Here is my take on the connection between Irish Dance and the music it is danced to. I have divided it into five parts: A short introduction to music theory, Tempo, Types of music and the dances they are used for, Set Dances and Instruments. I am greatly indebted to the contributors and editors of Wikipedia, The Sessions, A Fiddler's Guide, Tcrgexam.9k.com and all of you DDN'ers who helped me by answering my questions related to the creation of this post and encouraging me to actually create it. A list of the various dances.
Music notation is a system which is used to represents aurally perceived music in writing. It is done by writing down the notes and rhythms in the music by using symbols. In Western music notation tunes are written down according to a set of rules, which is what this first chapter is all about. The notes are what make up the melody heard in a piece of music, they have qualities like pitch and lenght - each length has a different appearance in writing. These notes are written in a system of 5 horizontal parallel lines (known as a staff).
A tune is divided up into bars (also known as measures), these divide the tune into regular groups of beats. How many beats are in a group is defined by the type of music in question, something known as time signature. Bars are noted in writing by drawing a line perpendicular to the staff.
In standard Western notation, pitches are represented on the vertical axis and time is represented by notation symbols on the horizontal axis.'1 The notes are placed on the lines of the staff according to their pitch, higher position on the line signifies higher pitch. I will include a couple of examples of notes to demonstrate their function in a bar. All of the following definitions are for a 4/4 time signature (for example reel). The 'easiest' note of all is a whole note, it lasts for 4 beats and fills up a bar of e.g. reel all by itself.
A half note last for two beats, in reel where we are allowed four beats per bar (hence the name 4/4) two half notes would fit in a bar.
A quarter note takes up one beat and in reel we can accommodate four quarter notes in one bar.
An eight note takes up half a beat (1/8 of the bar in a reel) and it would take eight eight notes to fill up a bar of reel.
It is hereby easy to express the length of melody by simply stating the number of bars it can be broken up into. The standard number of bars in Irish Dance is eight. It is hereby easy to count how many beats there are in a step of reel. We have eight bars of reel and when we have 4 beats per bar, that adds up to thirty two beats. Melodies do not have to follow the beats, in other words the notes are not the same as the beats, the beats are an abstract concept which helps to rationalize the art which is music.
Time signature is used to 'specify how many beats are in each bar and what note value constitutes one beat. It is written in the short form of two numbers, the first indicating the number of beats and the second the note value (for simple time signatues only, compound signatures will be touched upon later). Taking reel as an example, it is written 4/4 - the first 4 signifies that we have four beats per bar and the second 4 that quarter notes constitute one beat. Common simple time signatures are 2/4, 3/4 (e.g. waltz) and 4/4.
In Irish dance also compound time signatures are used, mainly 6/8 (double jig), 9/8 (slip jig) and 12/8 (single jig). These compound time signatures differ from the simple signatures presented earlier, in that they have as their beat unit (the lower/last number) an eight note. For those interested in musical theory this is due to the fact that compound signatures use dotted notes for for the beat unit. To determine the number of beats and the beat unit in compound time signatures, some calculations are needed. A list of the results will be presented at the end of the chapter, here is an explanation for how to do it.
9/8 (slip jig) will be used as an example. To determine the number of beats per bar, we need to divide the first number, here 9, by 3 - the result is that there are three beats per bar. The second number, which is the note that represents one beat, is determined by multiplying this note value with 3 - the result is that one beat represents three eight-notes .
4/4 = counted as 4 beats per bar - 1 quarter note constitutes one beat 6/8 = counted as 2 beats per bar - 3 quarter notes constitute one beat 9/8 = counted as 3 beats per bar - 3 quarter notes constitute one beat 12/8 = counted as 4 beats per bar - 3 quarter notes constitute one beat
How fast a tune is played depends on what level the dancer is. As a general rule, fast tempo is for beginners and slower tempo is for the more advanced dancers. The logic behind this is that when the tempo is slower the dancer can fit in more moves and the dance also lasts longer - calling for technique, stamina and speed. The tempo of a piece of music is in Irish dance stated as bmp – beats per minute. This would seem straight forward enough, but unfortunately it does not hold up as such for some of the dances. If you want to figure out the tempo of a piece of music by just listening to it, it is necessary to know both what time signature is used and what the convention of stating speeds in Irish dance music is. Reel and Hornpipe and are the major problematic areas. If you figure out using a calculator how many beats there are in 2,5 steps of reel and compare that to the time it takes to dance it to open tempo music, you will find that there are significantly more beats per minute than the 113 stated on most practice CDs. This is due to the convention that only the significant beats are counted when writing the speed of reel and hornpipe – 1 and 3 are considered to be significant in these dances, thus only 2 beats per bar, this will yield 113 as the tempo. As a general rule, it is easy enough to figure out what the beats per minute (bpm) is for any song.
