Folk music in Ireland is a rich tapestry of dance music, songs in Irish and in English, airs and harp music. Rooted in an oral tradition, this music has been a vital part of Irish heritage, passed down through generations of musicians. Its transition from being purely oral to being captured in written and audio forms marks a significant evolution in its preservation and dissemination. Today, when talking about “traditional music” we typically mean the instrumental aspect of Irish music, the lively jigs, reels, hornpipes and other dance tune we can hear in concerts or in pub sessions all around Ireland. While today playing in sessions or ensemble playing is common, traditional Irish music was performed solo, with the practice of playing in ensembles emerging more recently in the 20th century.

In the modern era, Irish traditional music has adapted to global changes. Once closely associated with rural life and the experiences of the Irish poor, it has transcended social and geographical boundaries, evolving into a global emblem of Irish culture. Since the early 20th century and Irish emigration to the US, this evolution has been further propelled by the advent of recording and broadcasting technologies, helping Irish music gain an international audience. Today, the tradition embraces both ensemble playing and innovative fusions with other music genres, supported by a robust infrastructure of instrument makers, educators, and cultural organizations. This music is not just a reflection of Irish history and identity; it is a living, breathing art form, continually evolving and resonating across the world.

The object of this article is to give a complete but concise introduction to Irish Traditional Music. Use the table of contents to navigate the page, and at the end of each section you will find links and suggestions for further study.

The Characteristics of Irish Traditional Music

Irish Traditional music can encompass:

  • Instrumental dance tunes: The main body of irish traditional music is made up of reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas and other tunes, played originally for dancing. The tunes keep their “danceable” quality even if today playing for dacers is rarer.
  • Sean nós singing: A capella and heartfelt, this style of Irish Gaelic singing is characterized by intricate ornamentation and free rhythmic flow.
  • Airs: These are instrumental pieces defined by a free rhythm, often slow, and often to sean nós airs
  • Songs in Irish or English: Folk songs are also integral, telling tales and legends in the tongue of the common people.
  • Irish harp music: The national instrument of Ireland, the harp, plays a symbolic role, and has enjoyed a more recent resurgence in traditional dance music.

Irish traditional music, often referred to simply as “trad,” is characterized by several distinctive features that mark its unique sound and cultural importance:

  • Oral Tradition: Irish music has been traditionally learned and passed down by ear. While written music is now used for teaching and preserving tunes, the ability to pick up and play music by listening remains a key characteristic.
  • Instrumentation: A variety of instruments are commonly used, including the fiddle, tin whistle, flute, uilleann pipes, accordion, concertina, and the bodhrán (a type of drum). The Irish harp also holds a significant place in Irish music history.
  • Repertoire: Traditional tunes come in various types, including jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, and slow airs, each with its specific time signature and rhythm.
  • Musical Structure: Tunes often consist of several parts (commonly two, sometimes three or more), each part typically repeated. A standard structure is A-B, with each part repeated (AABB), before moving to the next tune in a set.
  • Ornamentation: Musicians embellish melodies with ornaments such as rolls, cuts, crans, and slides, adding to the expressiveness and complexity of the music.
  • Rhythm & tempo: Tempos can be lively and fast-paced for dance music like reels and jigs or more subdued for airs and laments. The rhythm is often driven by a strong downbeat and a lilting groove that is danceable and fluid.
  • Variation & Improvisation: While there is a core melody, musicians often improvise by varying the melody and ornamentation, making each performance unique.
  • Mode & Harmony: Many traditional Irish tunes utilize modes (like Dorian, Mixolydian, or Aeolian modes), giving them a distinct sound different from the major/minor tonality of much Western music. Harmonies are often implied rather than explicitly stated, with accompaniment playing a supportive rather than dominant role.
  • Sessions: These are informal gatherings of musicians, typically in a pub, where they play traditional tunes. Sessions can vary from highly organized events to spontaneous jams, and they are central to the communal aspect of the tradition.

Irish Fiddler Paddy Killoran

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Irish Traditional Tunes

Irish traditional music is characterized by a variety of tune types, each with its own typical rhythm and speed. These tune types are the musical backbone for dances and are played in sets of at least 2 tunes.

Irish tunes are generally in 2 parts of 8 bars, which are repeated (AABB) and then the whole is repeated (AABBAABB). See sheet music examples of two tunes below, a jig and a reel.

