Suggested Learning Order Of Irish Traditional Tune Types

Learning music is hard, man! So when I have a beginner student, my biggest challenge to incentivising them to practice. My experience is that for 99% of the humans I teach, ensemble music-making is the most effective incentive for getting them to practice. In Irish traditional music, this translates into: how can I get them into a trad session ASAP? 

For me, the biggest challenge within that is getting a student to be able to play a tune at conventional tempo. So what is conventional tempo for the various Irish traditional tune types?

Traditional music sessions vary according to region, venue, day, time and musicians, but the baseline is that Irish traditional music is dance music. So if we take samples of musicians dancing for dancers, we’ll have a pretty good indication of 

a) the foundation upon which the instrumental tradition is based, and therefore the likely tempi for a group of Irish traditional musicians 

b) what tempo instrumentalists should aspire to … coz let’s be honest, this is dance music. It’d be pretty ridiculous if a dancer walked into a pub and the musicians couldn’t play for them. 

With all that in mind, I recorded the tempo, beat-by-beat, of performances of musicians performing various dance types for live dancers. I got the average BPM of a tune type. I then looked at the sheet music of the tune type and chose the shortest common note duration – e.g. a hornpipe is notated in 2/2, but it’s actually played with a heavy swing, so has a high frequency of semiquavers. So for a student to play a hornpipe in a session, they have to be able to execute semiquavers at session tempo. I then translated this shortest common note duration into milliseconds, to facilitate comparison of all the tune types in Irish traditional music. Here are my findings. 

Tune typeMeterBPMShortest Common Note DurationDuration Of Shortest Common Note / Ms
March4/4Crotchet = 118 BPMQuaver254 ms
Set Dance - Jig6/8Dotted crotchet = 94 BPMQuaver213 ms
Mazurka3/4Crotchet = 174 BPMQuaver173 ms
Waltz3/4Crotchet = 176 BPMSemiquaver170 ms
Single Jig6/8Dotted crotchet =126 BPMQuaver159 ms
Double Polka2/4Crotchet = 101 BPMSemiquaver149 ms
Schottische2/2Minim = 103 BPMQuaver146 ms
Heavy Jig6/8Dotted crotchet = 73 BPMSemiquaver137 ms
Single Reel2/4Minim = 116 BPMQuaver129 ms
Slide12/8Dotted crotchet =168 BPMQuaver119 ms
Hop Jig9/8Dotted crotchet =192 BPMQuaver104 ms
German2/2Minim = 100 BPMTriplet100 ms
Set Dance – Hornpipe2/2Minim = 76 BPMSemiquaver99 ms
Single Polka2/4Crotchet = 162 BPMSemiquaver93 ms
Barndance2/2Minim = 90 bpmSemiquaver83 ms
Highland2/2Minim = 90 bpmSemiquaver83 ms
Strathspey2/2Minim = 90 bpmSemiquaver83 ms
Slip Jig9/8Dotted crotchet =125 BPMSemiquaver80 ms
Double Jig6/8Dotted crotchet = 129 BPMSemiquaver78 ms
Fling2/2Minim = 106 BPMSemiquaver71 ms
Hornpipe2/2Minim = 105 BPMSemiquaver71 ms
Reel2/2Minim = 126 BPMSemiquaver60 ms

So, if you’re learning Irish traditional music, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by starting off with reels. I suspect that if you learn tunes in this order your life will be easier, and more enjoyable!

  1. Instrumental versions of songs.
  2. Marches
  3. Set dances – jig
  4. Mazurkas and waltzes
  5. Double polkas, Schottisches
  6. Single reels
  7. Slides
  8. Hop jigs, Germans, Set Dances – hornpipes
  9. Single polkas
  10. Barndances, Highlands, Strathspeys, Slip jigs, Double jigs
  11. Flings, Hornpipes
  12. Reels

Go n-éirí leat!