Common Session Tunes

Common Session Tunes

Several people have asked for suggestions on which tunes to learn first, to be better prepared for session playing. Here’s a start, a list of reels that I’ve run across more often than not in sessions here and there.

My hope is that all of us can add to this, bearing in mind that some terrific tunes may not qualify because they just don’t get played at sessions with any frequency, or at more than one particular session.

Here goes:

160 Reels

The Abbey Reel
After the Battle of Aughrim
The Bank of Ireland
The Banshee
Beare Island Reel
Big John MacNeill’s
The Blackhaired Lass
The Blackthorn
Bobby Casey’s Reel
Boil the Breakfast Early
Boil the Kettle Early
Bonnie Kate
Boys of the Lough
The Boys of Malin
The Boys of Portaferry
Brenda Stubbert’s
The Broken Pledge
The Bucks of Oranmore
The Bunch of Keys
The Cameronian Reel
The Chicago Reel
College Groves
The Concertina Reel
The Congress Reel
The Convenience Reel
Cooley’s Reel
The Corner House
The Crooked Road to Dublin
Crowley’s Reel
The Cup of Tea
The Curlew
Dick Gossip’s
Dinny O’Brien’s
Dr. Gilbert’s (aka Dispute at the Crossroads)
Dowd’s Favorite
Drowsy Maggie
The Dunmore Lasses
The Earl’s Chair
The Easy Club Reel
Eileen Curran
The Fair Wind
Fairhaired Mary
Farewell to Connaught
Farewell to Erin
Farrell O’Gara’s
Father Kelly’s
The Fermoy Lasses
The Ferry Banks
The Five Mile Chase
The Floating Crowbar
The Flogging Reel
The Flowers of Edinburgh
Flower of the Flock
The Flowers of Red Hill
Follow Me Down to Carlow
The Foxhunter’s Reel
The Galway Reel
The Gates of Mullagh
The Girl That Broke My Heart
The Glass of Beer
The Glen Reel
The Glens of Aherlow
The Golden Keyboard
The Gravel Walks to Granie
The Green Groves of Erin
The Green Mountain
The Greenfields of Glentown
The Greenfields of Rossbeigh
The High Reel
The High Road to Linton
The Humours of Lissadell
Humours of Scarrif
The Hunter’s Purse
Jackie Coleman’s
Ivy Leaf
Johnny’s Wedding
Julia Delaney
The Kerryman’s Daughter
The Killarney Boys of Pleasure
The Killavil Reel
The Lads of Laois
The Lady on the Island
Last Night’s Fun
The Launching of the Boat
The Longford Collector
The Longford Tinker
Maid Behind the Bar
The Maids of Mitchellstown
Maids of Mount Cisco
Martin Wynne’s No. 2
The Mason’s Apron
Master Crowley’s
Maudabawn Chapel
The Milliner’s Daughter
Miss McLeod’s
The Morning Dew
The Morning Star
Mother’s Delight
The Moving Cloud
The Mullingar Races
Mulqueen’s Reel
Music in the Glen
The Musical Priest
My Love is in America
Nine Mile Stone
The Nine Points of Roguery
The Old Bush
The Old Torn Petticoat
The Otter’s Holt
Over the Moor to Maggie
The Peeler’s Jacket
Pigeon on the Gate
Pigtown Fling
The Pinch of Snuff
Pretty Girls of Mayo
The Primrose Lass
Rakish Paddy
The Reel of Mullinavat
Repeal of the Union
Rolling on the Ryegrass
The Roscommon Reel
The Rose of Antrim
Sailor’s Bonnet
Saint Anne’s Reel
The Sally Gardens
The Scholar
Sean Sa Cheo
Shaskeen Reel
The Shetland Fiddler
Ships Are Sailing
The Silver Spear
Sleepy Maggie
Sporting Paddy
Star of Munster
The Steampacket
The Swallowstail
Swingin’ on a Gate
Tam Lin (aka Howling Wind)
The Tarbolton
Tear the Calico
The Teelin
Tom Billy’s
Tom Ward’s Downfall
Tommy People’s
The Torn Jacket
Toss the Feathers #1
Toss the Feathers #2
The Traveller
Trim the Velvet
Trip to Durrow
The Union Reel
The Wind that Shakes the Barley
The Wise Maid
Within a Mile of Dublin
Woman of the House

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Re: Common Jigs

And now for jigs.

