What the heck is a single reel?

What the heck is a single reel?

So I’ve seen lots of folks on here say it is just a reel with shorter parts or not repeated, depending on how you look at it. Then I’ve talked about “The Rose Tree” as a polka when a knowledgeable bouzouki player at my session says “that’s not a polka, it’s a single reel”. Reading past discussions didn’t really clear this up for me. The rhythm to “Rose Tree” is very different from “Musical Priest” but both are single reels? Can we settle this once and for all?

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

If the tune you’re talking about resembles any of the transcriptions here, it’s a polka:
https://thesession.org/tunes/1123

A single reel is a reel where the parts have four bars instead of eight, plus repeat signs (e.g. Drowsy Maggie).

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Yes that’s the tune. I hummed it for the old-timer who affirmed it was not a polka but a single reel.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

I think this might just be one of those cases where “knowledgeable” doesn’t necessarily mean “always right about everything all the time”. Because that tune is clearly a polka.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

I found this comment on another thread:

www.irishtune.info describes them as follows:
‘Single reel. See also note above under “reel” regarding the confusing and common use of the term “single reel” to refer to a regular reel “played singly” or “played single.” The distinct tune type “single reel”, which is only rarely encountered in Irish music, is easily mistaken for a polka or a reel, even by experienced musicians, or for a fast hornpipe or barn dance. Considering the unique dance steps that go with single reels known in the Munster region, it seems to be most akin to the class of polkas that are very march-like. I would also agree that you could characterize it as a reel with a frequent substitution of a held note for a heavy-light pair, especially on strong beats…… Single reels are usually notated in 2/4, like polkas, and my bar counts reflect that notation.’"

Here is the thread link:
https://thesession.org/discussions/22896

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

See. There is some reel confusion going on here.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

I actually know the guy that wrote that personally, he attends the same session where the above mentioned old-timer schooled me the other night.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Reels generally are played in groups of 8 bars (four beats to the bar). A reel played double then repeats these 8 bars. For a dancer this gives an opportunity to repeat the same step with the feet reversed -- e.g., leading with the left foot rather than the right foot on the second time through. A single reel does not have this repeat, and so after the A part is played (8 bars), you go right into the B part.

It is often true that a single reel can be played as four bars repeated for each part, but this is certainly not essential. There are many single reels where the second four bars are not a repeat of the first four bars. Also there are reels played double where the full repeated A part is basically the same 4 bars played 4 times.

And there are even reels that fall in between, where the A part is repeated and the B part is not -- and even vice versa with the A part single and the B part doubled.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

See what I mean. Fiddler3s idea of a single reel is completely different than some other folks understanding.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

I’m afraid I can’t recall where I read it, but I saw a description a few months ago that listed Rakes of Mallow as a typical example of a single reel.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Sorry for the confusion ….

My description is the common parlance (in my experience). There is a type of tune called ‘single reel’ which is as described by reelsweet above. I have never come across anyone in an Irish session using that name for those tunes. More often I hear people call those tunes ‘polkas’. I do not see how they are obviously distinguished from polkas -- but perhaps someone can explain a clear difference. I know they come up in some set dances, and maybe it is just a convention among those in the know about the origins of the dance.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

The Kingston Irish Tunebook volume 2 ( http://www.srayner.ca/comhaltas/M_Music.htm#Tunebook )
lists single reels separately from polkas. The ones they have are:
The Girl I Left Behind Me
Spanish Lady
Rattlin’ Bog
White Cockade
Soldier’s Joy
Rakes of Mallow

(This was the source I couldn’t recall an hour ago.)

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Perhaps the confusion arises from looking at the sheet music for a tune, counting the bars, and classifying it accordingly. It is problematic to categorise tunes as, eg, a reel or a polka, as tunes are adapted, changed, converted at will, witness the number of 6/8 marches played as jigs, hornpipes played as reels, et al. Just as a tune can not reliably be said to be ‘in such-and-such a key’, neither can it be said to be of a particular type. This is not the case when a tune is heard being played, unless, of course, the player got the tune from inappropriately labelled sheet music
Dances are a different matter, and, as stated above, a single reel is not the same as a double reel.
Actually, the comments so far are not so contradictory, but rather home in on different aspects of the same subject.

