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Pete Dunk
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Can anyone explain in simple terms the different rhythms that define the various tune types within a time signature. What makes a reel a reel for example, is it just speed or is it emphasis on particular beats? The thing that brought this question to mind is that at the top of a hornpipe tune was the helpful description that two quavers written together should be played as a dotted quaver and a semiquaver. Are there other such rules that define the rhythms of tunes types?

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Everyone will give you a different answer. Here's mine. Hope it helps.

 

The system of names for genres of tunes and rhythms was not deliberately laid out at a single time to form a complete and logical system. It evolved in spread out localities over generations to meet constantly changing needs, and so the rules vary with the age and source of the tune.

 

The one general rule that I find useful to follow is this: These are dance tunes, and the names (reel, hornpipe, etc.) refer to dance types. Attempting to make sense of the tunes without reference to the dance is like trying to drive blindfolded.

 

To paraphrase what the Country Dance and Song Society tells its dancers ("The music will tell you what to do"):

 

The dance will tell you what to do.

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Everyone will give you a different answer.

It's even "worse" than that. Different people will play the same tune differently... at different speeds, and with different distributions of note lengths, dynamic stress, staccato-vs.-legato, etc. Of course, there are various common styles for each type of tune, but which are dominant vary from group to group and over the years.

 

E.g., many in the Irish tradition play hornpipes more slowly than reels, with more "bounce", and with the "dotted" rhythm that tallship mentions. In the southern US traditions, "hornpipes" tend to be indistinguishable from "reels" in the way they're played. And in the "reel to reel" Irish session craze, the distinction seems to be slowly disappearing, as well, with hornpipes being played faster and more like reels.

 

The system of names for genres of tunes and rhythms was not deliberately laid out at a single time to form a complete and logical system. It evolved in spread out localities over generations to meet constantly changing needs, and so the rules vary with the age and source of the tune.

And with the player, or the tradition (s)he learned from.

 

The one general rule that I find useful to follow is this: These are dance tunes, and the names (reel, hornpipe, etc.) refer to dance types.

While this is true, it's not very useful to someone who isn't personally familiar with the dances and the dancers.

 

What's more, it's clear -- from the complaints about it, if nothing else -- that the popularity of Irish music in performance and sessions is spawning a new tradition in which the playing has become divorced from the dancing. I myself feel very strongly about playing music which is "danceable", but I won't deny the reality that many -- possibly even the majority -- of those playing "Irish" music today neither know nor care about the dances.

 

Anyone who wants to learn how to play a particular style of tune should listen to how others do it. E.g., if you want to learn the "right" style for hornpipes, listen to many hornpipes being played. Also listen to some of the same hornpipes being played by more than one soloist or group. When you can learn to recognize similarities and differences, then you can choose which styles you like and apply them to new tunes.

 

No set of definitions or instructions, no matter how comprehensive, will ever be able to teach you half as much or half as well as a good bit of listening.

 

Can anyone explain in simple terms the different rhythms that define the various tune types within a time signature. What makes a reel a reel for example, is it just speed or is it emphasis on particular beats?

While I would say that it does include the latter, I've found that different players have differing opinions as to how much emphasis and on which beats. There's not even full agreement on how to notate the different types. It seems that many of those notating Irish tunes today use a 2/4 signature for hornpipes and 4/4 for reels, while I believe (and was originally taught) that the opposite should be the case, based on the distribution of emphasis within the tunes.

 

The thing that brought this question to mind is that at the top of a hornpipe tune was the helpful description that two quavers written together should be played as a dotted quaver and a semiquaver.

"Helpful description"?

I think it would be more helpful to just write them with the dotted notation. That's what I do.

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Can anyone explain in simple terms the different rhythms that define the various tune types within a time signature. What makes a reel a reel for example, is it just speed or is it emphasis on particular beats? The thing that brought this question to mind is that at the top of a hornpipe tune was the helpful description that two quavers written together should be played as a dotted quaver and a semiquaver. Are there other such rules that define the rhythms of tunes types?

 

 

Hello Tallship and others,

 

I've been learning and playing the bodhran for about 6 years now. What I have found the most basic rule is to emphasis the first beat of the bar (Micheal O hAlmhain). Variations on that can be played from time to time.

 

So for the reel (4/4) it's the first beat of the four. Also for the hornpipe, but that I play like a reel with a limp (dixit Stefan Hannnigan).

A simple variation for the reel can be e.g. emphasis the third beat out of four for e.g. eight bars.

 

The jig (6/8): first out of six, slip jig (9/8): every 9 beats emphasised, slides (12/8) every 12 beats, etc.

A simple variation for the jig can be to emphasis the 4th beat for a number of bars

 

But indeed: many a times hornpipes are played like reels, and many slip jigs and slides like jigs; and that's a pity

 

As a beginning concertinist on English system i'll try to learn and play along this (to me) most fundamental rule first.

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This is a very complex thing and does depend on the dance as well as the dance type.