76 Jigs

Apples in Winter
Austin Barret’s
Banish Misfortune
The Bank of Turf
The Blackthorne Stick
The Blarney Pilgrim
The Boys of Coomanore
The Boys of the Town
Bridal Jig
Calliope House
Child of My Heart
Cliffs of Moher
The Connaughtman’s Rambles
The Cook in the Kitchen
Coppers and Brass The Cowboy Jig
The Eavesdropper
Frieze Britches
The Frost is All Over
Gallagher’s Frolics
Geese in the Bog
The Gold Ring
The Hare in the Corn
Haste to the Wedding
The Humours of Ballyloughlin
I Buried My Wife and Danced on Her Grave
The Idle Road
Jig of Slurs
Jimmy Ward’s Favorite
The Joy of My Life
The Killavil Jig
Kesh Jig
Langstrom’s Pony
Lannigan’s Ball
Lark in the Morning
Larry O’Gaff
The Lietrim Fancy
The Lilting Banshee
The Maid in the Meadow
Mice in the Cupboard (aka Willie Coleman’s)
Mist Covered Mountain
The Monaghan Jig
The Mooncoin Jig
Morrison’s Jig
Munster Buttermilk
My Darling Asleep
Off She Goes
Old Hag You Have Killed Me
Out on the Ocean
Paddy Clancy’s
Paddy Fahy’s
The Rakes of Kildare
Rambling Pitchfork
Road to Lisdoonvarna
The Rolling Waves
The Rose in the Heather
Saddle the Pony
Scatter the Mud
The Scotsman Over the Border
Sean Bu

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Slip jigs, Slides, Hornpipes, and Polkas

Just to flesh out the initial offering:


The Cat Rambles to the Childs Saucepan
Dan O’Keefe’s Slide
Dennis Murphy’s Slide
The Dingle Regatta
John Kelly’s Slide
Merrily Kiss the Quaker
Old Hag in the Kiln

Slip Jigs

The Butterfly
Dever the Dancer
Drops of Brandy
Fig for a Kiss
The Foxhunter’s
Give Us a Drink of Water
Hardiman the Fiddler
Humours of Whiskey
Kid on the Mountain
Rocky Road to Dublin
The Road to Athlone


An Comhra Donn
Big John’s Hornpipe
Chief O‘Neil’’s Favorite
Delahanty’s (aka the Wicklow)
The Golden Castle Hornpipe
The Goodnatured Man
Harvest Home
Liverpool Hornpipe
Murphy’s Hornpipe
Off to California
Rickett’s Hornpipe
The Rights of Man
Staten Island Hornpipe


Ballydesmond Polka #1
Ballydesmond Polka #2
Denis Murphy’s
John Ryan’s
O’Sullivan’s Polka
The Tuar Mor Polka

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Re: Common Session Tunes

Jeez! you know all that in memory?! 🙂

Re: Common Session Tunes

Oh, I didn’t mean to imply that I personally can play all these by heart. I do know about 60 percent of them, plus another 50-60 tunes that are too obscure to qualify as “common” session tunes.

The idea here is to give us all something to strive toward--in my experience, these are at least some of the more important tunes to commit to memory if you want to play in a variety of sessions. I’m working on the other 40 percent, and the more tunes I learn, the easier it is to hang on to them--recognizing similarities, learning to handle tricky passages that reappear in other tunes, just filling my head with the repertory till it all seems familiar.


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Re: Common Session Tunes

……my hope is that nobody ads anymore to this …….. 🙂
it looks like I have a bit of work to do, learning tunes ..


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I’m getting there

I know 5 or 6 already! 🙂

Re: Common Session Tunes

Glancing at Will Harmon’s list, I would be able to play perhaps half of them without prompting, and there are others which I might be able to play along to in a session if somebody else started them. But there are also a fair few which I’ve never even heard of (although, admittedly, I know more tunes than names ) - so it just goes to show, it depends what sessions you play in, who you play with, what records they listen to, where they come from, what tunes they like, what instruments they play and so on.

Re: Common Session Tunes

It seems were on the right track, actually listing the common tunes, and it’s gratifying to hear from some of you that some of these tunes are indeed familiar.

But to get at David’s point, I’m also hoping that you will all contribute your own lists of the tunes common in your experience at sessions. I’m sure I’ve missed a few real standards.

Perhaps it will help if I reveal that my list is based on sessions in Washington D.C., Boston, NYC, Minneapolis, Vancouver and Calgary Canada, and towns across Montana. I’ve also skimmed from tune lists from California, Texas, and session tapes in dear old Ireland. Finally, some of these sessions included the cream of professional players, who travel widely, and talking with them about their tune selections gives a fair sense of what gets played around and about.

So…what are the popular tunes in your neck of the woods, the ones not yet on our list. Let’s make it OUR list, after all.

Posted .

Re: Common Session Tunes

Know 18 tunes on the lists. Just a word of warning for anyone who might try to learn all of them. A person can keep a maximum of about 200 fiddle tunes in his or her repertoire, maybe more if someone else can provide a reminder of how a tune goes. I heard Graham Townsend say this on a radio interview years ago. So what happens if you learn 201? I learned this for myself over the past fiew years. (My personal limit is considerably less than 200.) At some point the new tunes crowd out some old ones. You won’t find which tunes you have lost until you try to play it. You might get 2/3 of the way through the tune, then…. blank…there is nothing there…. absolutely nothing. Not so bad in a session, but in front of an audience…….ouch!