Posted by .

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

I know The Rose Tree as a two-step, which is a kind of tune you would dance the Gay Gordons to - it has a march-like tempo. Similar tunes would include My Love She’s but a lassie yet and other marches. So I would say the Rose Tree is neither a reel nor a polka.

ps this type of two-step should not be confused with a military two-step (normally played in triple time)

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Another term used here (Scotland) for this type of tune/dance is a quickstep. Additional examples would be; Barren Rocks of Aden, Dornoch Links, 93rds Farewell to Gibralter etc. Dance settings can be found in Kerrs collections. The Rose Tree is also sometimes just referred to as a “country dance”.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

“I actually know the guy that wrote that personally, he attends the same session where the above mentioned old-timer schooled me the other night.”

Wow! The air must’ve reeked with the smell of mold!

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

You have to be careful. Sometimes - “I think this might just be one of those cases where ”knowledgeable“ doesn’t necessarily mean ”always right about everything all the time" - you’re talking about yourself.

Informative thread. Good to know in case of running into somebody who uses other terminology.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

too true tdrury

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Many of those single reels happen to be songs. Coincidence? or is there something about the tunes that lend themselves to being sung?

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

I think they ‘work’ as tunes with less notes than the tunes what people are calling reels. I think that makes them better for songs.

Also, I think for the same reason, they work better for the sort of dances people do in England. I play all the tunes in the list GaryAMartin gave, plus the Rose Tree, but am not sure if they would fit in well at an “Irish session” in England. I have played Soldier’s Joy at “Irish-ish” sessions in England - but usually in a set with tunes that I think of as Scottish.

Do they get played at sessions in Ireland or are they mainly used for dancing ?

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Play a single reel and an ordinary reel as a set. Start with what you think is a lively tempo with the single reel and note the trouble you have trying to play the ordinary reel at the same speed. That is how I found out the difference. For instance play the Ennis Reel first and then go into the Sally Gardens.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

What’s the Ennis Reel? I don’t see such a tune in the database here. Does it have another name, or is it not here?

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

To confuse the issue further, I learned The Rose Tree as a fife march. Ditto The Girl I Left Behind Me. Actually, any polka can be played as a march, all it takes is a change in the rhythm and emphasis. And marches (at least the 2/4 ones) can become polkas.
The way I have heard the term single reel used, it doesn’t refer to a rhythm. It is just a reel with two eight bar parts that don’t repeat, or two four bar parts that do repeat. Single reel is probably not as mathematically accurate as calling them 0.5 reels, since instead of 32 bars, they only last 16.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

I’m not sure if this will be helpful to you, Earl, but here in Newfoundland there is a popular type of tune simply called a ‘single.’ Newfoundland singles are usually written in 2/4 time but are much quicker than polkas and have a different sort of swing. In comparing them to Irish music, I’ve often thought of them as being somewhere between polkas and reels, and, in fact, a lot of tunes played as singles in Newfoundland are played as polkas or reels in Ireland.

Here is an example of a group called The Dardanelles playing a set of singles: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gReeImLyOYg .


As for the Rose Tree, there’s no doubt that its a funny sort of tune. It’s common here in Newfoundland and I’ve heard it played as both a reel and a single by different players. However, I’ve probably heard more players do it as a single and it seems to flow better into other singles than other reels.

Some Newfoundland singles that can be found on this site include:
https://thesession.org/tunes/12458
https://thesession.org/tunes/12460
https://thesession.org/tunes/2490
https://thesession.org/tunes/7161
https://thesession.org/tunes/12483
https://thesession.org/tunes/12457

Hope this is helpful!

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Yeah, I’ve long wondered if there was a connection between singles and single reels. I don’t feel like I have a strong enough grasp on what makes each type distinct from polkas / reels to figure it out.