 

For 6/8 Morris tunes the dancer is travelling on beats 1 and 4 (usually) so they are emphasised, usually by clipping the note, and playing louder. You then leave a space to the next quaver. So for beat 1 and 4 although they take up musically the time of a dotted quaver they sound for approximately half that time.

 

Musical notation has it's limitations and trying to describe how a tune should sound doesn't convey all the nuances.

 

There is a well known story of Alistair Anderson (English) playing with a string quartet "The Lindsays". I was told at the first rehersal that the quartet were half a beat behind Alistair when they started playing through the tunes. It took a while for the penny to drop but Alistair realised that he was playing on the "anacrusis" ie. he was coming in half a beat early on each bar as that's when some ones foot lifts in a dance for the next step, whereas the quartet were playing "the music".

 

Slightly at a tangent: I was at a melodeon workshop yesteday with John Spiers. We played "Waiting for the federals" firstly as a polka (as I believe it was written - perhaps our American friends can help us out), then we played it as a slow air. The time signature didn't change but the rhythm did as we were cross-rowing like mad to smooth-out the action of the belows. Great stuff - I liked the slow air better but would be impossible to dance to!

 

To get back to the question, John Kirkpatrick has run an excellent workshop in the past on English dance rhythm, including him dancing round the room like a loon to illustrate different rhythms so I would recommend going to one when he is next in this area.

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As a dancer and musician my definition of good music is music that makes me want to move. While the basic rhythms are fairly simple to define and use as a starting point, the magic of creating music that makes you want to jump up and dance is not easily defined at all. I agree with buikligger that the most fundamental starting point is defining the 'one'. For dance music most of the magic and mystery is in the rhythm.

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I've been dancing, playing for dancing, and going to workshops on playing for dancing for many years. Different kinds of dancing (and different regional variation within kinds) change the constraints. I usually play for ECD and colonial through 1840 era American dance. I've also played for and danced contra, Scottish Country Dance (RSCDS style), waltz evenings, and some Irish set dances (though not competition step dance). Early in my musical life I both played for and danced morris-- it's a different beast: musicians should dance first and then serve a bit of an apprenticeship under a good morris musician.

 

A bit from a workshop by Gene Murrow: "Gravity will take care of the down beat" as a dance musician your job is to get the dancers up on the up beat. That is partly a matter of emphasis, but also a matter of making things light through use of stacatto and emphasis.

 

One way to think about the rhythm of dance music is to think when the foot falls happen: when dancing to 4/4, 2/4, 2/2, or 6/8 music there are two steps per measure. When dancing to 3/2, 3/4, or 9/8 there are three steps per measure. A typical moderate walking speed would put 120+-10 steps per minute. That's also about what I'd want for most kinds of dancing. This gives a feel for which beats are the down beats and which are the ones where lift is needed. It may help the measure sound like dance music. So 4/4 reels would be grouped as two quadruplets and 9/8 jigs as 3 triplets

 

Figures in contra, Scottish, and later ECD are often four bars long, and organized to match the (usually 8 bar) phrase of the music. Letting the dancers know where the 4 bar sub phrase and the 8 bar phrases are makes the music more danceable. When playing for southern squares and some barn dances the dance pays much less attention to the phrase, so it should be less marked. Square dance music also tends to be faster, with Kentucky running set even faster (perhaps 132 steps/minute).

 

Contra dance tunes often run for as many as 16 or more times through the tune, so variations are needed. Modern RSCDS style uses medleys which change each time through the tune (with a standard of about 4 tunes used in an 8x32 bar set, though some use 8x40 or 8x48).

 

In general it takes more skill to dance (or play) slowly well. Moderate speed is easiest. Very fast dances need to be tight, slow speeds need more room. Waltzes are the exception-- a fast waltz needs an open ballroom. Step dancing needs more careful marking of rhythms and care on speed-- more elaborate stepping will make use of each of the beats, not just 1 and 4 in a 6/8 jig.

 

Edited to correct spelling

Edited by Larry Stout
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A useful site for learning about the types of rhythms in Irish traditional music is here: http://www.irishtune.info/rhythm/. Be aware, though, that the author takes some stances which, while well-reasoned, fall outside the mainstream, such as notating reels in 2/2.

 

The thing that brought this question to mind is that at the top of a hornpipe tune was the helpful description that two quavers written together should be played as a dotted quaver and a semiquaver.

"Helpful description"?

I think it would be more helpful to just write them with the dotted notation. That's what I do.

The dotted notation, though, indicates that in each note-pair, the duration of the first note is three-quarters of the combined duration of the pair. When hornpipes are played in the "dotted" style, I think that 2/3 - 1/3 is more like it; a 3/4 - 1/4 distribution would be extreme. But notating a 2/3 - 1/3 split is messy. :)

 

I prefer writing the notes out evenly, describing the tune as a hornpipe, and letting the player decide how unevenly (or not) to weight the duration of the paired notes. Depending on my mood, I may play the same tune more or less "dotted." For example, I like Her Long Golden Hair (the Junior Crehan tune of many names) played both evenly and dotted. Bobby Casey's Hornpipe (aka Humours of Tullycrine) is another tune that can easily go either way.

