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What are reels, hornpipes, polkas and their relationship with time signature?

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I am new to music my understanding is that time signature is for notation of how many beats are in a measure.  I am reading The Handbook of Tunes and methods for Irish traditional music by Frank Edgley and in the beginning of the book they write that certain types of songs are written in certain types of time signature for example that 4-4 is for reels, 2-4 is for hornpipes etc. It seems to me that time signature might indicate a style of song but this relationship is unclear to me?

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More likely that they tend to be written in a certain kind of  signature rhythm.  Eg. Like minuet is usually on 3/4 time ( three beta to bar).  So these other kinds are often written with a 2//2 rhythm or two beats to bar etc.. or maybe 2/4 and so on. there are bound to be exceptions to the rule of course. It's just the general rhythm adopted traditionally ( in my opinion) that the book is probably giving you a very basic guide to understanding.

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It's one of those apparently simple subjects that leads one down a rabbit hole into a world of complexity.

  • Firstly, a time signature says little about rhythm, and nothing about speed. It says how many written beats in a bar, and the written length of each beat.
  • Secondly, Reel, Hornpipe, Polka, March, Schottische etc were all originally particular dance step sequences. Now we often use them as rhythm descriptions, even when used for for difference dances.
  • Thirdly, the words are also used differently in different countries (or parts of countries), so there is not a single answer! Also their meaning has changed through time, so a hornpipe was presumably originally just a tune played on a pipe made of horn! Then it was a triple-time tune in 3/2, then a performance dance  for sailors, and now it is usually a swung tune in 4/4.

The way I understand them and tend to use them in my tunebooks is:

  • A reel is a faster tune, usually written in 4/4 but which has two stronger beats in each bar, so can sometimes be written in 2/2. Reels often have each bar split into quavers, and played and danced in a pretty even rhythm - Abcd Efgh
  • A Hornpipe in 4/4 is a bit slower and has a swung (dotted) rhythm, where each pair of quavers, although written straight are played with the first longer than the second, as in Thursday. They are sometimes written out as dotted-crotchet, semiquaver, but that would mean the ration was 3:1 - however I play them as about 2:1.
  • A Polka is usually written in 2/2 (or 2/4), and the dance has a lively bouncy dash-dot-dot pattern.
  • A March is a more regular tune in 2/2 or 2/4.

When you think you understand those sort of stronger dance beat rhythm aspects, then you find that when playing for dance it's not uncommon to stress the off-beats - the dancers will put their feet down on the 'strong' beats OK but the music needs to encourage them to lift the feet, so more complexity unfolds!


Also, it's not difficult to slow down a reel, and swing its rhythm to turn it into a hornpipe, so tunes are mutable between rhythms!



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In addition to all that Paul contributed, there are also a lot of Scottish Marches in 6/8 time, which may appear at first glance to be jigs, til you realize the 16th notes are played almost like grace notes and the tunes are played very rhythmically. And as Paul said, the tempo may also vary by region, some play hornpipes very bouncy, others more reel-like even tempo.


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16 hours ago, Paul_Hardy said:

A reel is a faster tune, usually written in 4/4 but which has two stronger beats in each bar, so can sometimes be written in 2/2.


Note that there is no difference between how a reel in 4/4 time (often symbolized with a “C” for “common time” in place of the 4/4) or 2/2 time (a “C” with a vertical line through it, for “cut time”) are played. The only difference is the length of the notes: In 4/4 the quarter note takes the beat and faster notes are 8ths (“quavers,” in Paul’s British English) and 16ths, while in 2/2 all the notes are written as twice as long to decrease the number of flags or  beams you have to draw to represent the quicker notes.


From Wikipedia:




Basic time signatures: 4/4 also known as common time (common time)2/2 (alla breve), also known as cut time or cut-common time (cut time); 2/4; 3/4; and 6/8
In other words,



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