Re: Common Session Tunes

Ahhh…the dreaded tune goblin. Like socks in a washing machine, they go in with two halves and come out missing the mate.

I’ve found that I can keep about 300 tunes in active memory if I play at least 5 days a week and rotate through the roster so that almost everything gets played in a two-week period. How long you play each day is less important than not skipping days…even if 15 minutes is all you can manage.

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Re: Common Session Tunes

I am just back from the pub after my birthday drink(s) so here is my grade A No.1 slip jig set which consists of: Kid on the Mountain and An Phis Fliuch.Storming.May your God go with you.

Re: Common Session Tunes

About a year and a half ago, Mick Lowe on the Prof’s Irish Site, asked those of us he knew who attend sessions, to give him a list of the most often played tunes. His ambition was to compile a “most popular session tunes” list, as a result of getting input from all over the world. I think the list used to be on his site, but I couldn’t find it today. Today I sent him a message to get a link to it, or a copy of his results.

Re: Common Session Tunes

Take my advice, Will; don’t try all 300 in front of an audience
I got a list of tunes on the ‘card file’ on my old 386 computer, and periodically, I’ll go back and recycle a handful of them. But, I still lose a few, and I don’t know which ones they are until it is too late! Maybe I need to implant a 80 gig hard-drive between my ears, the one I have may have some bad sectors…. 🙂

Two weeks ago, I learned how to play the Kesh Jig, with the 5 note roll on the B notes. Tuesday night, I got into a jam with a fiddling friend of mine from Baltimore, and couldn’t remember the tune to save my life. I eventually got the first part, but the second part was completely unknown to me…. even after hearing my friend play it.
Just gone… blank,…. nada,…. nothing there, I might as well been trying to play ‘Britney Spears’….. Problem was, I learned about 5 or 6 tunes in the same week. At the time, I wondered if I was in for trouble,
but everything seemed to be ‘sticking’.

My problem, is that I have a good memory; but it is short. I said that to my wife the other day, and she said, “How short is it?” And I said, “How short is what?” Now I have a bump on my noggin, and some real serious short term memory loss, and I can’t remember how I got it….. )))))

Re: Common Session Tunes

Alice, I have a year-old copy of Lowe’s list and added some from it to the tunes listed here. A few of the tune names from his list were completely unfamiliar to me--from any source--and other’s were just different names for tunes already on my list (for example, the Banshee reel is also known as McMahon’s).

A few tunes from Lowe’s list are worth adding, as follows:


The Humours of Tulla
The Knotted Cord
Lady Anne Montgomery
Martin Wynne’s No 1.
Maud Miller
The Old Copperplate
The New Copperplate
Craig’s Pipes
Johnny Cronin’s Fancy
The Silver Spire
The Mountain Road
The Doon
The Boyne Hunt
The Boys of Ballysodare

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Keepers of Lists

Before everyone decides that I’m some anal retentive, ultra-organized list geek, I just want to clarify that I thought a session tune list would be useful to others, to help answer some of those requests about “what tunes should I learn first?” In the heat of playing I’m as blank as the next person when it comes to remembering tune names. And as a writer by trade (lists of words must be an occupational hazard!), I enjoy the escape this music provides--a chance to turn off the verbal mind and let all those relaxing synapses soak in a jacuzzi of bubbling melodies.

But the names are useful, no?

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Re: Common Session Tunes

Good lord, I hope I never play for an audience that would sit through 300 tunes! 🙂 The only time I came close to doing this was at a 12-hour session last February, and tunes came back in full that I hadn’t played in 15 years. By night’s end, my fingers were shot and my bowing arm spasming, but I still had a few tunes left that we hadn’t played.

Besides, if you put me in front of a real audience, I can’t remember a SINGLE tune. (Well, one gig went okay because my nerves disappeared when we walked onstage and I glanced down to realize that during warm ups I had somehow run my heavily rosined bow across the crotch of my dark green slacks…I figured no amount of clinkers and clams from my fiddle would distract the audience from my glowing white crotch, so I played with abandon….)

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Keeping not so ofetn played tunes straight

I don’t know if it happens to others, but there are certain tunes that strike me as kind of the same. For example The Temperance Reel & Over the Moore to Magie or Pigeon on the Gate & Green fields of Rossbiegh. If I can remember the one I’ll be damned if I can play the other one, especially in a set together. Nine times out of ten I end up slipping into the B part of the other one. This creates the Pigeon on the Kerry reel etc. I do have to say that tunes that I’ve been overexposed to like Sally Gardens or The Butterfly, are in my head & fingers forever.
I think it’s safe to say that the average range of tunes in any given session probably sits around 200, but there are always the odd tunes that are peculiar to one session or another which would push the count higher. But are they really ‘common session tunes’ if they’re played once every two months?