Here’s are some audio examples of Irish tunes, with below a table listing each type:

Tune TypeStructureCharacteristics
ReelsUsually in 4/4 timeFast and fluid with a smooth, driving rhythm. Arguably the most popular tune type in Irish traditional music, common in sessions.
JigsTypically in 6/8 timeLively, hopping rhythm. One of the oldest forms of Irish tunes. There are variations like single jigs, double jigs, and slip jigs (in 9/8 time).
HornpipesOften in 4/4 time, played with a dotted rhythmSlower than reels and jigs, with a distinctive ‘swing’. Historically associated with sailors and sea shanties.
PolkasUsually in 2/4 timeFast, cheerful, and straightforward, great for dancing. Particularly popular in the Sliabh Luachra region of Ireland.
SlidesOften in 12/8 timeSimilar to jigs but usually faster with a slightly ‘swung’ rhythm. Also associated with the Sliabh Luachra region.
AirsFreeformSlow and expressive, often melodies of old songs. Highly emotive, showcasing the melodic beauty of Irish music.
Set DancesPrescribed number of bars for specific dancesPlayed at a steady pace and choreographed for solo dance performances.

This covers most of the typical tune types found in Irish traditional music. Musicians may add their own variations and ornaments to tunes, making the tradition rich and diverse (see “Ornamentation”, “Phrasing” and “Variation” below.

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The Instruments of Irish Traditional Music

Here are some of the main instruments typically associated with Irish traditional music:

  • Fiddle: Central to Irish music, adaptable to fast-paced tunes and ornamentation.
  • Uilleann Pipes: Complex, bellows-blown bagpipes with a distinctive sound.
  • Tin Whistle: Simple, metal wind instrument with a bright, clear tone.
  • Flute: Simple-system wooden flute with a warm, woody tone.
  • Bodhrán: Frame drum played with a wooden stick, providing rhythm.
  • Concertina: Small, hexagonal accordion with a crisp sound
  • Button Accordion: Diatonic accordion
  • Banjo: Four-string tenor banjo, adopted from American music, used for rhythm or melody.
  • Harp: Historical instrument, modern harp used for melody or accompaniment.
  • Bouzouki, Guitar: Not traditionally Irish but commonly used for rhythm and chordal accompaniment in modern settings.
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Ornamentation in Irish Traditional Music

Ornamentation is a defining characteristic of Irish traditional music, serving both aesthetic and functional roles. It involves the use of various embellishments to accentuate the rhythm and decorate the melody. 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. Here is a brief overview of the ornamentation used:

Types of Ornamentation: Common types of ornaments in Irish music include cuts, strikes (or taps), rolls (a combination of cuts and taps), slides, crans (specific to the uilleann pipes), and trills. Each instrument may have its own specific techniques for producing these ornaments.

Purpose of Ornamentation:

  • Rhythmic emphasis: Ornaments are used to emphasize the rhythm of a tune, giving “lift or making it danceable. Ornaments are used to maintain the rhythmic drive which is essential for dance music.
  • Phrasing: Ornaments can help to articulate the phrasing of a tune.
  • Variety: They add variation and interest to tunes, especially given that tunes are often repeated multiple times in a performance.
  • Expression: Ornamentation allows musicians to express individuality and emotion within the constraints of traditional melodies.

Instrumentation and Technique: The type and execution of ornamentation can vary significantly depending on the instrument. For example, fiddle players have different bowing techniques, whereas flute and whistle players use finger techniques and breath control; the uilleann pipes has its own specific ornaments such as the “cran”.

Regional Styles: Different regions of Ireland may have distinctive styles of ornamentation. For instance, the music of East Clare may have sparser ornamentation than the music of Sligo.

Learning Ornamentation: Learning ornamentation is a crucial aspect of mastering Irish traditional music. Ornamentation is transmitted from teacher to student by imitation & example, in an oral tradition where nuances are often not captured in written notation.

A good grasp of ornamentation is seen as essential to a mastery of the musical idiom; this grasp concerns not just the technical execution of ornaments, but is also a question of taste in the placing of ornaments in the tune. In general a “less is more” approach is to be advised, particularly in the beginning.

Video: Some ornamentation & phrasing exercise on flute & whistle from Tradschool

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Phrasing & Variation in Irish Traditional Music

Irish Traditional Music is characterized by its approach to phrasing and variation, which helps the tune transcend the simplicity of the regular 4-bar structure. Phrasing is a central part of the aesthetics of the music and also reflects the personal styles and regional influences of the musicians.

