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Mikefule

Hornpipe and polka rhythms?

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Hi folks.  I described a tune as a "hornpipe" to someone yesterday and he was most insistent that it was a polka.  As he was a far more experienced musician and more knowledgeably folky than myself, I assume he was right.

 

I had identified the tune as a hornpipe, apparently incorrectly, because it is in a fairly heavily accented 4/4 time, with a heavy stress on the 3rd beat, has one short sequence of notes that reminds me of a well known hornpipe, and ends with 3 crotchets, tum - tee - tum!

 

I'm familiar with normal music theory in terms of bars, beats, time signatures and note lengths well enough to write a tune down, or to learn a simple tune reasonably quickly from the dots alone.  However, my background in music, pre-concertina, is listening to rock and roll and dancing the Morris, so the exact distinctions between some of the folk dance rhythms is not ingrained in me.

 

Where I get lost is those folk tunes that seem to me to stray somewhere between a 1 2 3 4 count and a 1 & 2 & count, and which are played differently according to whether it is a solo musician or the dreaded "Hohner wall of sound".

 

So, I am completely happy with what a jig is, or a waltz.  I understand what 2/2, 2/4, 4/4, 6/8, 3/4, and even 9/8 mean, and could describe 5/4 in theory if not play it in practice, but my problem is understanding those nuances that make one tune a polka, another a hornpipe, and another a reel, when those last 3 types could all be written with the same time signature.

 

Who can elucidate?  Thanks.

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Well, I'll try but it's a difficult issue because many of the dances that go with these tunes are rarely performed anymore.  Perhaps the best way to parse it out is to find an example of the dance being done either live or on u-tube.  On this side of the pond at least, everything is played way too fast for the original dances.  When we play for a contra dance it could be jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas and/or marches but all played up to speed and rather "ironed out".  To my mind, a hornpipe played for it's dance has a very dotted rhythm that verges on jig time.  The first and third notes drag out with the second and fourth clipped.  It's like a jig in double time with the middle note left out.  A hornpipe is also very "notey" compared to a polka with the embedded mini jig sometimes expressed as a run.  To add to the confusion, some hornpipes are amenable to being sped up and some are not.  "Fishers" doesn't seem to mind being played as a reel but "Boys Of Blue Hill" won't tolerate it.

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That's exactly my problem.  I hear these tunes played in a pub session environment where speed is often prioritised over accuracy and nuance.

 

When a hornpipe is played slowly, I know it can be identified by how readily you can decorate it with occasional triplets (Tum tum-ty | Tum tum | tumty tiddly | tumpty tum...)

 

When they're all played fast and smooth, with very little dotting or emphasis, I really struggle to know which is which.

Edited by Mikefule

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1 hour ago, Mikefule said:

That's exactly my problem.  I hear these tunes played in a pub session environment where speed is often prioritised over accuracy and nuance.

 

When a hornpipe is played slowly, I know it can be identified by how readily you can decorate it with occasional triplets (Tum tum-ty | Tum tum | tumty tiddly | tumpty tum...)

 

When they're all played fast and smooth, with very little dotting or emphasis, I really struggle to know which is which.

 Maybe you need a third opinion.  What was the name of the tune?  Most tunes can be found in the literature or on line with the designation of type, however there's an argument to be made that if it's played as a reel or polka then that's what it is at the time.  If you're going by how the tune sounds in a particular setting it can be difficult to make a general determination.  I'm curious as to why your friend (hopefully) thought the tune a polka.  Many of us dance musicians get around this problem by dropping the designation from the name of the tune as I did above with "Fishers" (hornpipe).

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Well, yes, it is possible to play a tune in different ways.  For example, there are some 4/4 or 2/4 tunes that can easily be converted to 6/8.  One of my Morris friends delights in taking simple 4/4 tunes and converting them to waltzes and even to 5/4.

 

Thing is, if I want a particular tune, written in straight 4/4 or 2/4 to come out like either a polka or a hornpipe, I need to feel clear in  my mind what a polka or hornpipe should sound like.

 

The furthest I've got by observation and inference is that hornpipes should make me want to do a heavy footed one-hop two-hop step and polkas should make me want to do a lighter 123-hop.  The "tiddle-iddle om pom pom" hornpipe ending is apparently less diagnostic than I had thought.

 

I am reassured by the Mudcat thread that shows I'm not the only one who has struggled with this question.  These rhythms are no longer part of the wider culture around me, but merely something within the community of folk enthusiasts, so I haven't grown up knowing the difference. (Indeed, some would say that I haven't grown up.)