Re: Common Session Tunes

Brad, I know what you mean about similar tunes. Did a gig at an “Apple Festival” on Sunday, and I spoke to some locals beforehand, to get some ideas for tunes, requests, etc.

So, I started with a Canadian standard, MAPLE SUGAR, and tried to follow it with a popular local square dance tune titled SNOW DEER.
I didn’t realize it, but the phrasing and melody of the two tunes are almost identical for the first 4 bars, except they are in different keys. Before I knew what was happening, I was playing Maple Sugar in the key of D, and knew that I couldn’t pull it off…. Awww, well, they were a great group, and we all had fun, in spite of a weak start….

Re: Common Session Tunes

Yes, it happens to me as well.

There’s a set of A minory reels (Star of Munster/Hunter’s Purse/Sligo Maid etc) that will happily swap their B parts if I don’t watch out,or even If I do. You just have to carry on,though.

It’s always interesting to sit in on sessions and hear what other people play. Even in my regular ones,it will depend on who turns up and with what instruments.

Re: Common Session Tunes

More than twenty years ago during the Willie Clancy-Week in Miltown-Malbay an Irish musician told me (being a total beginner at the time - with Irish music - and no more than ten tunes under my belt) to have a repertoire of about 200 tunes, so I would spent more time playing than drinking and smoking during a session…


Re: Common Session Tunes

That’s a good reminder of the up side to NOT knowing a tune at a session--you get to visit with other players who don’t know it either!

One trick that helps me retain tunes is that I keep a mandolin next to my desk at work (I work at home, so this is easy). Whenever I’m waiting for my pc to boot up or while reading email, I pick up the mando and noodle out a tune or two. It’s the same fingering as my fiddle, but somehow not as distracting if I’m reading text. And it keeps the tunes fresh.

This is turning into a great discussion on tune memory and repertoire, but I’m still hoping to see lists of other people’s tunes--even if they are just the ones popular at your session.

Who’s playing what out there?

Posted .


I have the same problem that Brad has - slipping from part A of one tune into part B of another. Sometimes it gets worse, not better, when I’ve played them both recently.

By the way, Scotty, if your wife is asking how short it is, the honeymoon may be over! 🙂

Re: Common Session Tunes

Hmm. Will, it’s fantastic that you’ve come up with a list, but hilarious that you introduced it as a way to help people figure out which tunes to learn first. “Gosh, Will, what tunes should I learn to be able to play in a session?” “Try these four hundred tunes!” I’d write you a list of my session favorites, but every one I can think of is already on your very comprehensive list!

Re: Common Session Tunes

Honeymoon may be over? Two questions, Jeff. First, what is a honeymoon, is it like a roll or a cran? Second, uh, last week we were driving down the street, and we passed a young lady who was wearing not much at all, and my wife said in a rather disgusted voice, “Take a look at that, will you!”. And I said, “Gee, THANKS”, and now I have a black eye to go with the bump on my noggin, and still can’t remember my second question….*grin*….

Actually, there is a session here in Hamilton, Ontario, which just moved to Thursday nights, from Wednesday nights. Our session leader is preparing a list of tunes specifically for the session. I won’t get a copy of the list until next Thrusday at the earliest, but I will post it to the list. I think that it has about 60 tunes on it.

Re: Common Session Tunes

Just for fun, here is a list of tunes popular in Dublin in 1724, from a book (only one original known to exist, but there is an out of print facsimile) “A Collection of the most celebrated Irish Tunes proper for the violin, German Flute or hautboy Dublin 1724 Facsimile edition by Nicholas Carolan”

1 King of the Blind

2 Ye Clarges Lamentation

3 Sqr. Woodes`s Lamentation on ye Refusuall of his HALF PENCE

4 Da mihi manum

5 Thomas Burk

6 Eiry na Greany

7 Molly Halfpenny

8 Planksty Plunket

9 Plea Rarkeh na Rourkough or ye Irish weding improved with diferent divitions after ye Italian
maner with A bass and Chorus by Sigr. LORENZO BOCCHI

10 Counr. MacDonoghs Lamentation

11 Shea sude shear an Rode a Dima shee

12 Capten MAGAN

13 Creamonea

14 Tom Judge

15 Ta me ma Chulla

Re: Common Session Tunes

In answer to Kerri on the sheer number of “common” session tunes…I’m glad someone else appreciated the humor in all this. It certainly makes me laugh whenever I contemplate the lifetime ahead of learning tunes, always anxious that I still don’t know enough of them.

