Forms of Irish Tunes
The definitions that follow will sound a bit technical. Language has its limits. THE definitive way to discern a form of traditional Irish music is to listen to a proper performance.
When most people think of Irish music the forms of reel and jig come to mind. Perhaps waltz and hornpipe. But, within these major headings are many fine details and unique tune forms. This course will focus on these forms of Irish traditional tunes.
The most frequently played tunes during a session are reels. These tunes are notated in 4/4 time with the strong beats being the first and third. Say the word ornamental alligator to get the feel of the four-beat reel.
The next most frequently played tune form during a session is the jig. Double and single jigs are notated in 6/8 time counted as two strong beats that each contain three subordinate beats. Say the words pineapple apricot to feel the six-beat pulse of a jig.
Slip jigs are often played during a session. These tunes are notated in 9|8 and felt as three strong beats, each of which has three subordinate beats. Say the words pineapple apricot coconut. The slip jig has often been called “the ballet of Irish dance”. Search for “slip jig” on YouTube to see some extraordinary dancing.
A hornpipe and a reel are very similar. Hornpipes are always slower and have a bouncy, or light feel to them. Both forms are properly notated in 2|2, but often appear written in 4|4. In either case the melodies tend to be successive pairs of notes. In reels the accents tend to be more or less equal. In a hornpipe the first note of the pair tends to be accented. Also in a hornpipe some of the note pairs are replaced by triplets. Hornpipes are often written as a succession of eighth-notes. That makes the tune appear to be a reel. But the title “hornpipe” takes the player to change the pairs of eighth-notes into pairs of dotted-eighth and sixteenth notes.
Other forms that may be heard during a session include the following.
- Hop Jig
- Barn Dance
- Strathspey (technically a Scottish form)
A significant factor that distinguishes the performance of Irish traditional music from American forms of bluegrass, jazz, blues and pop music is the individual solo. It is traditional in American bluegrass for each member of the band to “take a break”. That is, to play a solo improvisation based upon the chord changes that support the melody. During traditional Irish sessions, no solos are performed. Sessions are all about community. That means everyone playing the same tune together. There is no “look at me” moment during a traditional session.