It feels to me like there’s a PhD thesis in here somewhere…

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Sorry to resurrect this thread, but things still aren’t very clear to me at this point. It seems like the definition of a single reel might be “a reel with 8 bars of 2/2 time per section instead of 16.” (Allowing for reels with more than two sections.) When playing it (and not paying attention to dot-ty things like bars) it feels like “a reel that seems to be over very quickly.” One of the sessions I play with has the comment on their web page “we usually play tunes through three times, though single reels may be played four or five times.”

In accordance with these definitions, it seems like Drowsy Maggie, The Morning Dew, and Rolling in the Ryegrass would be single reels: they have only 8 bars per section, and they definitely feel “short” when you play them. However, I also read somewhere that single reels are very rare, which doesn’t square with the fact that these three are popular session tunes. (Perhaps “rare” just means “not that many of them,” not “infrequently encountered in actual sessions.”)

So, are these examples of single reels and is my definition anywhere near right?

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Also, The Wind That Shakes the Barley. There may well be more: I’m just drawing from the relatively meager tune selection in my head.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

The Ashplant - also a load of Shetland reels, Sleep soond in da Mornin, Scalloway Lassies and Donald Blue to name but 3

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

Re-reading this whole thread and looking over the actual reels in thesession.org, we have one of two possible situations:
(1) A single reel IS NOT defined by the number of measures, but rather it’s an entirely different type of tune, even more different from a reel than a slip jig is from a jig. The https://www.irishtune.info/rhythm reference and roughly half the messages in this thread support this point of view.
(2) A single reel IS defined by the number of measures or repeats. This would mean single reels are not rare at all, in fact 6 of the top 20 reels according to thesession (Drowsy Maggie, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, The Musical Priest, The Mountain Road, The Morning Dew, Toss the Feathers; plus Rolling in the Ryegrass and The Ashplant adds two other popular ones) are single reels. The other half of messages (and I think the session I mentioned above) support this view.

I’m coming to believe there there’s a musicological definition and a commonly-used definition: one that’s used by folk music researchers in their research and another that’s commonly used by session musicians. (In this scenario, folk music researchers who are also session musicians probably struggle with whether to fight a losing battle trying to convince their fellow musicians of the “real” definition of “single reel.” I suspect they just give up after awhile, reasoning that it really doesn’t matter all that much what people call things, as long as they play them well. Nevertheless, it’s probably a bit frustrating.) This would explain the split between messages here, and why irishtune.info’s definition differs from what I’ve heard elsewhere.

Re: What the heck is a single reel?

The Four-hand Reel came into focus recently when it was played as a double reel in session.

To the advice that it was a ‘single’ reel cross-reference was offered to the Five Mile Chase on this platform (qv) where (at least) one version is indeed indicated to be played as a ‘double’ reel. Long story short… I looked in O’Neill’s 1850 and the 4-hand is there as the second-last reel (1554) and it is clearly a single reel (8 bars not repeated, then an 8-bar turn similarly not repeated).

BUT! if we are to believe O‘Neill there are no ’double‘ reels - every reel in the book is 8 bars unrepeated and then an 8-bar turn, similarly un-repeated (yes there are 3- and 4-part reels but the same applies). So at what point did this ’doubling’ of reels occur? Is it a cross-pollination from the jigs?

Have to admit that I am nonplussed at this observation - how did I miss this? Has everyone missed it?

Clearly not: Breathnach in Folk Music and Dances of Ireland (p56) says ‘Formerly the reel was played single to match the dance, but now, when the music is played more often for listening to than for dancing, it is customary to double the reel….’ From this I conclude that all reels are ‘single’ but that customarily they may be and are ‘doubled’ in accordance with the pre-disposition of the player, the listener, the dance, the company. Talk about a living tradition.

Examining reels in O‘Neill’s through this lens I am impressed by the number that are, in my experience, alive and kicking as ’single’ reels. An endangered species?