1. Figure out the time signature, usually stated on cd's. If it is simple time signature (reel, hornpipe), then remember to divide the number of beats counted by 2. If it is in compound time signature (double jig, single jig, light jig, slip jig) then remember to convert the number of beats per bar, or look it up in the section above. 2. Take a stop watch (or simply look at the time on the cd-player) and see how many bars fit into 15 seconds/30 seconds of music. Multiply this number of bars by the number of beats in every bar (figured out in number 1) and multiply with 4 (if using 15 sec) or 2 (if using 30 sec) to ascertain the beats per minute number.
An example, Double Jig, stated on the Irish Dancer CD to be played at 73 bpm. I counted 9 bars to fit into 15 seconds, in which case the calculation would be 9 bars x 2 beats/bar = 18 beats. This needs to be multiplied with 4 to attain the number of beats per minute: 18 beats x 4 (15 sec)parts /min = 72 beats/min (the 1 bpm difference to the one stated is caused by e.g. a delay in my time-taking). If I would have taken a 30 sec or 60 sec sample the result will be more accurate .
Another way of figuring out the tempo in a piece of music is to time how long for example 8 bars of music takes. Then divide the number of beats in the 8 bars by the time in seconds. This will give the the number of beats per second. Multiply by 60 to get bpm.
There are many programs available that figure out the bpm of tunes automatically, simply insert the tune and the bpm shows up. One still needs to take into account the “Irish convention” for some tunes, but these cases are rather obvious (an example would be to get 224 as the speed for a reel). There is a nice website where it is possible to measure the bpm of a tune by simply tapping any key on your keyboard in time to the music you are listening to and the program on the website figures out the bpm from this.
In a survey on tempo in 4 different organizations (CLRG, CRN, WIDA and NAFC), the following tempo were found. I have divided the table into three levels, Beginner, Intermediate and Champion, listing the range of tempo found for the various organizations. Tempo of traditional sets is found under the list for Set dances.
|Single Jig||112-124||112-122||118 (CRN)|
In this chapter the different dances will be presented according to what time signature they belong to. There are as many ways to understanding and counting rhythm as there are people, the methods of counting presented in this chapter are suggestions only, based on the way the music is written. To get a hang of counting beats in music, I would suggest starting with a Reel that has a speed of approximately 120. If listening to the ticking of a clock and clapping once for every tick of a second, you will be clapping once for one bar. Now play the Reel and start clapping as you did just before when a step begins, you should end up getting 8 claps in a one-foot-step. Turn off the music and try clapping two times for every second on the clock and you will be clapping twice for every bar, you now clapping to the beats of the reel. Clapping 4 times for every second will signify clapping at every quarter note. Try these with music. For the first you should be getting 16 claps per one-foot-step and for the second 32 claps per one-foot-step.
For counting bold will be used to indicate an accent/beat in the music in the first examples. In the examples numbers are used, they can at any time be replaced with for example a DUM for an accented beat and da for any unaccented beats. In reel this would be replacing 1 2 3 4 with DUM da da da. For all these kinds of music, the main accent is on the first beat in each bar, there are additional accents but they are not as important as the main accent.
Reel and Hornpipe are written in 4/4 time signature. They are counted as 4 beats per bar, with one quarter note making up one beat. In spite of sharing time signature, hornpipes and reels differ substantially - as anyone who has tried to dance their reel to hornpipe will have noticed.