Phrasing in Irish Traditional Music

Phrasing in this genre is akin to the way sentences are formed in language, determining how musical ideas are grouped and articulated. It plays a crucial role in shaping musical expression and adding interest and emotion to what are essentially quite simple meodies. Elements of phrasing include:

Breath and Bowing Patterns: For wind and string instruments, phrasing often follows natural breathing patterns or specific bowing techniques, respectively. A flute player, for example, will adjust his phrasing by choosing breathing points to escape the rigid 4-bar constraints of the tune.
Structural Role: Phrasing helps in marking divisions within a tune, guiding the listener through the melody.
Adding variation: As mentioned above, phrasing helps add variation to the melody and helps it escape the 4-bar repetitions of the basic notes.
Regional Influences: Distinct phrasing styles emerge from various regions, each with its unique musical heritage.

Variation in Irish Traditional Music

Variation is another cornerstone of this music genre, involving creative alterations to tunes during performances. This aspect ensures that each rendition of a tune, though recognizable, is distinct and dynamic. Elements of variation include:

Melodic and Rhythmic Changes: Musicians subtly alter melodies or rhythms to infuse new life into each performance.
Ornamentation: Decorative notes like rolls, cuts, and slides are integral, adding complexity and rhyhthmic drive to the tunes.
Improvisational aspect: Many variations are spontaneously generated, showcasing the musician’s skill and creativity.

A tune is played or a song sung, not bar by bar, but by the phrase, which very seldom is contained exactly between bar lines.

Breandan Breathnach

The Session in Irish Traditional Music

An Irish traditional music session, often known simply as a “session,” is a gathering of musicians who come together to play Irish traditional music. These sessions are usually informal and can take place in a variety of venues, often pubs, but also homes, community halls or any other social venue

Here are the key characteristics of an Irish traditional music session:

  1. Community and Participation: Sessions are communal events where musicians share tunes and company. They are not concerts; the musicians typically play for their own enjoyment, and the music is not rehearsed.
  2. Repertoire: The music played is typically Irish dance music, including jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, slip jigs, and the occasional song. Each musician is expected to know a common repertoire of tunes and to be able to join in with others.
  3. Instruments: Common instruments include the fiddle, flute, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, accordion, concertina, bodhrán (a type of drum), and sometimes guitars or bouzoukis for accompaniment.
  4. Etiquette: There is an unspoken etiquette in sessions. Musicians take turns leading sets of tunes, and it’s considered polite to join in only if you know the tune being played. It’s also common courtesy to listen to and make room for all participants, regardless of skill level.
  5. Format: Sessions may be “open,” where any musician is welcome to join, or “closed,” typically reserved for more experienced musicians. In an open session, less experienced players are encouraged to participate, but they are expected to respect the dynamics of the group.
  6. Spontaneity and Variation: While musicians may play the same tunes, they often infuse them with their own style and variations. This improvisation is a valued part of the tradition.
  7. Social Aspect: Sessions are social occasions as much as they are musical ones. There is often a lot of conversation, storytelling, and camaraderie among the participants.
  8. Learning: Sessions are also a means of learning, where less experienced musicians can pick up new tunes and techniques from more seasoned players.

Sessions are a vital part of Irish culture and are key to the transmission of traditional music from one generation to the next. They serve as a testament to the living nature of the music, constantly evolving while retaining its roots in Irish history and culture.

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Irish Traditional Music, an Oral/Aural Tradition

Oral transmission, primarily through listening, playing, and communal interaction, is central to the music’s identity and longevity. It emphasizes the importance of memory, personal style, and community learning, making each musician’s journey unique. This tradition is significant in preserving Irish heritage, fostering social cohesion, and allowing for organic evolution of the music. As a living process, it remains crucial to the Irish cultural identity, celebrated for its communal, participatory nature and its ability to evolve while retaining its core essence.