Yes, it is a hilariously long list. But contrast it to the total number of tunes, and it’s actually quite useful. Take the list here, for example, and use it to highlight tunes in your copy of O‘Neill’s and you’ll bypass 700 other tunes (some of which are fine tunes, by the way, just not as common at most sessions). And O’Neill’s is just a slice of what’s out there. Remember, there are THOUSANDS of tunes! I’ve transcribed a mere 800 onto my hard drive.

So, yes, it seems ridiculous to say, “Which tunes first? Well, start with these 300,” but that’s where this music leads us in its infinite variety. Start with the ones played in your local session. Add others as you come across them. I’m afraid there’s no other way than to learn them one at a time, and because they’re all gems, there’s no proper order to learn them in, and no bad place to start. Pick a tune and learn it, then another, and another. Don’t expect to learn them all by next week, but don’t let that stop you. 🙂


Posted .

Actually, after 20 years of playing this music, the list of tunes I typed in here now strikes me as a bit short. As I’ve said before, it’s possible to play 200 or more tunes in a single sitting, once you know them. Yes, if you’ve only been playing for 2-3 years, 200 tunes seems daunting, but once you’ve got them under your belt, you’ll be hungry for the next 200. I promise.

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Re: Common Session Tunes

Gee Thanks….that really narrows it down.

Re: Common Session Tunes

Facinating list of tunes.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where there appear to be ‘regional’ preferences fo tunes. East bay area used to be centered around tunes from the Fiddlers Fake Book, but is now heavily slanted towards French Canadian tunes. San Francisco, with heavy real Irish influence has favorite tunes, varying from one session to another. We are talking just across the SF/Oakland Bay bridge and what major differences. Then go north, where I live and the tune list has a lot of tunes on it played at one session, but not the other.

The one common thread of tunes, which can get you pummelled in one session (they will brand you with a big “B” for beginner on your forehead)is the old warhorses you have mentioned, but I will name the sources… any of the how to play??? books/tapes out there, Kevin Burkes tutors come to mind. But, except this one location, all the others are happy to play along with you with Maid Behind the Bar,Harvest Home, Kesh and so on.

I would suggest that there really can’t be a master list. I started learning to play about 15 years ago, I got a lot of records, you know, big black dics with little holes in the middle that have unrhythmetic clicks and pops, from the 50’s through early 70’s and learned tunes that I liked. I was playing some of them with a 70 year old gent, God rest him, who was very interested in my choice of tunes. Seems they were popular in his younger years, but they aren’t played much any more. In his time he had seen tunes be popular, fall out of favor and become popular again, only to start to fade away.

Learn what you like, and what your local session plays. Some of my favorite tunes are not on the first list.

Mike Euritt

Re: Common Session Tunes

In reply to whoever said above that the limit someone can have in memory is 200. I have to disagree. I’m playing about 5 years myself and struggling with a repetior of just above 150. Again I don’t claim to be able to play all of these perfectly on my own… but if the come up in a session I can have a go.

I play in a couple of local sessions in Wexfor Ireland. In one of them.. The Centenary Stores, the main man of the session has put together a list of tune sets. The core players at this session can start into any of these sets at will… and guess what… there are over 700 of them. I also play occasionally in another session where John McMahon plays concertina. Not to name drop, but apart from being a recorded artist in his own right John is a first cousin of Martin Hayes and so is steeped in the tradition. John has an encyclopedic memory for tunes. I’ve had the “number of tunes” discussion with John and his own take on it is that the really good session players can play along with upwards of 1000 tunes. Of course we are talking A team material here. His own repetior I’m sure is well in excess of this.

BTW. John plays on the Fisherstreet album, recorded back in the early ’90’s. It’s on the Mulligan label and is hard to find… but it’s an absolute gem.

Re: Common Session Tunes

Does anybody have a life out there??!!!
I broke my collar bone this summer and couldn’t squeeze my concertina.
Out of neccessity, I found a whole new world “out there”.
It’s amazing how much time I had devoted to working on these tunes.
But, I also found that this music had gotten into my soul (if not my fingers….)
and it wasn’t long before I was pushing the recovery envelope.
I’m now squeezing along as merrily as ever.
But, a repertoire of 200 tunes? That will take some time!

Re: Common Session Tunes

I agree with Mike that this list represents mostly “old war horses.” Many of my favorite tunes are also not represented. I wanted to avoid making this a list of my personal faves, but rather a recommendation for inexperienced players who want to be able to join in at most any session. From the favorable responses so far, it seems we’re on the right track

But we’re also seeing a handful of comments, some dripping with sarcasm, about how inclusive this list is--that it’s not narrow enough, or as Charlene complains, that 200 tunes is just unrealistic.