Reel is counted and written as 4 beats per bar, quarter notes as beat unit, and has a very easy pattern of rhythm to follow. The accent is on the first and third beat. Basic ways of counting reel, all of them are to be repeated eight times to count to a one-foot-step:
An example of Reel, Paddy Mill's Fancy (Irish Dancer by Bradley and Mckee, track 12):
Hornpipe is counted and written as 4 beats per bar, quarter notes as beat unit. It follows a pattern of having a streched first and third note in each bar, as opposed to the straight forward rhythm in reel. If Reel is 1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and, then Hornpipe would be 1-and 2-and 3-and 4-and. It gives a swinging feeling to the music, and Hornpipe is in other circles commonly known as sailor's dance. Basic ways of counting Hornpipe, all of them are to be repeated eight times to count to a one-foot-step:
An example of Hornpipe, Galway Bay (Sets and Solos 3 by Olive Hurley, track 3):
Double (Treble), Light Jig and Single Jig (Light and Single Jig also in 12/8 time signauture, see below) are counted and written in 6/8 time signature. They are counted as 2 beats per bar, 3 eight notes making up one beat. The first note in the pattern of three notes making up one beat is played stronger than the other 2 notes, so that even though there can be six eight notes per bar, only two (first and fourth beat) are usually significant and used for counting. The music used for Double Jig and Light Jig is written in the same time signature and pattern, the speeds for these vary to some extent.
Double Jig is played at a slow tempo for most purposes in dance, usually less than 100 bpm, and under 80 for advanced dancers. Double Jig is used exclusively for hard shoe for dancing purposes. It is counted as 2 beats per bar, 3 eight notes as a beat unit and has a fairly straight forward rhythmic pattern. Basic ways of counting Double Jig, all of these are to be repeated eight times for a one-foot-step:
An example of Double Jig, Planxty Irwin (Irish Dancer by Bradley and McKee, track 3):
Light Jig is played at a faster tempo than the double jig, with which it shares time signature. It is lively and bouncy, generally played at speeds above 110 bpm for dancing purposes, it is used exclusively for soft shoe for dancing purposes. It is counted as double jig, 2 beats per bar, 3 eight notes as a beat unit and has a fairly straight forward rhythmic pattern. Basic ways of counting Light Jig, all of these are to be repeated eight times for a one-foot-step:
An example of Light Jig, An Buachaillin Dreoite (Irish Dancer by Bradley and Mckee, track 13):
Single Jig is written in eight notes like all the other jigs, but it is the only one that moves in a distinct 4 beat pattern. This has given rise to it being written in both 6/8 or 12/8 time signature. I will explain both ways of counting, here in 6/8 and later for 12/8. Single Jig is counted as 2 beats per bar, 3 eight notes making up one beat. This way of writing results in 8 bars per one-foot step, just like the other kinds of music presented. Basic ways of counting Single Jig in 6/8 time, repeat 8 times for a one-foot-step:
An example of Single Jig, The Miller's Maggot (Gleanntán by Sliabh Notes, track 2):
The time signature 9/8 is used for almost exclusively for the soft shoe dance Slip Jig. It can on rare occasions also be used for hard shoe, for example the set dance Is The Big Man Within, which is 9/8 time for the first part (step) and 6/8 time for the second part (set). Slip Jig is a graceful dances, meant only for girls, and this is reflected in the the music. The music is flowing and swinging and to many it reminds them of a waltz. Slip jig is counted as 3 beats per bar, 3 eight notes making up one beat. Basic ways of counting Slip Jig, all for these are to be repeated eight time for a one-foot-step:
An example of Slip Jig, Countess Cathleen (e.g. Riverdance soundtrack):
Single Jig is to my knowledge the only kind of music used for Irish dance which is written in 12/8 time. It is counted as 4 beats per bar, 3 eight notes making up one beat. As it is written in 12/8, only 4 bars are needed to make up a one-foot-step, this should be kept in mind when counting. Basic ways of counting Single Jig, all these are to be repeated 4 times for a one-foot step:
An example of Single Jig in 12/8, Liz Kelly's (One more time by McKomiskey, Mulvihill and McLeod, track 13):
Single Jig and Hop Jig are the same dance(Knotwork's reply), they are written and played in either 6/8 or 12/8 time signature. For 6/8 time signature 8 bars are required for a one-foot-step, where as for 12/8 time signature only 4 bars are necessary. This dance is in most organizations a Grade dance - it is not used in Preliminary/Open/Ard level/grad competition. One exception is Cumann Rince Naisiunta where it is danced at all levels and is faster at Championship level. Well known tunes played at feisanna for competitions in this dance are Pop Goes The Weasel and Humpty Dumpty(lightfoot champ's reply).
The popularity of this dance has been dropping recently, over some years, an example is that it is not compulsory to offer this dance at feisanna under the North American Feis Commission - they are associated with An Coimisuin le Rinci Gaelacha. In feisanna run under the auspice of CRN it is used at all levels, as stated above.
