Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

Overview of the principal types of ornamentation used in Irish Traditional Music, with sheet music and audio examples, and some suggestions for further study.

Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music involves the use of various embellishments to accentuate the rhythm and decorate the melody of the tune. The principal ornaments used are the cut, tap, slide, roll, bounce and casadh. Ornaments must be played as rapidly as possible, and must not break the rhythmic flow of the tune. Although ornamentation follows certain conventions, there is also a degree of improvisation involved, with musicians making spontaneous decisions about when and how to use ornaments.

Table of Ornaments

OrnamentDescription
CutA quick, upper grace note that interrupts the main melody note.
TapInvolves a quick, lower grace note, with a subtler sound than a cut.
SlideCharacterized by a smooth, continuous glide from one note to another.
Long RollA combination of a cut, the main note, and a tap, executed in quick succession. It’s a characteristic ornament in Irish music.
Short RollA condensed version of the long roll, fitting into a shorter note duration. It omits the first instance of the main note.
TripletInvolves playing three notes in the space of one beat, adding rapid, rhythmic movement to the melody.
BounceConsists of two grace notes before the main note, the first at the pitch of the main note and the second at a lower pitch.
CranAn ornament from Uilleann Piping, involving a series of grace notes on low D.
CasadhMeaning ‘twisting’ in Irish, similar to the cut. Two extra notes are added, with the first being of the same pitch as the main note to be ornamented. Also similar to the triplet.
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A Complete Guide to Playing irish Traditional Music on the Whistle

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The Principal Ornaments in Irish Traditional Music

Here are the most common ornaments used in Irish Traditional Music:

The Cut

Description: The cut is a quick, upper grace note that interrupts the main melody note. It is played sharply and briefly, adding a crisp, percussive element to the tune.

The Cut - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

Usage: Used to emphasise notes on the downbeat, or to “cut” two identical notes. Can also be used “in passing” on quavers not on the the downbeat.

Example of Cuts - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

The Tap

Description: The tap is the lower counterpart to the cut. It involves a quick, lower grace note, with a subtler sound than a cut.

The Tap - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

Usage: Used like the cut to emphasise the strong beat. On flute and whistle, can be used between the second and third quavers of the group of three, when these are of the same pitch:

Example of Taps and Cuts - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

The Slide

Description: Characterized by a smooth, continuous glide from one note to another.

Usage: More melodic than rhythmic, can be used on notes of varying values. usd on flutes, whistles, pipes and fiddle.

 

The Slide - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

The Long Roll

Description: The long roll is a combination of a cut, the main note, and a tap, executed in quick succession. It’s one of the most characteristic ornaments in Irish music.

The Long Roll - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

Usage: The long roll is used in place of a long note (or several notes) to the value of a dotted crotchet. It can begin on the downbeat or in reels on the second quaver of the group of four.

Long Roll Example - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

The Short Roll

Description: A condensed version of the long roll, fitting into a shorter note duration. It omits the first instance of the main note.

The Short Roll - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

Usage: The short roll is used in place of a note (or several notes) to the value of a crotchet.

Short Roll Example - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

The Triplet

Description: The triplet involves playing three notes in the space of one beat, adding rapid, rhythmic movement to the melody. The notes can be ascending, descending or identical in pitch.

The Triplet - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

Usage: used to the value of a quaver, on a quaver note or on 2 ascending or descending notes.

Example of Triplets - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

The Bounce

Description: The bounce is a percussive 2-note ornament, similar to the tap & casadh. (It is also known as a “strike” or “tap”). It consists of two grace notes before the main note, the first at the pitch of the main note and the second at a lower pitch.

The Bounce - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

Usage: The bounce is used on quaver movement, on the downbeat or in passing. An ornament suited to flute and whistle.

13 bounce example ornamentation in irish traditional music 1 - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

The Cran

Description: An ornament from Uilleann Piping, that has also passed to flute and whistle, the cran involves a series of grace notes on low D that simulate a roll on the lower notes of the chanter where a roll isn’t possible. It has a distinctive “stuttering” sound.

Crans - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

Usage: Used to the value of a dotted crotchet or crotchet.