At the risk of further offending these folks, I’d like to respectfully point out that some people can learn and retain tunes more readily than others. Why assume we all learn or retain tunes at the same rate? Personally, my own learning rate varies, depending on the tune. Some find a seat in my memory right away--5-10 minutes and they’re firmly in place. Others I’ve worked on for weeks before they took root. Over the years, however, regardless of how each tune settles in, they all add up.

So, yes, I DO have a life, and I DON’T think that 200 or 300 tunes is too many, and I’d rather not feel apologetic about any of it, sarcasm or not. The list was meant to be helpful, to go beyond the perfectly good answer of “learn the tunes they play at your local session,” when asked “What tunes should I learn first?” The idea was to start a list of the likely tunes.

I for one would appreciate a little more discretion in the discussions. Think before you imply that knowing hundreds of tunes is impossible or ridiculous…read Fergal’s comment and consider how limited your point of view must look to John McMahon and other experienced, passionate players. To them, the above list must read like a string of cliche’s…. Please don’t set your own blinders as horizons for the rest of us who want to learn more about this music.

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will, I do appreciate the list. I think it’s funny seeing the road ahead all listed in one big lump, but I’m sure I’ll use it. I for one am grateful.

Also, I’ve never counted the tunes I know, but I have noticed I never run out, no matter how long I play. Even if I play for several hours and think I’ve completely exhausted my budding repertoire, after I pack my fiddle away, there’s always a couple more that crop up as I’m trying to fall asleep. I’d argue that there’s no end to how many tunes one can remember. Think of how many melodies we know, even without knowing we know them. Am I going to one day have “Happy Birthday” or “When the Saints go Marching in” squeezed out of my brain in favor of Irish music? I hope so! But I doubt it. I’m tackling the thousands of tunes one at a time, happily, focussing on the first that catch my ear. Thanks for the guidance, Will.

Re: Common Session Tunes

I’m just an old grouch some days 🙂

Kerri, your postings in other discussions let me know that you were just expressing your sense of humor on all this. It’s harder to tell with other folks if they haven’t joined in the conversation here before.

On remembering all these tunes--we hosted an all-day session here in Helena last February and I played for 12 hours straight, breaking only to rent a beer (and then to pay the rent). And after all those tunes, I laid down at 2 am and as soon as my head hit the pillow my head was full of all the tunes we hadn’t had time to play!

Our attitude toward the music can also help us remember the tunes. Elsewhere in all these discussions, someone distinguished between recreating the tradition and reviving it. I agree with that distinction, and it also works at the level of the individual tune…if we attempt to breathe new life into it every time we play, or at least help it live as well as it did the last time we played it, then we invest ourselves in the tune. Do that a few times, and the tune is more than easy to remember--it becomes near impossible to get out of our heads! In this mindset, “practice” is no different than any other time spent playing the music.

Kerri, and others, what tunes are you working on now? I’m curious in part because I tend to learn fairly obscure tunes these days, yet right now I’m exploring Rakish Paddy for the first time. Not sure how that one stayed off my list for so long….


Posted .

Re: Common Session Tunes

Every human being has an incredible facility to memorize large volumes of information. People used to memorize stories such as the Illiad which would take many day’s to recite. Of course, they had to (there was no written language when the Illiad was created). It seems that the written word has made what was a very common skill (memorization) appear magical.

Just a random thought.

Re: Common Session Tunes

In an earlier comment, Will writes:

“if we attempt to breathe new life into it every time we play, or at least help it live as well as it did the last time we played it, then we invest ourselves in the tune. Do that a few times, and the tune is more than easy to remember--it becomes near impossible to get out of our heads!”

In a sense, we might add that every tune, like a person, is (or ought to be considered!) an end in and of itself. Often when it comes to practicing, however, the situation is different: a tune becomes a means to some other end, like trying learn whatever instrument one happens to be playing. Now, I’m not about to scold anyone for violating some sort of categorical imperative. Woodshedding is a necessary evil, after all. But I guess my point is that when one is practicing--or playing in any setting for that matter--to keep in mind what you’re really trying to accomplish. If you’re just trying to master technical dimension of your instrument or the music, all well and good; but just don’t expect to be too good on remembering the tunes you’re hacking upon. However, on the other hand, if you are, as Will puts it, really breathing new life into the tune, really greeting it like a long lost friend or a respected new acquaintance, don’t be surprised if it sticks to your soul (and in your memory) like, uh, a fly on flypaper (sorry couldn’t think of another simile, but you get the idea 🙂.

By the way, just learned the Evesdropper this afternoon. Lovely little tune. Just put it in a set with Ryan’s Favorite and Out on the Ocean.