This next chapter deals with the concept of hop jig in music. Musicians define a hop jig as a tune played in 9/8 time signature - not to be mixed up with the slip jig which is also in 9/8 time signature. There is a very clear difference between these two, when one knows what to look for, especially when looking at the notes. The rhythm of hop jig can be interpreted by singing Humpty-Dumpty-Dumpty, where as slip jig would be Humpity-Dumpity-Dumpity(fiddletune's reply).
Starting with the slip jig, which has been introduced earlier, it is written in groups of three eight notes, occasionally having a group containing a quarter note coupled with an eight note.In my example, Drops of Brandy, in bars number 4, 8, 12 and 16 there is an occurrence of the quarter-note + eight note occurrence. Please note that this is a very simplified version of a slip jig, the norm is that more quarter-eight couples occur, but this was a great example:
An example of Slip Jig, Drops of Brandy:
Another example of Slip Jig, Down in Abbey:
Other examples of slip jig are:
These are courtesy of The Session.
In the hop jig (9/8) the main emphasis is on the quarter note + eight note couples, the prevalence of groups of three eight notes is significantly lower than in slip jig. In my example, Cucanandy (As Pat Came Over The Hill), in the bars number 4, 8, 11, 12 and 16 there is an occurrence of a group of three eight notes:
An example of Hop Jig, Cucanandy:
Another example of Hop Jig, The Butterfly (Sets and Solos 5 by Olive Hurley, track 3):
Other examples of hop jigs are:
These were found on The Session and stated in a discussion as being hop jigs, as opposed to slip jigs. There are different interpretations of these tunes, so sometimes a tune may be played and written as both slip jig and hop jig . It is certainly possible to dance a slip jig to both types of music, the feel is just a bit different - an example would be to dance the reel to polka, certainly possible but interesting. Also, how a song/tune is played greatly influences how it is perceived by the listener. Therefore the very popular The Butterfly can be used to dance a Slip Jig to, if played in a Slip Jig way (and only dancers understand what I am getting at here, I think). There is also the matter of how and when a song/tune has been written down - and by whom - so the written versions of songs/tunes vary greatly from one version to the other. Taking into account how much folk musicians "play" with the tunes when plaing - there as endless possibilities for variotion. Which is not a bad thing at all.
The set music used today by Irish dancers has its roots in historical Ireland. There are several now famous composers and musicians who contributed this list of tunes. In addition to the tunes used by dancers for sets at competition and performance, there are hundreds of tunes that are of historical nature and are still in existence. Most tunes have several names and it only adds to the confusion that several tunes can share the same name. There are several excellent websites devoted to compiling lists of all the tunes used in traditional Irish music, two examples are A Fiddler's guide and The Session.
This list presented is based on a list of set tunes published by An Coimisuin le Rinci Gaelacha (CLRG) to be used at The World Championships, it contains 38 tunes and also the minimum speed they must be performed at. Of these five to eight (depending on organization) are considered to be Traditional Sets and are performed in the Traditional Set competition (or as Set for Championship competition for younger dancers), where all of these 38 can be used for choreographing an Open/Modern Set. (The list of Traditional Sets is gathered from CRN, CRLG, WIDA and NAFC and does not reflect the requirements for the CRLG World Championships as such.) These Open Sets are performed by more advanced dancers, in An Coimisuin competitions usually as part of Preliminary/Open/Ard Grad Championship. The sets are divided into roughly half being Hornpipe and the other half Double/Treble Jig (Jig) – the set Is the Big Man Within is an exception and is written in 9/8 time for the step and 6/8 (Jig) time for the set. The number of bars in the step part (norm being 8) and set (norm being 16) varies quite much according to the tune in question. In the list the following things are listed: time signature, number of bars in Step, number of bars in Set, total number of bars and minimum tempo (bpm). Those written in italics are New Sets, can be used in competition but are not included (as of today) in the Music Theory section of the TCRG exam.