Example of Crans - Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

The Casadh

Description: Casadh, meaning ‘twisting’ in Irish, is again similar to the cut. Two extra notes are added, with the first being of the same pitch as the main note to be ornamented. Also similar to the triplet

Usage: Can be used on quavers or crotchets

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The Reel - Tune Types in Irish Traditional Music

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Playing & Learning Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

Playing Ornamentation

  • Crisp Execution: When playing ornaments, it’s essential to execute them crisply. Each ornament, whether a cut, roll, or cran, should be distinct and clear. This precision ensures that the ornamentation complements the tune rather than overshadowing or muddying it.
  • Enhancing the Music: The primary purpose of ornamentation is to enhance the melody and rhythm of the tune. Musicians should use ornaments thoughtfully, considering how they contribute to the overall feel and flow of the music. Ornamentation should never be excessive; instead, it should add depth, texture, and character to the tune.

Learning Ornamentation

Learning ornamentation in Irish traditional music is a two-fold process:

  • Technical Execution: The journey begins with mastering the technical execution of each ornament. This involves understanding the mechanics and nuances of how each ornament is played and executing them crisply and rhythmically.
  • Placing Ornamentation: Equally important is understanding where and when to use ornaments within a tune. This requires a good grasp of the tune’s structure and rhythm and an understanding of the style and taste.

Advice for Learning Ornamentation

  • Progressive Learning Path: It is advisable for beginners to start with simpler ornaments like cuts and taps, and gradually progress to more complex ones like rolls and crans. This progressive approach ensures a solid foundation is built.
  • Slow Practice: One of the most effective ways to master ornamentation is to practice slowly, focusing on the clarity and precision of each ornament and ensuring they are executed correctly before increasing the speed.
  • Judicious Use and Rhythmic Foundation: A key aspect of learning ornamentation is understanding that less can often be more; overusing ornaments can detract from the tune rather than add to it. It’s crucial to maintain a strong rhythmic foundation, with ornaments serving to enhance this rhythm rather than dominate it.
  • Listening and Imitation: Listening to skilled musicians and trying to imitate their style is an effective way to learn ornamentation. It helps in understanding how different ornaments can be used creatively in various tunes.
  • Regular Practice: Consistency is crucial in mastering ornamentation. Regular practice helps in developing muscle memory and a natural feel for where and how to use ornaments in tunes.
  • Seeking Feedback: For learners, getting feedback from more experienced players or teachers can be invaluable. They can provide insights on ornamentation techniques and suggest improvements.
  • Recording and Self-Review: Recording your playing and reviewing it can help in identifying areas that need improvement, especially in terms of the clarity and effectiveness of ornamentation.
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Functions and Use of Ornamentation

  • Rhythmic Function: The primary role of ornaments is to enhance the rhythmic drive of the tune. They serve to accentuate the beat and give life to the rhythm.
  • Melodic Embellishment: Ornaments also play a key role in embellishing the melody, adding depth and texture to the tune.
  • Individual Interpretation and Improvisation: While there is some degree of codification, especially in ornaments like rolls and short rolls, their placement and execution largely depend on the individual musician. This aspect underscores the improvisational nature of Irish traditional music.

Ornamentation and Style

An important part of a performer’s style is concerned with his use of ornamentation. Some employ hardly any, others use ornaments which are completely pre-planned and lack spontaneity, while the very best players are able to ornament at will, giving an imaginitive and spontaneous performance.

Tomas O’Canainn

  • Varying Degrees of Use: Every musician employs ornamentation, but the extent and style vary. Some use it sparingly, while others use it extensively. A tune played without any ornamentation whatsoever will not sound “right” in the context of the traditional style.
  • Fluid and Highly Ornamented Styles: For instance, Matt Molloy’s flute playing in the Sligo style is known for its fluidity and abundant use of ornamentation.
  • Less Ornamented Styles: In contrast, the East Galway style of flute playing, as exemplified by Mike Rafferty, employs relatively less ornamentation, focusing more on the melodic and rhythmic flow.

further Information

  • A Complete Guide to Playing Irish Traditional Music on the Whistle: Tin whistle tutor book that covers ornamentation in detail. Available here
  • The Parameters of Style in Irish Traditional Music by Niall Keegan: academic article with some emphasis on ornamentation. Available on the Irish World Academy site here

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