social settings.
  • Sean-nós Dancing: An old style, freeform solo dancing characterized by its improvisational nature.
  • Ceili Dancing: Social group dancing, includes various formations and is a staple at Irish social gatherings.
  • Hard Shoe Dancing: Features heavy, rhythmic footwork, often in competition.
  • Soft Shoe Dancing: More flowing and graceful than hard shoe, typically in softer footwear.
  • Half Set Dancing: A form of set dancing with fewer participants.
  • Brush Dance: A traditional dance using a broom as a prop.
  • Figure Dancing: Choreographed group dances, often complex and performed at competitions.

Cultural Elements

  • Gaelic Language: Many songs and tunes are in Irish Gaelic, reflecting the cultural heritage.
  • Sean-nós Singing: A traditional form of unaccompanied singing, known for its ornamentation.
  • Feis: Traditional festivals featuring music, dance, and arts, often competitive.
  • Fleadh Cheoil: A music competition and festival, celebrating Irish culture.
  • Pub Sessions: Informal gatherings in pubs where musicians play together.
  • Storytelling: Integral to Irish folklore and often interwoven with music.
  • Lilting: A form of singing that mimics the sound of instruments.
  • Music Session Casual, often public, musical gatherings.
  • Trad Festivals: Festivals dedicated to traditional Irish music.
  • Irish Music Clubs: Clubs that promote and enjoy Irish music.
  • Blas: Literally means ‘taste’ or ‘style’, used to describe the unique flavor or style of Irish music or language.
  • Gaelic Revival: A movement aimed at the preservation and promotion of Irish Gaelic culture and language.
  • Sliabh Luachra: A region in Ireland known for its distinctive style of traditional music, particularly slides and polkas.
  • Trad: Short for ‘traditional’, often used to refer to Irish traditional music in general.

Historical and Educational Aspects

  • Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann: An organization promoting Irish music and culture.
  • All-Ireland Fleadh: The premier annual competition in Irish music.
  • Irish Traditional Music Archive: A key resource for historical recordings and information.
  • Summer Schools: Specialized courses offered in Irish music.
  • Workshops and Master Classes: Opportunities to learn from experienced musicians.
  • Field Recordings: Documenting live, traditional music.
  • Willie Clancy Summer School: An annual summer school in Ireland, focusing on traditional music and culture.

Notable Musicians and Groups

Irish Language Terms

  • Craic: Fun, entertainment, good conversation
  • Ceol: Music
  • Rince: Dance
  • Amhrán: Song
  • Fidil: Fiddle
  • Bodhrán: Type of Frame drum
  • Port: Tune or musical piece
  • Seisiún: Session, a casual musical gathering
  • Tionól: Gathering, often for Uilleann pipers
  • Gan Ainm: Literally means ‘without name’, used for traditional tunes whose titles are unknown or forgotten.
  • Puirt à beul: A Scottish tradition of vocal music, where the melody is sung using vocables (nonsense syllables), also found in Irish tradition.
  • Fáinne: Ring, An emblem worn by speakers of the Irish language to denote fluency.

Going Further

Irish Traditional Music – A Comprehensive Guide

The Instruments of Irish Traditional Music

Tune Types in Irish Traditional Music – A Complete Introduction

The Tin Whistle – A Comprehensive Introduction and Resource Guide

The Irish Low Whistle – A Complete Introduction

Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music


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