 

For those who think it should be obvious, put yourself in the position of defining the differences between rockabilly and rock 'n' roll.  The song Blue Suede shoes can be rock and roll (Elvis) or rockabilly (Carl) but the two styles, although similar, are different things.

 

 

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This thread seems to be revolving around the classification of a tune as a hornpipe or a polka.

 

There was a thread on melodeon.net a while back which sort of ties in with this discussion. It dealt largely

with 3/2 hornpipes (http://forum.melodeon.net/index.php/topic,22817.msg273200.html#msg273200).

 

My question here is: I've now found a tune which is billed as 'Old Lancashire Hornpipe' in one ABC  version

(Paul Hardy's Tunebook), and 'Old Lancashire Reel' in another printed version, (Nick Barber's 'English Choice').

Both are 3/2. How does this work with a 3/2 tune - how do we decide if a tune is a 3/2 hornpipe or a 3/2 reel,

and does it 'matter'?

 

Thank you.

 

Roger.

 

Stop Press: MF has just posted, but I'll post this anyway, before looking at his latest contribution...

 

Edited by lachenal74693

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Hoping to not having overlooked something already mentioned I would like to add that albeit my own playing a hornpipe has mostly been of the dotted variant as well so far, there seem to be traditions of playing them rather (or even completely) straight.

 

OTOH, as to polkas there are tunes which I have immediately identified as a polka right from the dots, or a first run through, my leading case being "Johnny I do miss you" (Irish). I reckon particularly the B-sections have something to them which lets me picturing myself making polka steps (polka being one of the very few dances I tried in my younger days).

 

Best wishes - 🐺

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Very often a hornpipe will be written as either with dotted 1/8 notes (assuming 4/4), or without the dotted notes as a convenience - this means to play the tune as a hornpipe from the page, the musician must first be aware of the hornpipe style and swing to play the tune correctly.  This is seen frequently with hornpipes in say Northumbrian pipers' tune books.

 

Approximations are frequently used when writing music and the interpretation of the music when played is down to the musician - who should have the knowledge of eg. the style, tempo and swing.

 

I know this is very common in say my favourite style of music, Scandinavian, where the 3/4 time signature is an approximation and the interpretation of the music relies on a knowledge of dance style, tune origin which can dictate rhythm, type of dance which dictates tempo and emphasis on beats and by how much they need to stretched or shortened, and which beats are affected.

Edited by SteveS

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25 minutes ago, SteveS said:

Very often a hornpipe will be written as either with dotted 1/8 notes (assuming 4/4), or without the dotted notes as a convenience - this means to play the tune as a hornpipe from the page, the musician must first be aware of the hornpipe style and swing to play the tune correctly.  This is seen frequently with hornpipes in say Northumbrian pipers' tune books.

 

Hi Steve, I'm well aware of these notation variants (and personally prefer to have my hornpipes written out straight), but have been referring to an experienced fiddler who insisted that there were three styles of playing a hornpipe (she preferred the not-dotted variant of playing them herself and had large parts of the audience/students rather disappointed at first when she brought up the first hornpipe of the day).

 

Best wishes - 🐺

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5 hours ago, Mikefule said:

Well, yes, it is possible to play a tune in different ways.  For example, there are some 4/4 or 2/4 tunes that can easily be converted to 6/8.  One of my Morris friends delights in taking simple 4/4 tunes and converting them to waltzes and even to 5/4.

 

Thing is, if I want a particular tune, written in straight 4/4 or 2/4 to come out like either a polka or a hornpipe, I need to feel clear in  my mind what a polka or hornpipe should sound like.

 

The furthest I've got by observation and inference is that hornpipes should make me want to do a heavy footed one-hop two-hop step and polkas should make me want to do a lighter 123-hop.  The "tiddle-iddle om pom pom" hornpipe ending is apparently less diagnostic than I had thought.

 

I am reassured by the Mudcat thread that shows I'm not the only one who has struggled with this question.  These rhythms are no longer part of the wider culture around me, but merely something within the community of folk enthusiasts, so I haven't grown up knowing the difference. (Indeed, some would say that I haven't grown up.)

 

For those who think it should be obvious, put yourself in the position of defining the differences between rockabilly and rock 'n' roll.  The song Blue Suede shoes can be rock and roll (Elvis) or rockabilly (Carl) but the two styles, although similar, are different things.

