Dance Music

The most familiar portion of our musical heritage is our dance music. Ireland possesses a bewildering repertoire of dance tunes of various types. As well as the ubiquitous reel


Elizabeth Crotty performs a set of reels on her concertina. The Wind that Shakes the Barley / The Reel with the Beryl


  (4/4 time), hornpipe


The Four Star Trio perform hornpipes, included on their CD, 'The Square Triangle'.

Craft Recordings, CRCD002

  (4/4 time but accented) and jig (6/8 time), there are slip-jigs

Slip jigs

The Four Star Trio perform a set of slip jigs from their CD, The Square Triangle. Barney Brallaghan's / Ride A Mile / The Sport of the Chase

Craft Recordings, CRCD002

  and hop-jigs (9/8 time), slides


Johnny O'Leary (accordion) plays two slides from his CD, Johnny O'Leary of Sliabh Luachra. The Hair Fell Off My Coconut / Thadelo's

Craft Recordings

  (12/8 time), single reels and polkas


Pádraig O'Keeffe (fiddle) plays a set of polkas from his CD 'The Sliabh Luachra Fiddle Master'. As I went out upon the ice / Campdown Races / Tom Billy's / Jimmy Doyle's


  (2/4 time), as well as set-dances, barn-dances


Johnny O'Leary (accordion) plays some Barndances from the CD 'Johnny O'Leary of Sliabh Luachra'. Thadelo's / Turkey in the Straw

Craft Recordings

 , highlands


Harry Bradley (flute) and Paul O'Shaughnessy (fiddle) play some Highlands from the CD 'Born for Sport'.

© Harry Bradley & Paul O'Shaughnessy

 , germans, mazurkas, schottisches, strathspeys, marches

Piper in the Cave

Paul O'Shaughnessy (fiddle) plays a march from his CD 'Stay Another While'.

Paul O'Shaughnessy (POSCD001)

  and waltzes , and possibly a smattering of rarer forms. These are all types of dance tune and each type has its associated dances.

In the early 1980s the collector Breandán Breathnach succeeded in creating as complete an index as could be made of a constantly increasing body of music, and at that time he found that the Irish repertoire of dance tunes extended to over 7,000 individual items! It is not customary in Irish Traditional Music to associate particular tunes with particular dances, so the range of material available means that musicians have an effectively inexhaustible choice when it comes to selecting tunes to play for dancers.

Up to the early twentieth century musicians played almost exclusively for the dance. In more recent times the music has more and more come to be seen as an end in itself. During the period from the 1930s to the 1960s traditional music and dance went through a slump in popularity in the face of newly imported musical fashions. The worldwide post-war revival of interest in folk music reached Ireland in the early 1950s and with the music being revived first, a generation of musicians grew up playing the music simply for its own sake. This has left a legacy of enhanced appreciation for the intrinsic musical qualities of the dance tunes and, not so fortunately, a tendency on the part of some players to regard dancing as an unwelcome intrusion on their art.

Following on the heels of the music revival, from the 1970s there was a revival of interest in traditional forms of dance (firstly social, and subsequently solo forms), with thousands of enthusiasts devoting their free time to learning and performing quite complex dances. The existence of this market has stimulated the re-emergence of the dance-musician and of dance-bands.

Form of the Music

Irish dance music is built on a very simple model. The typical dance tune consists of a strain of eight bars that is usually played twice and is succeeded by a complementary strain (the "turn") that is also played twice. In playing practice it is customary to play a tune through several times, following it with another or several of the same type. This repetition might sound like a recipe for boredom, but any worthwhile player will introduce melodic and rhythmic variation into their playing so that no two renditions are alike. It is this fine-grain texture that escapes the outsider, who feels unsettled by the 'sameness' of the sound; and which enthrals the initiate, who can appreciate what the musician is doing. This degree of understanding can only be acquired by immersion in the music. It might be illustrated by considering two reproductions, one at a high and the other at a low resolution, of an ornately illuminated page of the Book of Kells. From a distance both will appear the same. However, up close the high-resolution version will reveal astonishing depths of complexity and detail. It is this complexity, imperceptible to the un-trained ear, which delights the follower. A fairly standard pace for a reel is 60 bars per minute, and a single bar of a reel contains eight quavers. This means that there are eight or more notes passing by every second, not to mention the grace notes, accents, shifts in rhythm etc that a good player can inject into their playing. The ability to resolve and appreciate this level of detail is a considerable skill; once acquired, it makes lifelong devotees of the music.

Not all dance tunes conform to the above structure. Some have more than two parts; tunes containing up to seven are not unusual. Also, in some cases tunes might be 'singled', i.e. the eight-bar strains are played only once. These exceptions, like irregular verbs, must be learned. Set-dances are an exception to the convention that any tune can be played for any dance. They are comprised of a small class of tunes that are associated with particular solo dances. They are also often irregular in structure. The "Blackbird" for instance has a first part of 7½ bars (written in common time) and a second part of 15 bars (two strains of 7½ bars each). The dance that is performed to the tune takes account of this irregularity.

The obvious implication of the above is that the performance of Irish dance music is essentially a solo art, notwithstanding the proliferation of ensembles in recent years. The Chieftains, the first and most enduring of these, have always interspersed solo performance with ensemble playing. Younger bands have tended to favour the high-energy hit provided by fast-paced group-playing to attract and please audiences. The fact that this style of performance incorporates some of the features of modern popular music partly explains its appeal to modern taste.

Apart from occasional, deliberate exceptions, the music is always played on instruments that are tuned to a single commonly used pitch. The base note of the modern pipes-chanter, flute and whistle is D, and the music mostly uses the two octaves ascending from that note. Fiddle tunes are often recognisable from the fact that they include notes below D, and instruments such as the accordion and concertina can encompass a wider range. The most common keys in the music are D and G, but a great many tunes in other keys can be heard. Modes other than the Do (Ionian) mode (the standard classical major key) are also used - tunes exist in the Re (Dorian), Soh (Mixolydian) and La (Aeolian) modes. Some writers would include others.

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