My favourite article on the complex subject of Irish music forms is written by Alan Ng: https://www.irishtune.info/rhythm/ . I also find the Companion To Irish Traditional Music, edited by Fintan Vallely, very helpful. Here I synthesize information from both sources, and add my own thoughts and examples.
Alan Ng starts with some useful definitions. Instead of using the word ‘beat’, he uses the word ‘group’ to describe ‘a sequence of notes whose first note is synchronized with the (main) tap of the musician’s foot in a traditional performance.’
‘Heavy-light pair’ is his term for an uneven pair of notes, the first of which is both stronger and longer than the second. So with that established, now let’s get started…
Two groups of four notes each, adding up to an 8-note bar. Within each group there are two heavy-light pairs. Reels are conventionally notated in 4/4, but Alan notates them in 2/2, which I am in agreement with. Note: reels, more than any other Irish dance type, can have unconventional forms. 44% of the reels Alan has indexed differ from the typical AABB Irish traditional dance tune format.
A rare type of tune, the single reel is a typical reel, except with a frequent substitution of a held note for a heavy-light pair, especially on strong beats. Another description is ‘a march-like polka’. Single reels are usually notated in 2/4.
In West Cork there’s a particular dance called a ‘Jenny’, e.g. the Borlin Jenny, collected from Bantry Bay. Specific single reels are played for ‘Jenny’ dances. These tunes don’t have individual tune names, they’re just collectively referred to as ‘Jenny tunes‘. They’re a march-like polka; I hear them as being in 2/4.
Two groups of four notes each, adding up to an 8-note bar. BUT …
- they are played more slowly than reels
- there is more uneven distribution within the heavy-light pairs, e.g. they sound more ‘swung’ or ‘dotted’
- there is more frequent substitution of triplets for some heavy-light pairs
- they have tendencies towards certain melodic structures
- One common melodic pattern is to end the part with three accented crotchets
Hornpipes are conventionally notated in 2/2.
There are lots of types of jig in Irish music. When people say the word ‘jig’ on its own, they usually mean a ‘double jig’.
A double jig has two groups of three notes each, adding up to a 6-note bar. It’s customarily notated in 6/8. The first note of each group is played longer and stronger than the following pair of shorter notes, giving something like “dotted quaver – semiquaver – quaver.” The final bar often ends in a crotchet. Also known as ‘jig’. Amongst competitive Irish step dancers, a ‘double jig’ is termed a ‘light jig’.
This term exists only among competitive Irish step dancers. It’s their name for a “double jig”.
A style of playing double jigs which is unique to modern competitive step dancing. A ‘heavy jig’ is a conventional double jig, notated as 6/8, BUT…
- it’s played with two groups of precisely equally spaced three notes each
- it’s played significantly slower than a double jig. The tune is played slowly for advanced dancers, e.g. 73 BPM, and faster for beginners, e.g. 92 BPM. At 73 BPM a quaver lasts 411 milliseconds; at 92 BPM a quaver lasts 326 milliseconds.
- Heavy jigs have occasional rhythmic subdivisions of each quaver into precisely spaced fourths, e.g. two semiquavers followed by a quaver.
As Alan points out: “Only some double jigs work well as heavy jigs. Each musician will have to experiment and practice to determine which of his or her double jigs he or she finds comfortable playing as a heavy jig. I recommend that the best way for musicians to learn this rhythm is to practice playing for Irish step dancers who are very good and confident at dancing heavy jigs.” Also known as a ‘treble jig’.
an alternative name for the heavy jig.
A single jig is two groups of three notes each, adding up to a 6-note bar, but with a high frequency of heavy-light pairs of crotchet-quaver, where a double jig would have the jig pattern. It’s usually notated in 6/8, and sometimes notated in 12/8. (Alan Ng notates single jigs in 6/8). Alan observes that single jigs can be notated as hornpipes, and even reels, and that on paper, it’s easy to confuse single jigs with slides. He also notes that a lot of session musicians are not familiar with slides or single jigs, and that single jigs are usually heard in the step dancing tradition.
