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What is Irish Traditional Music?

From an article published by the Irish Traditional Music Archive, Dublin Ireland

'Irish traditional music' is best understood as a very broad term that includes many different types of singing and instrumental music, music of many periods, as performed by Irish people in Ireland or outside it, and occasionally nowadays by people of other nationalities.

The different types however do have in common an essentially 'oral' character, that is, they belong to a tradition of popular music in which song and instrumental music is created and transmitted in performance and carried and preserved in the memory, a tradition which is essentially independent of writing and print. The necessity of being widely understood and appreciated and the nature of human memory govern the structures of the music and its patterns of variation and repetition.

It is impossible to give a simple definition of the term. Different people use it to mean different things; the music shares characteristics with other popular and with classical music; and, as traditional culture changes, traditional music changes also, showing varying features at varying times.

Irish traditional music does however have some generally agreed characteristics which help define it:
It is music of a living popular tradition. While it incorporates a large body of material inherited from the past, this does not form a static repertory, but is constantly changing through the shedding of material, the reintroduction of neglected items, the composition of new material, and the creative altering in performance of the established repertory.
 
It is nevertheless music which is conservative in tendency. Change only takes place slowly, and in accordance with generally accepted principles. Most new compositions are not accepted into the tradition, and only a relatively small amount of variation takes place. Elements of the repertory perceived as old are held in esteem.
 
Being 'oral' tradition, the music is in a greater state of fluidity than notation-based music. Versions of songs and tunes proliferate, skilled performers introduce variations and ornaments as the mood takes them, and the same melody can be found in different metres.
 
It is European music. In structure, rhythmic pattern, pitch arrangement, thematic content of songs, etc., it most closely resembles the traditional music of Western Europe.
 
The bulk of it comes from the past, and is of some antiquity. Much of the repertory is known to have been current in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some is earlier in origin, and it is likely that some very old melodies and lyrics survive adapted to modern forms.
 
It is handed down from one generation to the next, or passed from one performer to another, more by example than by formal teaching. The traditional learner normally acquires repertory and style through unconscious or conscious imitation of more experienced performers. But nowadays learning also takes place in groups organised for teaching, and occasionally within the formal education system. Printed and manuscript song and music has had an influence on the tradition since at least the eighteenth century. Throughout this century books, sound recordings, radio and television have played an important part in the transmission of the music, and there are always traditional performers with experience of popular and classical music.
 
Although items of the repertory are initially produced by individual singers and musicians, they are changed as they pass from performer to performer, and they eventually become the production of many hands, music 'of the people'. There is a community of taste between composer, performer and audience. The original producer normally receives no financial reward, and is forgotten. Words of songs are often written to existing tunes.
 
Repertories and styles have originally evolved in given regions, but natural processes of diffusion and especially the modern communications media have spread them more widely.
 
It is music of rural more than urban origins, a reflection of earlier population distribution, but many items and forms of the repertory have come from towns and cities, or through them from abroad. Much traditional music is now performed and commercially produced in urban areas.
 
It is performed, almost entirely for recreation, by people who are normally unpaid. There are relatively few full-time professional performers.
 
Solo performance, in which subtleties of style can best be heard, is at the heart of the tradition, but group performance is common. Singing is normally unaccompanied. Unison singing, in duet especially, is heard. Instruments are played in unison in combinations of any number. Counterpoint is not employed, and harmonic accompaniment, when possible on an instrument, is generally of a simple kind.
 
It is played in the home, in the public house and at other social gatherings - parties, weddings, dances, festivals - and latterly at concerts, and on radio, television and record.
 
Written words or music are only used as an aid to memory, if at all, and never in performance. Most singers cannot read music, but many players make some use of staff or other kinds of notation.
 
It is a small-scale art form and its structural units are typically symmetrical. Within them are found variations and embellishments of text, rhythm, phrasing and melody, but rarely of dynamics
 
Songs are performed in Irish and English, but those in English, the more recent, are the more widespread. Songs can be quick or slow, strict or relaxed in rhythm.
 
The bulk of the instrumental music played is fast isometric dance music - jigs, reels and hornpipes for the most part; slower listening pieces composed for an instrument or adapted from song airs form only a small proportion. Melodies are generally played in one or two sharps, and belong to one of a number of melodic modes, which have mostly seven notes to the scale, but sometimes six or five. Their range does not frequently exceed two octaves, and they end on a variety of final notes. The dance music has associated solo and group dances.
 
String, wind, and free-reed melody instruments predominate - especially fiddle, whistle, flute, uilleann pipes, concertina and accordion, - and percussion instruments are of minor importance. Certain timbres are considered traditional, and certain stylistic techniques are used which arise from the nature of the instruments. All are forms of instruments found in Western Europe.
 

Updated Tuesday, January 17, 2017
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