The fiddling tradition: general truths

The fiddling tradition: general truths

I hope that this may become one of the most challenging threads of discussion to appear on fiddle discussion groups. It may also be the easiest.

One of the things I like to do is fiddle for senior citizens in nursing homes and retirement homes. One of the unexpected benefits of this, is that countless numbers of the residents of these homes have shared their understanding of traditional music with me, and have changed my understanding of it. As a result, they have given me a ‘global view’ of our tradition. People from almost every area of the world seem to share the same tradition, although there are local differences everywhere. It is these universal similarities that I think define the fiddling tradition. I trust the seniors’ experiences, because they have been the ‘keepers of the tradition’, and represent a link to the past.

Occasionally, I encounter comments on these lists which run counter to this global view. I couldn’t understand the foundation for these viewpoints, until I did some research and found out about a number of movements to revive traditional music. There seems to be pressures within these movements to recreate the tradition, rather than to revive the tradition. It is those beliefs that would recreate the tradition, that disagree with the larger global view. Further, it is my view that the tradition has always been alive and active, and doesn’t need to be revived. This is evidenced by the large number of tunes which continue to exist today, in spite of the passage of dozens of generations of fiddlers.

It seems to me that there may be great value in identifying the aspects of the tradition which have been passed from generation to generation, and identifying the inner workings of the tradition. Doing so, would be a great help to the large numbers of people who have become interested in the tradition in recent years.

So with the above comments in mind, what is this tradition?

In a general sense, the music has been passed from fiddler to fiddler, piper to piper, harpist to fiddler, whistle player to box player, etc. by an aural tradition. That is, one must hear the music to develop a sense of how it sounds.

Collections of tunes have been in print for centuries, to facilitate the preservation of the music, and the passage of tunes to additional players.

People have acquired tunes from other musicians, adapting the tune to fit personal skill levels and their instrument of choice. While doing this, tunes are usually learned phrase by phrase, rather than as an entire piece in ‘one bite’.

The music is often performed for dance, in private parties, and at public events.

This has not even begun to ‘scratch the surface’. There are countless aspects of the tradition which are universal among every culture which enjoys traditional music. The purpose, here, is to create a guide to the universal aspects of the tradition for every players’ benefit. Your input?

Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

I don’t know how to say this but here it goes…
The folk revival it has brought a lot of people into the ‘folk music’, of all different kinds regardless of their knowledge of culture or customs. Sometimes there are elements to the culture which these ‘folkies’ don’t like, for example The Catholic Church is a big target of the folkies it is also a basic element of Irish Culture. I have been at a number of sessions where catholic bashing happened & it has always been ‘folkie types’. They are hypocrits & I just ignore them. I think what would have happened if someone tried that 50 years ago, they would probably be run out.

Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

I think this says a great deal. "to recreate the tradition, rather than to revive the tradition". Wonderfully said! The vast majority of Irish trad players in the world are working ‘within’ the tradition but have come to it from ‘without’. Most did not grow up hearing sean-nos, peut-a-beals or trad music. They didn’t dance at Ceilis or have a relative who played the accordian or fiddle. Without that experience, we are seriously handicapped when it comes to learning this style. To be within this tradition, we have to humble ourselves before that fact that we don’t know anything about this tradition — and then start learning. You have to start from scratch. What a beginner hears when they listen to a reel or a jig bears little resemblance to what they hear in that tune a year later. When you experience that change, when you hear that difference, you are on the road to working within the tradition. The only thing is to approach the music with a great deal of love, respect, and above all, humility.

Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

well put, caoimghgin! (how do you pronounce that anyway?)
Brad: folkie bashing is the same thing as catholic bashing.

Kerri’s general fiddling truth #1: The core relationship for musicians in general is between the musician and the instrument, or put another way, the relationship of the musician to the music. While the surrounding culture of course plays a part in determining what a fiddler expects to hear when she plays, I wouldn’t say players who are seperated from the culture are too terribly disadvantaged, unless they are aiming at a lot more than playing in a particular style. I could be alone in my room with a Chieftains album, and I theoretically could learn to make those same sounds with my instrument through trial and error. Everyone here is looking for considerably more than a simple emulation of style, though. We are looking for a deep understanding of why this particular style moves us so much, and because of this we are easily engrossed in conversations about history, culture, and "truth".


Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

fiddler on vermouth said, "Everyone here is looking for considerably more than a simple emulation of style, though. We are looking for a deep understanding of why this particular style moves us so much….

Tough question, but one which the seniors at the nursing homes answered for me…
One thing that puzzled me was that, on occasion, people from eastern Europe, or central European countries would enjoy the Scots and Irish tunes that I played for them. One night, a fellow joined in the program by sitting down at the piano, and chording along on the tunes. I assumed that he had grown up with these tunes, because he did such a great job on the piano. I tried to help him out by announcing the key of the tune, before starting each tune. At the end of the program, I went over to talk to him, and was met by his son, who was visiting that evening. The son told me that his father didn’t speak English, because he had spent most of his life in Poland! Over the past several years, I have encountered the same sort of thing again and again.

