Notes from an Attic

Celtic Music
It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing
Much of Irish traditional music (aka ITM, aka Celtic music) is played with a slightly dotted rhythm: tum-ty, tum-ty. However, this rhythm is not usually written into the music scores – i.e. on paper the notes are all given even stress. The important thing is to listen to how these tunes are played in practice and adjust your style of playing accordingly.
A useful reference about ITM tunes:

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Types of tunes in ITM
The history of most traditional music around the world is closely connected with dance, and this is particularly true of ITM. The most commonly played tune types are:
jig, reel, slip jig, hornpipe polka, slide, waltz, mazurka and strathspey
Click here to find out more about these various tune types in ITM.

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ITM music is closely associated with dance

Background info on musical notation
About music notation
Notes in written music are arranged into segments known as bars (or measures). The number of notes in each bar and their duration are what determine the time signature and this is written, as 4/4, 6/8 and so on. For example, the time signature of a jig (shown above) is written as 6/8. The 8 refers to the duration of the notes (8 refers to eighths, or quavers) and the 6 tells you that there are six of these notes in each bar.
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A jig in 6/8 time

Some FAQs about Irish Traditional Music (ITM)
What are the main types of tunes in ITM?
The two most common types of tune in ITM are the ones listed here – reels and jigs. Other types include:
slip jigs,
mazurkas, and
strathspeys (a Scottish musical style)

For an explanation of these nine musical styles and to hear an audio example of each, click here.

Is it better to play by ear or from sheet music?
Playing with or without written music is often a point of disputation in ITM. On the one hand, some musicians choose to turn up to sessions with their music stand and sheets of printed music. On the other, purists suggest that using printed music in any context is an insult to the oral tradition of ITM.
My own view is that there is a place for printed music but that place is probably not during performance – particularly in a busy pub session where there is barely room to get out your penny whistle without knocking over someone's beer. Ten music stands? Well that's a whole different order of obstacles to trip over.
I do use music scores a lot (actually on my iPad) but only for learning new tunes on my own, at home. Once I've got the tune down, I put the score away and work on getting it up to speed and with a nice intonation. When it comes to playing with others, I would not bring sheet music to the party – I dare to go bare!
How do I go about finding other people to play with?
If at all possible, it's a good idea to find other musicians to play with. Not only is this the best way to learn new tunes, improve your skills and exchange information about ITM but it's also great fun to play with others. Many towns in all corners of the world hold regular Irish 'sessions' – usually in a pub with an Irish connection. If you don't know whether there is one near you, use the link below and type in your town:

Alternatively try this link:
Where can I find a good source of tunes?
There are a number of excellent music sites that provide sources of Irish music. Here are four.
1. The Session
This is a source that I use regularly. It provides:
* the music notation for hundreds of tunes, updated daily,
* engaging discussions about ITM-related issues,
* updates about recordings of ITM,
* information about music sessions and events around the world.

2. Nigel Gatherer's traditional music site – lots of tunes and info about ITM.

3.The Irish Traditional Tune Index – Alan Ng's tunography.

4. Cape Irish – Bill Black's Irish music site with over 9000 tunes.
What are the most commonly played instruments in ITM?
The most common 'traditional instruments associated with ITM are:
fiddle, tin whistle, uilleann pipes, Flute (keyless), accordion, harp, bodhrán, bones

There are a number of other more modern instruments often brought along to music sessions, including:
mandolin, banjo, guitar, keyboard, concertina, bouzouki

Useful link:

What recordings should I listen to?
There is no right answer to this question as it depends on your preferences. Fans of ITM break into two broad groups:
(a) Traditionalists who prefer the music to sound as much as possible like how it was in the past. Their focus is very much on the melody without accompanying harmony (no guitars or electrified instruments, please!) There's also considerable attention to ornamentation – sometimes referred to as adding 'grace notes' or 'decoration'.
Here are some of the most common decorations used in ITM:
triplets, cuts, taps, pats, rolls and crans.
You'll find a helpful explanation of these ornaments here:

(b) Modernists who enjoy the fusion of ITM with popular music and varied styles of accompaniment. There are no rules with contemporary ITM – musicians may take a traditional tune and give it a new twist. Alternatively, they may write their own tunes and arrange them in ways that incorporate features of other musical styles. In fact, there's now so much cross-over between ITM and the contemporary music of Scotland, Nova Scotia, Brittany and elsewhere that it would be inappropriate to restrict this category to just Irish musicians. So, two of the suggestions below (marked with *) are actually of Scottish extraction.