Re: Common Session Tunes

Now I know why people use the little smiley faces : ) when corresponding without the benefit of body language.
But I still think 200 tunes is a lot for Me to have at my fingertips. If every one of the tunes I learned in my childhood were Irish, wouldn’t I be movin’!
(Does anyone have an explanation why we still remember the silly dittys from 2nd grade??)
I find that I’m gravitating toward learning tunes that are on cds focusing on free reeds.
Since I play concertina, there is a certain limitation right there! But there’s a nice range of listening,
from the older generations of Mrs. Crotty to new tunes and interpretations by Tim Van Ecyk and Simon Thumaine.
I have a rather miserly number of tunes that I feel comfortable with at sessions; fewer still that I can lead.
But, that is the beauty of a quiet instrument. Nobody knows when you make mistakes. ; )

Re: Common Session Tunes

Charlene wrote “Now I know why people use the little smiley faces”

Thanks, Charlene. That is the reason why the ‘don’t try all 300 tunes’ post was filled with bad jokes, and )))))))))))).

I still stand by that little piece of advice. I don’t doubt that anyone can have more than 200 tunes. I know that I have learned more than that, but I have also ‘abandoned’ a good chunk of repertoire, (mainly bluegrass and other ensemble stuff) to keep about 150 fiddle tunes ready for performance. I typically perform alone, and if the tune goes down, so do I….. you can see why I keep several ‘memory’ jokes at the ready. It doesn’t happen often, but, as I explained, it does happen, and when it happens it is unexpected, and I never get over the suffering. In a session, it is a different matter, and I do play some of that abandoned repertoire, and as I mentioned in another thread, I have been surprised that the tunes that I haven’t played in five years still sound the same as they did 5 years ago. I can still play many of those tunes, but I wouldn’t try them in front of an audience.
That is still good advice, and for anyone who doesn’t believe it, you can prove it wrong by trying to play 300 different tunes for audiences over the period of …. say…. 6 months. 🙂
Having said that, I am sure that many of you will develop the ability to do just that….
Smile, don’t take things so seriously….)))))))))))))))

The session at the Lionshead Pub in Hamilton, Ontario, has been changed again, this time from Thursday nights, to Tuesdays, and as a result, I have a list of tune sets prepared by the session leader.

Father Kelly’s---The Sally Gardens---The Maid Behind the Bar---The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Swallowtail Jig---Morrison’s Jig---The Kid on the Mountain

The Mason’s Apron

St. Anne’s Reel---the Star of Munster---The Temperance Reel

Reel Gan Aimn---Sleep sound in the Morning

Sean South---Kevin Barry---Boys of the Old Brigade

The Marina Waltz

The Kesh Jig---Rakes of Kildare

Dennis Murphy’s--Sean Ryan’s

Mickey Chewing Bubble Gum--Rattlin’ Bog

The Clumsy Lover---Music of a Fine Harmony

The Blackbird ---Sharon Shannon

Out on the Ocean---Seanamach Tube Station

Smash the Windows---Haste to the Wedding---Irish Washerwoman

Dumphy’s Hornpipe---Madame Bonnaparte

Fanny Powers---Planxty Irwin ---Si Beag, Si Mohr---The Rowan Tree

Harvest Home----Boys of Bluehill

Cherish the Ladies---The Kavial Tail Jig

Also some assorted tunes, not arranged into sets
The Butterfly
Dingle Regatta
Scotland the Brave
Sheehan’s Reel
The Devil’s Dream
The Wise Maid
The Silver Spear
Sligo Maid
The Box of Arnmore
Drowsy Maggie
Dick Gossips
The Musical Priest
The Bunch of Keys
Rumors of Tulla

Re: Common Session Tunes

Will - the tunes I’m working on these days are also fairly obscure tunes on the edge of my ability. Tommy’s Tarbuka’s, for example (your post, if I recall correctly). After a half hour of hacking away at that little bastard I find every other tune I know improves. (For several weeks now I’ve just been trying to hit all the notes, and now that I can do that I face the monumental task of making it lilty). Also Jean’s Reel and the Glasgow reel… as for common tunes I used to play in my glorious prairie dwelling days, not on your list…

Grumpy Old Man and Crotchety Old Woman (Quebec?)
Reel de mon Grandpere (Quebec)
Temperance Reel (or Teetotalers)

There are about forty more Gan Ainms from before I realized how handy it is to know the names of tunes. I also know (I counted) twenty five tunes from your list quite well, and am at some stage in the learning of another thirty or so tunes. I printed the list and “borrowed” some hi-liters from work to see where I’m at.

I’ve also been learning some Gordon Stobbe tunes. He writes a beautiful jig. I should go do some work, I suppose. Technically, that’s why I come to this horrible place.

Re: Common Session Tunes

Hmmm. Well, Shannon Heaton, about to move to Boston, and I were talking about how many tunes she knows. We counted for quite some time, and allowing for long forgotten tunes that come back when somebody plays one in a session, and tunes that she learned that nobody plays anymore, and also tunes that sound familiar but she can’t remember if she actually learned it or if it simply sounds a lot like another tune she does know, we figured she knows something nearing 1000 tunes. I didn’t mistype that. Really, one thousand tunes.