The Donncha Lynch Trio recorded the single jig ‘The Hag At The Churn’ in the album ‘The Magic Of Irish Set Dancing Vol. 6’… you can hear 12 seconds of it here: https://www.irishtune.info/tune/787/
A slide is four groups of three notes each, adding up to a 12-note bar, with a high frequency of heavy-light pairs (very close to a crotchet, quaver pattern) and precisely equally spaced three notes (not a jig pattern). There tends to be more heavy-light pairs than the groupings of precisely equally spaced three notes. Most slides break this rhythmic pattern once or twice in a tune by delaying the strong note for a bar’s second group until that group’s second half. In essence, it’s a very fast single jig. Slides used to be notated in 6/8, but are now usually notated in 12/8. Although Alan Ng agrees that 12/8 is more accurate, he notates them in 6/8 because that’s how set dancers count them. Slides are played very fast: usually with the dotted crotchet at 150 BPM, so each quaver lasting 133 milliseconds. Slides are peculiar to the southwest of Ireland. According to Breandán Breathnach, a jig ends with a three-quaver group followed by a crotchet, where a slide ends with two dotted crotchets. If that all sounds too mathematical, try this rhyme, invented by amazing poet Ciaran Carson, which apparently goes along with slides: “blah dithery dump a doodle scattery idle fortunoodle”
A slipjig, in its general sense, is a dance tune notated in 9/8. Some call all 9/8 dances a slipjig. However, there are 2 distinct rhythmic styles within Irish 9/8 dances. In summary: a hop jig sounds like ‘Humpty-Dumpty-Dumpty’, whereas a slip jig sounds like ‘Humpity-Dumpity-Dumpity’. Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the two types…
a) A 9/8 tune played slower, for step dances, as three groups per bar, most of which are a ‘jig pattern’. Myself and Alan Ng call this a ‘slip jig’. In the Companion To Irish Traditional Music, this is termed a ‘jig type’ 9/8 tune.
b) A 9/8 tune where the notes are played quickly as one group per bar, with more crotchet-quaver, heavy-light pairs than jig patterns. Similar to single jigs; found in the playing of Michael Coleman. In the Companion To Irish Traditional Music, this is termed a ‘swing type’ 9/8 tune. Myself and Alan Ng call this a ‘hop jig’.
This writer cannily notes that both a slip jig and hop jig have crotchet-quaver patterns plus jig patterns; figuring out whether a 9/8 tune is a slip jig or a hop jig depends on the frequency. In the 9/8 tune ‘Drops of Brandy’, 45 of the 48 beats are jig patterns , whereas only 3 of the 48 beats are crotchet-quaver patterns – so this tune is obviously a slip jig.
A set dance is a particular tune, in either a hornpipe or jig rhythm, which has a corresponding solo step dance choreography. There are at least 40 of these tunes in the Irish tradition. Set dances …
- are in 2/4, 4/4, or 6/8 time. Half of all set dances are in duple time, half are in compound time. My experience is that set dances are played slightly more evenly than a typical hornpipe or jig.
- are longer than typical Irish dance tunes. Irish traditional dance tunes usually have 2 parts of 8 bars each. However, out of the 40 core set dances, 39 of them have at least one part that is longer than 8 bars.
- tend to have asymmetrical form, e.g. the B part of the tune is longer than the A part. 34 of the 40 set dances have a B part that is longer than the A part.
Be warned: a ‘set dance’ can also be called a “set piece”; is sometimes mislabelled as a “long dance”; and ‘set dances’ as described here are not a part of the Irish dance genre of social dancing known as ‘set dancing’.
The most common type of polka, notated in 2/4, from Sliabh Luachra. Also known as a ‘simple polka’.
A march-like polka, also notated in 2/4, associated with the playing of John McKenna and the music of North Connacht. Also known as a ‘North Connacht Polka’, ‘Sligo polka’, or ‘Clare polka’.