Here are five sources of excellent recordings for each of these groups.

(a) Recordings for traditionalists
Kevin Burke
Patrick Street band
Donal Lunny
The Chieftains
The Bothy Band

(b) Recordings for modernists
Brian Finnegan (Brian also performs with Kan and Flook)
Liz Carroll (based in Chicago)
*John McCusker
*Alasdair Fraser

Why do Irish musicians play so fast?
Speed of playing ITM is a matter of personal taste. My own recordings that I've included on the 'Playing Music' page are on the slow side. Those in the category SLOW were recorded at 120 beats per minute and are provided just for learning the tunes. The tunes in the FASTER category section are at 175 bpm – still slower than you're likely to hear on recordings or at many pub sessions but fast enough, I think, to get a good feel for the tunes and rhythm.

The choice of how fast ITM tunes should be played is a big area of contention. This topic has been much discussed and at The Session website was the subject of an entertaining exchange of views here.
Below I've listed a few of the views expressed.
* different dance styles require different tempos
* it depends on what the dancers want. We play dance music; and I watch the dancers to see how they are reacting to the tempos. Then, at session, we tend to play the same speed as if it were at a dance (depending on who starts the tune, of course).
* you’ll often hear a good musician playing at what sounds sound like a nice easy tempo but in fact they’re playing pretty quick because their timing and technique are good.
* … because they can.
* … to get to the bar quicker.
* bad playing sounds better speeded up. Slow down, and every note has to be just right.
* perhaps because technical "mechanical" brilliance is much easier to attain than aesthetic sense and style.
* I think that many musicians play fast because it’s expected of them, and because when performing for people with a limited knowledge of traditional Irish music.
* some musicians play fast because they’re young and male and stretching the boundaries of their abilities. Some people might interpret this as ‘showing off’.
A lot of tunes don't sound as they are written. I seem to hear a more syncopated rhythm.
As was explained at the top of this page, much of Irish music is played with a slightly dotted rhythm. However, translating this 'tum-ty, tum-ty' rhythm into written notation is a bit of a chore and can make the musical score look rather complicated and off-putting to musicians who don't read musical notation confidently. As a result, a convention has been adopted that for tunes like jigs, reels and hornpipes, the written notation ignores the dots and it is left to the player to put underlying the dotted rhythm in for themselves.
For an interesting exchange of views on this question, you might like to have a look at "The Jiggety Jig Rhythm" on The Session.
What's a 'capo' and why might a guitarist use one?
A capo is a gadget that clamps down across the guitar's fingerboard at a particular fret position. This effectively shortens the length of all the strings at the same time so all the “open” strings now play in higher pitches than they did without the capo.
The reason that guitarists often use a capo is that chord positions are easier in some keys than others. So, supposing you want to play a tune in, say, the tricky key of Eb, it is easier to place the capo on the first fret and play the chords corresponding to the easier key of D (one semitone lower than Eb).
Alternatively, as shown in the picture, place the capo on the third fret and play the chords corresponding to the equally easy key of C (three semitones lower than Eb).
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a 'capo' placed on the 3rd fret.

What is Sean-nós singing?
Sean-nós singing
Sean nós, which means "old style”, is a style of singing handed down orally over hundreds of years. Here are its main features.
* The words, which are of course in Gaelic, were considered to be more important than the melody, which restricts its full appreciation for non Gaelic speakers!
* Songs were performed unaccompanied by a single singer at events like wakes and weddings.
* The style of singing is highly ornamented and improvised, so no song is ever sung the same way twice.
* The themes were usually about local events such as boating tragedies or the death of an important member of the community.
* Sean-nós can include made-up words (aka non-lexical vocables), such as "diddly die-dely". This is referred to as 'lilting' and the practice may have contributed to the use of the term 'diddly diddly' to refer to ITM in general.

You can find examples of Sean-nós singing here at the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA).