Tune Types in Irish Traditional Music

A Complete Introduction

In Irish traditional music, a tune refers to a self-contained melody with distinct rhythmic and structural characteristics. These reels, jigs, hornpipes and other tunes are the backbone of the tradition and serve as a framework for musicians to create, interpret, and share their music. Tunes are generally simple in structure with a “question-response” format, introducing a melodic question, answering it, reiterating, and concluding. Listen to the playlist below for some examples of the most common tune types.

Typically, tunes have at least two parts, each with eight bars. The second part, known as the ‘turn’, deviates from the first but returns to the opening melody and keynote. Each part is usually played twice, and the entire tune is played multiple times in a performance and grouped with other tunes in “sets” of two tunes or more.

Most tunes are traditional and evolved from a small number of original melodies. As well, we have imported tunes from other countries and traditions, and tunes that have been composed recently or in the last century.

The Principal Types of Tune in Irish Traditional Music

The table below summarizes the major tune types in Irish Traditional Music:

Tune TypeTime SignatureCharacteristics
Reels4/4Quick, flowing rhythm, typically played at a brisk pace, very popular in Irish music
Jigs6/8Lively, bouncy rhythm, includes variants like double jig, slip jig (9/8 time), and single jig
Hornpipes4/4Slower than reels, distinctive “dotted” or swinging rhythm
Polkas2/4Simple tunes, particularly associated with Sliabh Luachra & County Kerry
Slides12/8Simpler melody and dotted rhythm, type of jig, associated with Sliabh Luachra
Set DancesVariousComposed for dances, varied meters, structure differs from standard 8-bar repetitions

Overview of the Musical Structure Common in Irish Tunes

Irish tunes typically follow a simple, repetitive structure, which makes them easily adaptable and memorable. This structure is a key element of traditional Irish sessions, where multiple musicians play together, often without prior rehearsal. Common features include:

Binary or Ternary Forms: Most tunes are structured in two (AB) or three (ABC) parts. Each part is usually eight bars long and is repeated before moving to the next section (AABB). The whole is then repeated (AABBAABB). It is common to play tunes at least 3 times in sets of 2 or more.
Repetition and Variation: The parts of a tune are repeated several times with subtle variations in ornamentation, dynamics, and phrasing introduced by the musician. This approach keeps the music fresh and dynamic despite the repetitive structure.
Modal Scales: Apart from the major and minor scales, Irish tunes often use modal scales, such as Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian modes, giving them a distinctive sound.
Ornamentation: Techniques like rolls, cuts, and slides are integral to Irish music, adding complexity and expressiveness to the simple melodies.

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Reels

Reels are a the most common tune in the tradition, and usually the most popular with musicians. They can be more challenging but also more satisfying to play.

History and Origin of Reels

Early Origins: The reel in its modern form originates from Scotland around the 17th century, and was adopted and adapted in Ireland. While it shares similarities with the older hornpipe, the reel has a faster tempo and a more lively feel.
Cultural Exchange: The development of the reel was influenced by the intermingling of Scottish and Irish music traditions, particularly in the northern parts of Ireland. This cross-cultural exchange was facilitated by migrations and travel between Scotland and Ireland.
Popularity Growth: The reel gained immense popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was during this period that many of the classic Irish reels were composed and became part of the traditional repertoire.

Characteristics and Rhythm Patterns

Time Signature: Reels are primarily played in a 4/4 time signature, and consist largely of quaver movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar.
Tempo: Typically, reels are fast-paced and lively. The tempo can vary greatly depending on regional, local or personal styles, but it usually ranges between 90 and 130 beats per minute, making them suitable for dancing.
Melodic Structure: Reels consist of multiple parts, typically two or more, each with eight bars. These parts are usually repeated in a AABB form. Some reels are in AB form without repetitions, while others have 3 or more parts with or without repetitions.

Jigs

Jigs are the second most common dance tune in the tradition after reels. A jig is a dance tune in 6/8 time with a brisk, lively rhythm.

History and Origin of Jigs

The jig is first mentioned in Ireland in 1674, in a condemnation of tavern frolicking by the archbishop of Dublin who derides the dancing of ‘Giggs and Countrey dances’.