Here are the key aspects of the importance of oral transmission:

  • Cultural Preservation and Continuity: The oral tradition has been instrumental in keeping Irish music alive and vibrant across generations. By passing down tunes, styles, and techniques from one generation to the next, this tradition serves as a living link to the past, maintaining a continuous thread of cultural identity.
  • Emphasis on Community and Social Bonding: Irish music, through its oral/aural tradition, often takes place in communal settings like sessions (seisiúns) or informal group playing. This fosters social cohesion, creating a sense of community and shared experience. Music becomes a way to connect with others, celebrate communal events, and reinforce social bonds.
  • Personal Interpretation and Creativity: Since the music is passed down primarily by ear, it allows for a great deal of personal interpretation. Within the constraints of the tradition, musicians are encouraged to add their own variations and styles, which keeps the music fresh and dynamic. This individual creativity is a hallmark of Irish music, distinguishing one musician’s rendition from another’s.
  • Organic Evolution of Music: Following on from the idea of personal interpretation & creativity, the absence of a standardized, written form means that Irish music can evolve organically. As tunes are passed down, they often change and adapt, reflecting the times and the musicians who play them. This keeps the music relevant and allows it to grow and change naturally.
  • Skill Development: The oral tradition emphasizes the development of listening skills and memory. Musicians learn to pick up tunes by ear, a skill that enhances their musicality and deepens their understanding of the music’s nuances.
  • Preservation of Regional Styles: Different regions of Ireland have distinct musical styles. The local oral tradition helps in preserving these regional differences, contributing to the rich diversity within Irish music.
  • Education and Mentorship: The tradition often involves learning from more experienced musicians, fostering a sense of mentorship. This not only aids in skill development but also helps in passing down historical and cultural contexts, enriching the learning experience.
  • Adaptation to Modern Contexts: Even as Irish music adapts to modern learning methods and technologies, the oral tradition remains a cornerstone, ensuring that the essence and authenticity of the music are preserved even in contemporary adaptations.

The oral tradition in Irish music is not just a method of transmission; it’s a vital component of Irish cultural identity, fostering creativity, community bonding, and the continuous evolution of the music, ensuring its relevance and vibrancy across generations.

The Willie Clancy Summer school plays a vital part in the transmission of Irish Traditional Music, in Ireland and worldwide.

Music for Dancing

Irish traditional music is at its very core dance music, even if today this function has taken a back seat to that of musical performance. However the notion of “lift” still is vital to the music. Here’s a quick overview of some of the prominent types of Irish dance and their relationship with music:

Irish Set Dancing:

Irish set dancing is a social dance form typically performed in groups, with four couples arranged in a square formation. The dance patterns are composed of various figures, and the music is an integral part of the dance experience.
Set dancing music is typically provided by a live band, which often includes instruments like the fiddle, accordion, flute, concertina, and piano. The music sets the tempo and provides the structure for the dancers to follow.
The tunes used in set dancing are typically jigs, reels, hornpipes, and polkas, with specific sets having their own traditional tunes.

Step Dancing:

Irish step dancing is a solo dance form characterized by intricate footwork, where the dancer creates rhythms and patterns with their feet.
The music for step dancing is often performed by a solo musician playing a traditional Irish instrument like the fiddle or accordion. The tunes are typically fast-paced and rhythmic, with a strong emphasis on the dancer’s precise footwork.
In competitive step dancing, dancers perform choreographed routines to specific tunes, and the music is an essential component of their score.

Ceili Dancing:

Ceili dancing is a form of social group dance that is often performed at gatherings, festivals, and ceilis (traditional Irish social events). It involves simple group dances with set patterns.
Ceili music is lively and played by traditional Irish bands, similar to the music used in set dancing. The tunes are typically jigs, reels, and hornpipes, and the music sets the pace and rhythm for the dancers to follow.
The social aspect of ceili dancing is emphasized, and participants of all skill levels can join in and enjoy the music and dance together.

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Regional Styles of Irish Traditional Music

“Regions have their own sounds and this can be found at the root of much repeated clichés such as ‘Donegal music is fast’, ‘East Galway music is slow’, ‘Sliabh Luachra music is all polkas and slides’. “
– Niall Keegan

Irish Traditional Music is a rich and diverse musical tradition with distinctive regional styles, each shaped by geography, history, and cultural influences. Here are some of the notable regional styles and their influences:

Sligo:

County Sligo, in the northwestern part of Ireland, is renowned for its fiddle and flute playing traditions. The Sligo style is known for its fast and ornamented playing, and it has produced many influential musicians. It has somewhat become the “default” style of Irish traditional music – fast, legato and ornamented – from the influence of older musicians such as Michael Coleman and James Morrisson (fiddles), or more recent players such as Matt Molloy (flute) or Kevin Burke (fiddle).