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Here is a place if any that listening to "how it was done" is important. Not that anyone has a patent on the "rignt way" but at least most of the older "traditional" players had a basis in having the music make sense to the dancers. There were and are still lots of different styles pf playing, but try to remember that most of the tunes were written ( or just plain invented) around the structure of the dance styles the players knew. The way the notes play on each other make more sense in the original context. Having an idea of the different ways the tunes were played and changed to fit the local styles gives you the chance to find what seems to YOU to fit the tune best.

 

I am a bit saddened by the general homogenization of the music by many modern players, though it is part of the folk process. More of it seems to speak to wishing to express one's self thorough the music than to let the music express itself through you. Writers of fiction often find that the characters take on a life of their own, and lead the story in places the writer never thought of. A good tune can do the same thing. I prefer to let a tune put it's stamp on me rather than the other way around. I am continually finding things in them I never would have suspected.

Dana

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I've noted recent comments made in this forum and in PICA that some modern concertina playing seems to have gotten away from its dance origins and that some of the music is no longer danceable. Long exposed to traditional music as a listener, but never having been exposed to a traditional-dance tradition, I would have to say that my desire to play Celtic along with other cultural and rhythmic genres on the concertina comes from a love for the music itself as it can be played on the concertina.

 

I'm no ethnomusicologist (though I play one on TV), but I imagine that reels, jigs, hornpipes, polkas, etc. evolved as tunes to be played with specific dance types. And perhaps it is sad that sometimes they are now virtuosically played as performance pieces with little thought given as to whether the music still is "danceable". But perhaps that is part of the evolution of traditional music, and both camps of expression can coexist with mutual appreciation.

 

But that brings me to my actual question for this community. Were (or are?) planxties, like " Fanny Power", ever played to be danced to? I know their intent was to honor the person they were written for, but were they danced to as well . . . are they danced to anywhere? Also, it seems hard to think that slow airs were ever used as dance tunes. Were they written as performance pieces to be listened to only, or have past or present musicians found ways to make them danceable?

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I think that the planxtys were written as concert music, but many of them have been used as waltzes. Peter Barnes's "A Little Coupledancemusic" has Carolan's Welcome, Fanny Power, Give me your hand, Hewlett, Lord Inchiqui, Siobeg Siomor, and Planxty Irwin all included in the waltz section. We've used several of these for waltz nights. While they were written about a century before the introduction of the waltz they work well anyway.

 

There is historical precedent for music forms originally tied to dances losing that connection: the Baroque suite with its gigues and courrantes uses dance forms of music, but in a much more elaborated concert style.

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A bit from a workshop by Gene Morrow: "Gravity will take care of the down beat" as a dance musician your job is to get the dancers up on the up beat. That is partly a matter of emphasis, but also a matter of making things light through use of stacatto and emphasis.
The way I was taught to do this is with "back beats." Instead of emphasizing the down beats, emphasize the others. Instead of OOM chugga OOM chugga it's oom CHUGga oom CHUGga. Edited to add: BTW, the correct spelling of Gene's name is "Murrow."
A useful site for learning about the types of rhythms in Irish traditional music is here: http://www.irishtune.info/rhythm/. Be aware, though, that the author takes some stances which, while well-reasoned, fall outside the mainstream, such as notating reels in 2/2.
I always notate reels in 2/2. Never noticed it was outside the mainstream. It's much easier to read when the fast notes only have one beam rather than the two you'd need in 2/4. Edited by David Barnert
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A useful site for learning about the types of rhythms in Irish traditional music is here: http://www.irishtune.info/rhythm/. Be aware, though, that the author takes some stances which, while well-reasoned, fall outside the mainstream, such as notating reels in 2/2.
I always notate reels in 2/2. Never noticed it was outside the mainstream. It's much easier to read when the fast notes only have one beam rather than the two you'd need in 2/4.

If you Google "irish reels time signature" (not in quotation marks), most of the sites indicate that reels are notated in 4/4 or 2/4. Or run a search on JC's abc tune finder for a common reel, such as Silver Spear, and you'll see that most of the posted versions are in 4/4 or common time ("C").

 

I use 2/2 time ("cut time," C| in abc notation) myself. I agree that 2/4 is harder to read.

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...planxtys.... We've used several of these for waltz nights. While they were written about a century before the introduction of the waltz they work well anyway.

Yep. And I find Irish "mazurkas" (named after the Mazura region in Poland) to be among the best tunes for a hambo (the Swedish dance). :)

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A Planxty is a tune dedicated to or honouring someone so there will always be a name in the title. Pronounce it Planksti with a short i. The tune itself can be anything - waltz, hornpipe, reel , jig and so on. A number of Planxty tunes were written by Turlough O'Carolan, a renowned Irish harpist.

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