What is Irish
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:
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.
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
'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
European music. In structure, rhythmic pattern, pitch arrangement,
thematic content of songs, etc., it most closely resembles the
traditional music of Western Europe.
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.
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.
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.
and styles have originally evolved in given regions, but natural
processes of diffusion and especially the modern communications
media have spread them more widely.
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.
performed, almost entirely for recreation, by people who are
normally unpaid. There are relatively few full-time professional
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.