The music is that universal…Traditional music is quite the same the world over, with some local differences. So, it didn’t matter where people were from, they could hear the music of their own traditions, when they heard my fiddle. I am sure that they knew that my music was different in some aspect, but it was similar enough to bring back memories of ‘home’, for them.

Over time, the realization came to me, (and this is my own personal interpretation of events) that for centuries people have been creating things of beauty, including music. That beauty which touched the hearts of others, tended to survive, sometimes only by being passed from person to person. This is a selective process, and those tunes which survived somehow relate to the human condition today, the same as they did generations ago. That is the magic of the music. It contains the best of humanity, and our humanity allows us to find the value in it, to enjoy the music for what it is, without knowing anything about its’ past. And humanity is virtually the same the world over, and that is one reason why this music is so universal. It is about our human-ness, our humanity. To share that humanity is one of the ultimate expressions of our common-ness, or community (to use the term in a slightly non-traditional way).

It is the humanity and community of the music that bring people together, in a greater sharing of their own humanity and common-ness. That is what makes the music work. It is my belief that ‘expert’ playing of the music is secondary. It is not necessary to play the music well to share our human-ness and common-ness. That is why a player with modest abilities can play the music to the enjoyment of others. It provides an outlet for everyone to share their humanity and community.

Those are my own thoughts on why the music exists, and why it continues to exist. Those thoughts also justify my belief that the tradition does not need to be revived, that it is alive and kicking, and that no amount of management or mismanagement can either help it or destroy it. The best of it will live on in the hearts of people. It always has, and always will.

Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

The church has shaped Irish culture in many ways, that is a fact. It should be respected in other Irish cultural settings (like sessions.)
My main focus on my last post was more pointed at how old timers & younger people approach the idea of a session. Old timers have a much less secular view than younger players. This divergence happened around the 70’s.

The Church


i’m curious now. How does this less-secular view manifest itself in sessions?

Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

This thread apparently encompasses traditions beyond Irish music, which is fine by me, but I have some interesting material on Irish trad music from the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA), as reprinted in Fintan Vallely’s tome, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music. Much of this will ring bells with most of you contributing to these discussions, though some of it will no doubt generate more debate.
To wit:

The ITMA lists generally agreed characteristics:

1. 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 re-introduction of neglected items, the composition of new material, and the creative altering in performance of the established repertory.

2. 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.

3. Being oral music, it 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.

4. 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.

5. 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 18th and 19th centuries. Some is earlier in origin, and it is likely that some very old melodies and lyrics survive adapted to modern forms.

6. 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 18th 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.

7. Although items of the repertory are initially produced by individual singers and musicians, they are changed as the 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 into existing tunes.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. It is performed, almost entirely for recreation, by people who are normally unpaid. There are relatively few full-time professional performers.

11. 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.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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.

16. 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.

17. String, wind, and free-reed melody instruments predominate—especially fiddle, whistle, flute, uillean 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.


Posted .

Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

Just for jollies, take the text above and think of it as written to describe German folk music rather than Irish. Have we really described Irish music here? Is it even possible? Curious.

Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

That’s one of Those Things, I think, Kevin. Just like all people are more the same than entirely different, they are also all complete individuals. How could a music form based out of humanity be any different? ๐Ÿ™‚


Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

Yeah, I think that Will has hit the nail on the head. The ITMA has done a great job of describing the Irish tradition. And as Caiomghgin has mentioned, much of it could very easily apply to other traditional music. Some aspects of the tradition really are quite global. Those universal aspects of the tradition are especially useful in guiding us as we try to understand how to apply ourselves to learning and mastering the Irish traditional music.

With over 1000 members in The Session, we have the resources to compose a powerful document; powerful, in that it can become a valuable resource to help all people engaged in Irish music.

I don’t think, even for a minute, that it is possible to create a comprehensive, compact description of the elements of the tradition, although ITMA has done a great job in that respect. However, a thorough discussion can produce the desired results.
Simply by presenting different viewpoints, and asking the right questions we can shed a lot of light on the matter.

Scott Donaldson

Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

Whew! Well done, Will! I’d suggest adding some general statements about the most common modes (probably Major and Dorian), the lack (in general) of chromatic accidentals within the bodies of tunes, and the most common ornamental styles (cuts, strikes, rolls and crans) - these, and the languages the songs are sung in, are probably the things that distinguish Irish trad music from German, Jewish or Hungarian folk tunes (Jewish Klezmer, for example, favors the harmonic minor scale, which I can’t remember ever hearing in an Irish tune).

The rhythms are also somewhat specific to the trad - there aren’t a lot of Polish slip jigs, nor are there many Irish czardas (popular Hungarian dance tune, characterized by alternating slow and fast sections with a VERY heavy emphasis on the first beat).

Good grief, are we in the process of defining something? ๐Ÿ™‚

Re: The fiddling tradition: general truths

One of the opening questions - as far as I can still make it out, after reading all of this - was, whether the fiddling tradition does need a recreation or revival. In Northern Germany, where I live, trad. music has definitely died out. I have always known that it was dead, but all those characteristics mentioned in the ITMA list have confirmed this for me. None of that is still in existence here. That