|Name||Time signature||Minimum bpm||Bars in Step||Bars in Set||Total Bars||Traditional Set|
|The Lodge Road||2/4||76||8||20||36|
|Downfall of Paris||2/4||76||8||16||32|
|King of the Fairies||2/4||80||8||16||32||YES|
|The Ace & Deuce of Pipering||4/4||76||12||12||36|
|Garden of Daisies||4/4||76||8||16||32||YES|
|Job of Journeywork||4/4||76||8||14||30||YES|
|The Roving Pedlar||4/4||76||8||14||30|
|The Piper through the Meadow Straying||4/4||76||8||12||28|
|The Four Masters||4/4||76||8||12||28|
|The Blue Eyed Rascal||4/4||76||8||12||28|
|Name||Time signature||Minimum bpm||Bars in Step||Bars in Set||Total Bars||Traditional Set|
|The Three Sea Captains||6/8||66||8||20||36||YES|
|The Deep Green Pool||6/8||69||8||20||36|
|The Orange Rouge||6/8||69||8||16||32|
|Miss Brown's Fancy||6/8||69||8||16||32|
|Hurry the Jug||6/8||69||8||16||32|
|Humours of Bandon||6/8||69||8||16||32|
|The Wandering Musician||6/8||69||8||16||32|
|The Hurling Boys||6/8||69||8||14||30|
|St Patrick's Day||6/8||92||8||14||30||YES|
|Rub the Bag||6/8||66||8||14||30|
|Jockey to the Fair||6/8||69||8||14||30||YES|
|The Fiddler 'Round the Fairy Tree||6/8||69||8||12||28|
|The Spring of Shellelah||6/8||69||6||10||22|
|Name||Time signature||Minimum bpm||Bars in Step||Bars in Set||Total Bars|
|Is the Big Man Within||9/8 + 6/8||69||8||8||24|
|Name||Time signature||Average bpm||Bars in Step||Bars in Set||Total Bars|
|King of the Fairies||2/4||124-130||8||16||32|
|Garden of Daisies||4/4||138||8||16||32|
|Job of Journeywork||4/4||138||8||14||30|
|The Three Sea Captains||6/8||96||8||20||36|
|St Patrick's Day||6/8||92-96||8||14||30|
|Jockey to the Fair||6/8||90||8||14||30|
There are a number of different instruments used for playing traditional Irish music. One of the most common is a fiddle, or violin. The fiddle has a very prominent place in Irish music, together with the accordion they are the most popular instruments. Flutes and whistles are also an integral part of playing Irish music - both wooden and metallic are used. The Uilleann pipes are a traditional Irish intrument and 'are among the most complex forms of bagpipes(Article on Music of Ireland). They are a prominent part of instrumental music called Fonn Mall. The Irish harp is making a return in the instrumental scene to where it belongs, some of the most famous irish tunes were composed by harpists - notably the blind Turlough Carolan who lived in the 18th century. Piano is also used, particularly in recordings, but the electronic version of a piano (synthesizer etc) is more convenient for feis and other events. The bodhrán frame drum is very characteristic to modern Irish traditional music, as well as the guitar which is used rather frequently at sessions.
Article on Music theory on Wikipedia
Article on Time signature on Wikipedia
Article on Music of Ireland on Wikipedia
Article on Irish Dance on Wikipedia
Article on Irish Dance on Wikipedia
Article on Music on Wikipedia
Article on Musical Notation on Wikipedia
Paddy Mill's Fancy on The Session
Galway Bay on The Session
Planxty Irwin on The Session
An Buachaillin Dreoite on The Session
The Milliner's Maggot on The Session
The Butterfly on The Session
Liz Kelly's on The Session
Rhythm discussion on Irishtune
TCRG Exam Study Material on tcrgexam.9k.com
List of Set Dances on tcrgexam.9k.com
List of Tempo at CRN on Diochra
List of Tempo at NAFC on Diochra
Syllabus for All Irelands and Worlds on CLRG website
Knotwork's reply on the post discussing hop jig on Dance.net/irish
lightfoot champ's reply on the post discussing hop jig on Dance.net/irish
fiddletune's reply on the post discussing hop jig on Dance.net/irish
Discussion on Hop Jigs on The Session
Discussion on Hop Jigs 2 on The Session
I would be grateful for any comments and corrections to my article. I have gathered this information from various sources and tried to make sense of it all using my knowledge and experience from studying music theory and playing music. I am not claiming to be an expert on Irish music or teaching music theory, this was a learning experience for me too. Please let me know if some parts do not make sense at all to you, if the post should be split up into several smaller posts or if something is just plain wrong. Any reproduction or use without permission from author is prohibited.
TeaShark - I love my Tea and I love my Sherman's Lagoon - that Shark rules :)