A tune type which came from Scotland to Donegal, where it’s most commonly played in Ireland. Strathspeys have 4 beats in each bar, with each beat of the bar being accented, and have lots of dotted rhythms. In particular they often feature the ‘Scotch snap’ – a syncopated rhythm where a short, accented note is followed by a longer one, generally a semiquaver followed by a dotted quaver. They often have triplet passages near the end of parts.
a tune-type with four beats in a bar, with the accent on the first beat of the bar. The first beat of the bar is usually a crotchet. Highlands are played more slowly than a reel, and are characterised by subtly dotted rhythms, giving them their own unique ‘swing’. If a highland sounds familiar, you’re not going mad… it’s common for popular reels and strathspeys to be converted into this style of playing, and thus a lot of highlands are based on well-known Scottish strathspey melodies. Caoimhín Mac Aoidh notes of this practice ‘Extended strings of triplets which occur in parent strathspeys are often simplified but not totally eliminated.’ Highlands are mainly found in the Donegal fiddle music tradition. Be warned – the terminology around this tune-type and its accompanying dance is quite confusing: within Ulster, the dance to a highland is called a ‘highland schottische’. Outside of Ulster, this dance is more commonly called a ‘fling’ or a ‘schottische’.
A dance and tune-type which originated in Bavaria in the 1800s, and was then co-opted by the Irish. It’s originally in 2/4 time, but is played more slowly in the Irish tradition, as if it’s in 2/2. To the ear, it sounds like a highland, except with more crotchets.
Like a reel, except slower, in cut time, and with a dotted rhythm. The term is derived from the Scottish phrase ‘highland fling’, which is the national dance of Scotland.
Barndances have four beats in each bar, with a strong emphasis on the final two crotchets in either the first, fourth or eighth bars of each part of the tune. Also known as a ‘onestep’.
a type of barndance found in the north of Ireland. Generally referred to by their tune-type, not individual name. Also known as ‘German schottische’. Each eight-bar phrase ends with three lightly-accented crotchets.
A dance form from continental Europe in 3/4 time, with the emphasis on the first beat in the bar. Historically considered indecent: a pamphlet from the 1797 cites the waltz as ‘the main source of the weakness of the body and mind of our generation’. ! The Irish must have dispensed with such qualms, as it’s been absorbed into our musical tradition. However, Alan Ng points out that ‘as waltzing is a relatively recent introduction into the Irish tradition, there are very few native Irish waltzes’. It’s common for Irish traditional musicians to convert traditional pieces, airs, marches and songs into waltz form as required – say, for example, at a céilí. Alan wryly observes ‘most of the genuine waltzes … are directly and knowingly imported from other cultures by Irish musicians looking for better waltzes.’!
A dance in 3/4 with an accent on the second beat. The mazurka originated in Poland, and spread over Europe in the 1800s, both as tunes and as a dance form. Mazurkas spread to Ireland in the mid-1800s, and are particularly common in county Donegal, where there are at least 17 distinct Irish traditional mazurka melodies.
Marches are most commonly in 2/4, 4/4 or 6/8, but can also be in 9/8 or 3/4. It’s about the style of playing rather than the meter: marches are designed to speed up your travel, celebrate victory, or commemorate death or defeat. So if it’s a slow tempo, played with a strong rhythm, and gives you one of those feels, it’s probably a march. These days, you’re most likely to hear a march or two at a céilí, rather than a session. Marches are one of the most ancient music forms, so the old marches are fonts of ethnomusicological interest, and well worth checking out. Some interesting examples are…
O’Donovan’s March 3/4
O’Sullivan More’s March 3/4
Allisdrum’s March 6/8
The Triumphal 4/4
Shanghai March 4/4
an instrumental piece which is not an air, not for dancing, and not for singing.
a piece of music, with lyrics, sung by a singer.
An instrumental version of a song.