The Companion to Irish Traditional Music

The jig, in its various forms, has a rich and somewhat debated history. While the precise origins of the jig are unclear, it is believed to have emerged in the British Isles during the 16th century, possibly influenced by continental European dance forms. The term ‘jig’ itself is derived from the French ‘gigue’ or the Italian ‘giga’, suggesting a connection to the baroque dance form popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In Ireland, the jig was quickly embraced and became a staple of the traditional music repertoire. It evolved over time, incorporating distinctive Irish rhythmic and melodic sensibilities. Before the arrival of the reel it was the most popular dance form.

Today the majority of jigs are native in origin and date from the 18th & 19th centuries.

Types of Jigs

There are several types of jigs in Irish music, each with its unique rhythm and feel. The most common are:

Double Jigs: These are the most prevalent form and the tune type implied when speaking of “jigs”, with a 6/8 time signature.
Slip Jigs: Played in 9/8 time, slip jigs have a more flowing, graceful rhythm. They are often described as having a ‘hoppy’ or light feel, and are traditionally associated with more refined, aristocratic dance styles.
Single Jigs: Similar to slides, single jigs are less common and have a more simplified rhythm pattern, often with crotchet-quaver type movement in a 6/8 time signature.
Slides: While classified separately, slides are closely related to the single jig. They are played in a brisk 12/8 time and are especially popular in the Sliabh Luachra region of Ireland.

Characteristics and Rhythm Patterns

Jigs, regardless of type, share common characteristics:

Rhythmic Emphasis: The defining feature of a jig is its rhythmic pattern. The emphasis is typically on the first and fourth beats in each group of six quavers (eighth notes) in double jigs, creating a lively, bouncing rhythm.
Tempo: Jigs are generally played at a brisk tempo, although the speed can vary based on the type of jig and the context in which it’s played.
Structure: Jigs usually consist of two 8-bar parts (A and B), each repeated (AABB) and the whole played at least twice (AABBAABB). Like reels, structure may vary somewhat (AB, AABBCC for example). Jigs are played in sets of two tunes or more.

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Hornpipes

Hornpipes are the third most common tune type in Irish Traditional Music. A hornpipe is a dance tune in 4/4 time, slower than the reel and often with a distinctive swinging rhythm.

History and Origin

Early Forms: The hornpipe dance and music have roots going back to the 16th century in England and Wales. It was initially associated with sailors and nautical themes, reflected in the dance’s mimicking of sailors’ movements.
Irish Adaptation: As it spread to Ireland, the hornpipe underwent a cultural transformation. Irish musicians adapted the rhythm and style to suit local tastes, incorporating it into the wider body of traditional Irish dance music. By the 19th century, the hornpipe was firmly integrated into Irish music.

Characteristics and Rhythm Patterns

Rhythm: The most distinguishing feature of the hornpipe is its rhythm. Typically played in 4/4 time, it has a pronounced and steady rhythm. This rhythm is often described as “dotted,” meaning it has a swing-like feel, with longer notes followed by shorter ones.
Tempo: Traditionally, hornpipes are played at a moderate to slow tempo, allowing dancers to perform the intricate footwork associated with the dance. However, the tempo can vary based on regional styles and personal interpretations.
Musical Structure: like jogs and reels, hornpipes typically consist of two parts, each repeated (AABBAABB).

Polkas and Slides

Polkas and slides are two distinct types of dance tunes that are integral to the tradition of Irish folk music, particularly prominent in the southwest region of Ireland, especially in County Kerry.

Polkas

Characteristics: Polkas in Irish music are lively and upbeat, usually in a 2/4 time signature. The melody in polkas is typically straightforward and less complex than reels or jigs.
Rhythm Patterns: The rhythm of a polka is marked by a strong downbeat followed by a lighter upbeat. The tempo is generally brisk.

Slides

Characteristics: Slides are similar to jigs but are simpler melodically an generally played in a 12/8 time signature. Slides have a distinctive ‘swing’ to them, which is essential for the dance style they accompany.
Rhythm Patterns: The rhythm of a slide often consists of crotchet-quaver movement, giving it a simpler and more swinging feel than a jig.