 

 

It sounds to me like you have a good understanding of what a hornpipe should sound like.  You just need more exposure, perhaps to the dancier renditions, to firm up your resolve.  It's a good topic for friendly conversation but one that might not be easily nailed down.

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To my mind the difference between a polka and a hornpipe is in the phrasing. A hornpipe goes tum-te-tum-te with strong 1 and 3 but 3 is slightly less than 1,  all played as a 4 note phrase. Triplets tend to put a bit of a 1-2 feel in but triplet 1 is still stronger than 3. A polka has a strong 1-2 feel to it with the first note of each tied pair having equal weight in the bar. When written the hornpipe has blocks of 4 tied notes (usually) emphasising the 4 note phrasing as against the polka's tied pairs. A reel has a more running feel to it going 1234-5678 with 5 being slightly subservient to 1.

Edited by DickT
wrong word

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I don't disagree with what is said in  the trail above. Just to clarify my position about tunes in my tunebook: I use the rhythm designation Hornpipe for tunes in 4/4 time, that I feel should be swung - lengthening the first and shortening the second of each pair of quavers (eight notes) to sound like Thursday. . Often these have 'Hornpipe' in their title, but by no means all. Many I first encountered, written out as 'dotted quaver, semi-quaver' pairs, but that makes the first note three times as long as the second in each pair, which I feel is too much. When playing I go for about a 60/40 or 70/30 split. It's one of the weaknesses of classical music notation that there isn't a simple way to express that. Most reels can be played as hornpipes, and vice-versa.

 

The other tunes which are in 3/2, and often with Hornpipe in their title, I annotate the rhythm as 'Triple Hornpipe', and these are not swung (much). Instead, the tunes often use the ambiguity of having six crotchets in the bar, to shift between three strong beats, to having two triplets. Many of these tunes went out of fashion but have regained interest recently.

 

Remember, Hornpipe originally meant any tune played on an instrument made of horn!

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10 hours ago, Paul_Hardy said:

...Most reels can be played as hornpipes, and vice-versa...

 

Ah! As a musical numptie, I had 'empirically' stumbled across that idea myself without any 'outside assistance'. It's comforting

to know it's a valid approach.

 

10 hours ago, Paul_Hardy said:

...The other tunes which are in 3/2, and often with Hornpipe in their title, I annotate the rhythm as 'Triple Hornpipe', and these are not swung (much). Instead,

the tunes often use the ambiguity of having six crotchets in the bar, to shift between three strong beats, to having two triplets. Many of these tunes went out

of fashion but have regained interest recently...

 

Ta. That answers my initial point, and makes it much clearer, as far as categorising (and playing) these 3/2 tunes is concerned.

It doesn't get much better than a response from the man who did the transcription - it's got to be correct - ta!

 

Thank you.

 

Roger.

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Quote

  it's a difficult issue because many of the dances that go with these tunes are rarely performed anymore.

 

That quite the statement. I suppose it depends where you look. I see people dance to these tunes in a social context  regularly.

 

Quote

Most reels can be played as hornpipes, and vice-versa

 

I never understand people who say that. The two forms are different. Surely you can impose a 'hornpipe rhythm' on a reel or speed up and flatten the rhythmic shape of  a hornpipe and ignore the internal rhythms built into the melody  but  the form of the tune is such that it more often than not sounds forced and just plain wrong. 

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Try The Steamboat as  reel, it goes very well.

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In the context of the music I play, Irish music,  I feel that generally speaking hornpipes are different in structure from reels and they don't loose that structure when you try make them sound like reels. Surely, there are grey areas and there are tunes that have a structure that makes them more malleable, there are quite a few tunes floating about that were initially flings that have transmogrified into both reel and hornpipe for example    and the odd one, like the Scholar, has made a widely accepted  switch to another form  but in general, I don't see tunes working both as a reel and hornpipe  by modifying their rhythms and speed a bit.

Edited by Peter Laban
add and clarify
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2 hours ago, Peter Laban said:

 

That quite the statement. I suppose it depends where you look. I see people dance to these tunes in a social context  regularly.

 

 

I never understand people who say that. The two forms are different. Surely you can impose a 'hornpipe rhythm' on a reel or speed up and flatten the rhythmic shape of  a hornpipe and ignore the internal rhythms built into the melody  but  the form of the tune is such that it more often than not sounds forced and just plain wrong. 

People dance to these tunes, yes,  but I don't see them dancing the "hornpipe" except in an exhibition setting, which was my meaning.  Sorry to confuse.  The hornpipe dance in the examples I've seen is a singleton dance with lots of hops and leg kicks. 

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