Irish Music: Definitions

14 April 2007, 12:04 PM GMT

Irish Music: Definitions

It can be tricky to pin down an absolute definition for Irish Traditional Music. Like any art form, it will mean different things to different people. For some, it’s a relaxing set of jigs or reels at the end of a long day. For another, it’s the background rhythm behind a set or céilí dance. Another person might remember a Sean Nós song sung by his grandmother. For others, unfortunately, it’s that annoying group of musicians in the corner distracting from the match on the telly!

We recently ran across a short definition from our former Tímre Cheoil, Séamus MacMathúna:

Irish traditional music comes in two forms, vocal and instrumental. The latter is mostly dance music — reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas, set dances, mazurkas — the remainder being marches, slow airs (usually song tunes) and planxties (harpers’ pieces which have survived from the 17th or 18th centuries).  These tunes have various origins, but it is possible to state generally that they were mostly composed in the 18th and 19th centuries, that they were passed down aurally through generations of-music makers and that practitioners of the art of traditional music share a common approach and set of techniques in their interpretation of this music. 

Within this common approach there are standards — accepted by performers and enlightened listeners — by which one judges a musician’s ability to interpret, rework and refurbish the old tunes, through the use of various forms of ornamentation and of melodic and rhythmic variation.  These variations and ornamentations are generally minor, involving just a few notes in a particular phrase of a tune; yet when executed with skill and subtlety they can show a considerable level of imagination and even creativity.  One is more likely to find this kind of performance where music is played for listening, rather than where the dance tunes are “belted out” for the set, but even in the latter case the musician will usually try to give the tunes that little bit extra in rhythm (called “lift” or “swing” in traditional music) which will add extra zest to the dancing.

What do you think? Comments welcome below!

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