Regional Styles

Polkas and slides are particularly associated with the Sliabh Luachra region in the south, and are usually in a minority elsewhere. the Sliabh Luachra has a vast collection of local tunes that are generally not played outside of the area, with a focus on slides and polkas.

Set Dances

Set dances are a type of tune that was originally composed or arranged by a dancing master for the performance of a prticular dance or a “set” dance. Their origin can be traced back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They are much less common than other tune types.

Distinguishing Features:

Structure and Form: Set dances can vary in structure from the typical 8-bar repeated parts; for example an 8-bar A part and a 16-bar B part.
Music and Rhythm: Set dances are in various meters, 4/4 and 6/8 being common but 2/4 and 9/8 also used.

Carolan Tunes

The tunes of harpist and composer Turlough Carolan (1670–1738) are distinct in their characteristics and rhythm patterns, with a unique blend of the ancient Irish harping tradition, traditional songs and dance music, and the works of Italian composers. He is noted for his “Planxties”, a type of tune written in honour of patrons.

Characteristics of Carolan’s Tunes

Melodic Structure: Carolan’s compositions could be described as lyrical and expressive, with a distinctive Baroque influence.
Harmonic Complexity: Unlike much of traditional Irish music that preceded him, Carolan’s work often incorporates more complex harmonic structures. This is a clear influence of the Baroque style, characterized by its rich chords and counterpoint, a contrast to the more drone-based harmonies typical in earlier Irish music.
Rhythmic Variation: His tunes vary in rhythm, including lively tunes typical of Irish traditional music, as well as slower, more contemplative pieces.

About Turlough Carolan

Turlough Carolan, born in 1670 and passing in 1738, is often referred to as the last of the great Irish bards. Despite being blinded by smallpox at a young age, he became an itinerant musician, traveling across Ireland and performing for various patrons. His life’s work represents a bridge between the ancient bardic traditions and the new baroque influences, making him a pivotal figure in the history of Irish music.

Barndances, Highlands, Strathspeys, and Other Tunes

In addition to the more commonly known tune types like jigs and reels, Irish traditional music also includes a variety of other forms such as barndances, highlands, and strathspeys. Each of these has unique characteristics and plays a specific role in the rich tapestry of Irish music.

Barndances

Barndances are a type of tune that shares some similarities with the hornpipe, particularly in their rhythm and tempo. They were typically associated with a social dance. They are characterized by:

Rhythm and Tempo: Barndances are played in a moderate to fast tempo with a rhythmic structure similar to the hornpipe, in 4/4 time. They can be more “lively” feeling than hornpipes.
Structure: Typically structured in two parts, each repeated (AABB)
Cultural Context: These tunes were popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially for social dancing in rural Ireland where they were played for “round the hall” type dances.

Highlands

Highlands, sometimes referred to as “flings,” are less common but an important part of the regional styles of Irish music, particularly in Donegal. They feature:

Rhythmic Structure: Highlands have a distinctive dotted rhythm, with a dotted rhythm and the emphasis on the first beat of the bar.
Melodic Style: They can be similar to reels but simpler and played in a more relaxed fahion
Regional Influence: Highlands are a clear example of the cultural exchange between Irish and Scottish musical traditions.

Strathspeys

Strathspeys hold a more prominent place in Scottish music but have influenced certain regional styles in Ireland and are played mainly in the North. They are noted for:

Rhythmic Pattern: Strathspeys are distinguished by their unique ‘scotch snap’ rhythm, a short note followed by a longer one, often accentuated in the melody.
Tempo: These tunes are generally slower than reels and have a more stately and grand feel.

Tune Settings

Most traditional Irish tunes will evolve over time and can exist in different versions. Some of these versions stay close to the original melody or to a most popular form, while others may differ significantly. A tune “setting” can be seen as a particular version of a tune, often associated with a particular person, area or regional style. When a tune setting is markedly different, it may be regarded as a new tune.

In the solo performance, musicians have more freedom to be adventurous with tunes and can develop their own unique settings, which are still recognisable as variations of a particular, named tune. If a setting is “accepted” by the tradition it can spread and may even become the new norm.

In a session environment, where multiple musicians play together, there’s a general expectation to adhere to more standard versions of tunes. This practice ensures coherence and allows all participants to play in unison or harmony. A musician’s personal setting, while valued for solo performances or recordings, is typically not used in these communal playing settings.

Sets of Tunes

In Irish traditional music, a tune is rarely played alone. “Sets” of tunes refers to a specific practice where several tunes are played in succession, without pauses in between. This practice is an integral part of the tradition and carries several key characteristics:

Composition of a Set: A set typically consists of two to four tunes. In session or informal performance, these tunes are generally of the same type (e.g., all reels, jigs, or hornpipes) A mix of different types can be played, depending on the context and the musicians’ preference.
Key Transition: The tunes in a set are often chosen to complement each other in key. The key can change, or in some instances it can stay the same.
Naming and Recognition: Sets may become recognized in their own right, especially if they are played frequently or recorded by influential musicians. Some sets might even be named after the musician who popularized them or the region they are associated with.

Sets for Dancing

In a dance context, different types of dances require different sets of tunes. Shorter dances, like set dances, often use one tune played several times. Longer dances, such as céilí dances, need a variety of tunes played one after another to keep the music going throughout the dance. These tunes often become regular parts of the musicians’ playlists.

Tune Sets in Irish Music Sessions

In a session context, selection of tunes in sets is influenced by core musicians’ own preferences, popular recordings, and requests from the audience. The type of session, whether it’s a regular meet-up or a spontaneous session at a festival, also affects the tune choices. Regular sessions usually have a set list of favorite local or regional tunes, while festival sessions might feature a wider range of less familiar tunes. Reels are the most common tunes played, followed by jigs, but the type of tunes can vary based on the region, with some areas favoring tunes like slides, polkas, or mazurkas.

Learning and Playing Irish Tunes

The journey of learning and playing Irish tunes is as rewarding as it is challenging. It involves not just technical skill, but also an understanding and appreciation of the tradition and culture from which this music springs.

Resources for Learning

  • There are numerous resources available for those looking to learn Irish traditional music, catering to all levels from beginner to advanced.
  • Recordings: On this website you can find recordings and sheet music for hundreds of irish traditional tunes.
  • Books: There are many books available that cover Irish tunes and repertoire. On this site you can find Irish Music – 400 Tunes which is a collection of tunes for all instruments, with recordings. Notable tunebooks are Breandan Breathnach’s Ceol Rince na h’Eireann or O’Neill’s 1001 collection.
  • Tutorials: Online tutorials, both free and subscription-based, provide step-by-step instructions and can be particularly helpful for visual and auditory learners. See OAIM (Online Academy of Irish Music)
  • Music Camps and Summer Schools: Programs like the Willie Clancy Summer School in Ireland offer immersive experiences in Irish music, including instruction from master musicians, opportunities for session playing, and exposure to the broader context of Irish culture.

Tips on Mastering Tunes

Understand the Rhythm: Each tune type has its own unique rhythm and feel. Practicing with a metronome or along with recordings can help in internalizing these rhythms.

Listen and Imitate: Listening to recordings of skilled musicians and trying to replicate their style is a valuable learning method. Pay attention to nuances in timing, ornamentation, and phrasing.

Start Slow: Begin by playing tunes slowly to understand their structure and nuances before speeding up to the traditional tempo.

Learn the Ornamentation: Irish music is known for its distinctive ornaments like rolls, cuts, and slides. Learning these will greatly enhance the musicality of your playing.

Regular Practice: Consistent practice is key to mastering any musical instrument or style.

The Role of Oral Tradition and Aural Learning

Oral tradition and aural learning are at the heart of Irish traditional music. Historically, tunes were passed down by ear from generation to generation, a practice that continues to be a fundamental aspect of the tradition.

Learning by Ear: This involves listening to tunes and learning to play them without written music. It develops musical memory, ear training, and a deeper, more intuitive understanding of the music.

Sessions: Participating in local sessions is not only a way to practice and learn new tunes but also an opportunity to immerse oneself in the communal aspect of Irish music.

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