Shannon knows that many tunes, and she still runs across tunes she doesn’t know in sessions, even here in Denver. Shannon makes her living at playing Irish music, though, I should probably say, so she sits down and learns tunes regularly, usually every day.

The fact is that you will never know enough tunes. You will always be worrying that there are so many more tunes to learn. Every time you go to a new session, or a new person visits your regular session, you will abruptly be made aware how few tunes you know. The thing that helps with your despair over this is that everyone is in the same boat.

Once upon a time, an Irish player could get away with only knowing about ten good tunes, really really well. That’s not the case anymore, although it’s the best way for your first year or so, according to lots of the best players I’ve ever met. Learn as many as you can, whenever you can, is my motto, and it’s best to learn them from other players. Make sure your repertoire is mainly of potboilers like Maid Behind the Bar, yes, but also be sure that you have at least three uncommon tunes as well. Try to learn a new tune at least one a month or two if you can manage it, for starters. Later it will get easier to learn new tunes. If you attend a session regularly, you’ll find that some of the tunes just start insinuating themselves into your head by themselves, and one day you’ll start playing and there it’ll be.

Whup, time to get going for the Sunday session!



After so long away from the list, I laughed a lot reading this thread. Heh. This is a fun one!


Re: Common Session Tunes

My current signature tune on the pennywhistle is Cincinatti Hornpipe (aka Cincinnatus). It’s a wonderful fun tune, with parts reminiscent of the Baroque recorder sonatas I used to play in college.

Posted by .

Cincinatti Hornpipe

I’m sure it’s pretty, Dave, but i wonder if it’s a session standard. Many beginners (i for one) spend a lot of time learning pretty tunes that they never actually get to play in a session. It’s better to have an experienced player tell you what to learn. Another reason is that we naturally choose tunes that are easier for us to play, but it’s important to be able to play the tunes that are not so nice. For example, for a whistle player, to be able to play fiddle tunes, be able to transpose the octave when needed, etc.

Re: Common Session Tunes

I wouldn’t worry about trying to learn a set number of tunes before regarding yourself as having passed the beginner stage. I know a fiddle player who once said to me “so many tunes, so little time”. He had got it all wrong - the point is to be able to play the tunes you know well. Of course, he didn’t. I used to be guilty of this myself when I was a lot younger, and having the advantage of living in Ireland and being able to pick up tunes quite quickly by ear, I amassed a fair old repertoire. I now realise I didn’t like many of those tunes - they didn’t excite or interest me. I just learned them for the sake of learning them. True, they allow me to participate a lot more in sessions but I don’t necessarily get great satisfaction from playing them now. One thing I’ve learned is that I don’t need to know and play every tune at the session. If I hear a nice tune I’ll learn it - if I think it’s rubbish or contrived or simply derivative then I won’t bother. I probably know more than a thousand tunes, but that’s not something I’m particularly proud of. Don’t know who this is aimed at or if it makes any sense to anyone - just me I suppose…

Re: Common Session Tunes


Re: Common Session Tunes

Believe it or not, I was about to go home and then I had a second thought about my opinion. The point I was going to make, which you thankfully have already picked up on, is that you need to know a lot of tunes before you’ve got the luxury of being selective. Maybe I was being a little thoughtless. You used the phrase “lovely tunes” rather than just tunes so perhaps you’re already picking the ones you like rather than just any old session standard. Let the debate continue! :

Re: Common Session Tunes

heh. Great minds… Anyway, there’s also the “problem” that sometimes you’ll not particularly like a tune until you hear someone play it in a setting you’ve never heard or whatever, sometimes even just a different note here or there.

I’ve always disliked Star of Munster because I just hate that wretched B part (I know most people like the tune, I just never have), but was listening to an old Frankie Gavin recording the other day and suddenly realized that I love his setting of the tune. So I guess now I can’t say I hate the tune. 🙂

Go home. It’s Monday. Yuck.


Re: Common Session Tunes

do what i do - start with the ones with cool names! who want’s to learn “Sean O‘soandso’s 3rd” when there’s a world of “Go to the Devil and Shake yourself”’s out there?!

Re: Common Session Tunes

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Re: Common Session Tunes

lovely NCFA. ida never thunk.

Re: Common Session Tunes

they say the hardest reel of all is the bucks of oranmore…seamus ennis played an amazing version of this on the`s on youtube…the most difficult version of the hardest reel of all…typical of seamus…only pipers can really appreciate his extra-ordinary style….he would sacrifice tuning, wrong notes, squeaking on the chanter, leaking bellows, to execute a grace note or difficult piece of cranning….hard to explain how good he was, with dodgy tuning, squeaking chanter, sloppy live playing, life style. great man….great piper.