Clare:

County Clare, in the western part of Ireland, is famous for its traditional music, especially the concertina and accordion playing. The Clare style emphasizes rhythm and drive, often incorporating strong dance rhythms. Geography played a role in shaping Clare’s style, as the region was relatively isolated and had a strong local tradition.

Donegal:

Donegal, located in the northwest of Ireland, has a distinctive fiddle tradition characterized by its ornamentation, bowing patterns, and unique tune repertoire. The isolation of Donegal from the rest of Ireland due to rugged terrain contributed to the preservation of its musical traditions. Scottish and Scandinavian influences are evident in Donegal’s music due to historical connections with these regions.

Kerry:

County Kerry, located in the southwest, has a unique fiddle style known for its smooth bowing and lyrical playing. Kerry’s proximity to the sea has influenced its music, with tunes reflecting maritime themes and melodies inspired by the surrounding landscape. The Kerry style has also been influenced by its interactions with nearby musical traditions.

East Clare / East Galway:

The music of East Clare & East Galway is slower and mre contemplative than music from other regions, while keeping a strong rhythmic pulse. Ornamentation can be sparser and tunes played in lower keys such as C or D dorian. Key musicians are Martin Hayes (East Clare) and Mike Rafferty (East Galway)

Geography and history have played significant roles in shaping these regional styles. Isolation, landscape, and historical events like the Great Famine and emigration have impacted how the music evolved in each area. Additionally, the close-knit nature of many Irish communities helped preserve and transmit these styles from one generation to the next.

Other influences:

Irish Traditional Music has also experienced cross-pollination with other music genres, both within and outside of Ireland. Some examples include:

American Influence:

Irish immigrants to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries contributed to the development of Irish-American music, which blended elements of Irish tradition with American musical styles such as bluegrass and country.

Folk Revival:

The folk music revival of the mid-20th century saw Irish musicians adopting and adapting traditional tunes and instruments, often incorporating elements of contemporary folk and world music.

Fusion with Other Genres:

Some contemporary Irish musicians have explored fusion with other genres like rock, jazz, and classical music, leading to innovative and genre-blurring compositions.

Global Collaboration:

Modern technology and communication have facilitated collaborations between Irish musicians and artists from diverse backgrounds, resulting in new and exciting musical fusions.

Overall, Irish Traditional Music is a dynamic and evolving tradition that continues to be influenced by its regional roots and interactions with a wide range of musical styles from around the world. This adaptability and openness to innovation have ensured its enduring popularity both in Ireland and on the international stage.

East Clare fiddlers PJ & Martin Hayes

The History of Irish Traditional Music

Much of what we know as Irish traditional music today has it’s origins in the 18th and 19th centuries. This music was first formalized in the 18th century with the collectors of folk melodies. The 19th century saw its global dissemination, accelerated by the Irish diaspora during the Great Famine. Here is a timeline of Irish Traditional music from ancient times to the present day:

Pre-18th Century: Ancient Origins
Roots in Celtic and Gaelic traditions, although much of this music is now lost.
Primarily oral tradition, with music passed down through generations.

18th Century: Formalization and Popularization
Increase in the collection and publication of Irish tunes.
Turlough O’Carolan (1670–1738), a blind harpist, becomes one of the earliest known composers in the Irish tradition.

19th Century: The Great Famine and Emigration
The Great Famine (1845–1849) leads to mass emigration, spreading Irish music globally, especially to the United States.

Early 20th Century: Revival and Preservation
The Irish Cultural Revival (late 19th and early 20th century) emphasizes the importance of Irish traditions.
The establishment of the Irish Folklore Commission in 1935 to preserve traditional music.

Mid 20th Century: Folk Revival
The 1950s and 1960s see a folk revival, with artists like The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem gaining international fame.
The Fleadh Cheoil, an annual music festival, begins in 1951, promoting traditional music.

Late 20th Century: Global Influence and Fusion
Bands like The Chieftains and Planxty achieve global success in the 1970s and 1980s.
A fusion of traditional Irish music with other genres, like rock and pop, emerges.

21st Century: Modern Innovations and Continuing Traditions
Continued global influence with artists like Lunasa.
A growing focus on historical research and academic study of traditional Irish music.

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