How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Reels have a (generally) standardized beat structure as do jigs, but I have read on here before that airs have no such set structure and could be any; the only thing lumping them together being that they are slow.

So this has made it very hard for me to know where I am at in a tune and how to make my own variations and punctuations, keep time etc. I am able to copy what I hear from the recordings but this not knowing of what the structure is means I am not able to break free from the recordings and I would like to be able to in order to vary the tunes.

I could give you examples of airs I have learned but then I would have to keep asking every time I learned a new one. So I suppose I would like to know how does one generally ascertain where the beats are (and with that where articulations and ornamentation would go) for any slow air (or whatever tune) when you don’t know before hand and only have a recording to go by. I mean for the ‘dancy’ tunes it would be easy; even if you don’t know what a reel or a jig is it is easy to hear the pulse beat in a recording but for airs and other slower tunes then how do you know when you don’t have a distinct on-beat to guide you?

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

You cannot generalize because (according to Wikipedia):

"A slow air is a type of tune in Irish traditional music, marked by the absence of strict metre or structure, melodically "open ended" and generally derived from the melody of a sung song but instead played on a solo melodic instrument. The melodies are often drawn from the sean-nós solo singing tradition."

So, learn the song. Then you may give it your own interpretation.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

This is a tough question. I think the best answer I can give with my limited knowledge is that with slow airs (free) you need to think more in terms of phrases and breath marks - the in between part where the melody pauses. You need to come up with this awareness yourself. There is an inner pulse but I would not try to really count but rather have a sense of down beats - especially the first of each phrase and the last resting note. The shape of the melody will create points that feel similar to downbeats in regular meter tunes but if you wrote the tune down you might have constantly changing meter marking to work these out. I interpreted Mary Bergin’s Aisling Gheal and entered my version on this site’s tune page. It’s a good sample of my approach but my approach is imperfect. It was more or less an experiment and perhaps these types of airs should be left off the page.
As with all things in music you should develop your slow airs from the masters. I think if you learn enough you will develop your own tastes and a better instinct for how to create an interpretation and phrase a tune from the page. This is something I’m just beginning to work on more seriously as I’ve been going through the air section in Chief O’Neill’s Music Of Ireland.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

The fact that there really aren’t any beat notes or a regular pulse makes it challenging for me to learn airs, too. What’s worked best for me is to find recordings of someone singing the original sean nos song, and listen over and over. Meanwhile, I look for a translation or use google.translate for an approximation. Then, I try to keep the sense of the phrase in my head as I play, and try to make my fiddle ‘speak’ the melody.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Well at least it isn’t just me! 🙂

Sounds like rocky water abound; better to not try and go outside the bounds of the source material in this case at least not at this early stage as I have only learned a couple.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

You could learn them from someone who knows how they go, at a session or from a cd. They are murder to learn otherwise.

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Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

So in terms of keeping in time is there any way to keep your bearings?

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Listen, listen and listen. Until you can hear any time in your head you’ll not be able to play it well.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

I’ve been playing ITM for 40 years and for the first half of that time I was clueless about how to play airs.

I had a breakthrough many years ago. It seems so obvious, but it was about doing loads of listening, both to the airs being played on the uilleann pipes, and being sung by sean nos singers.

In the listening it finally became apparent that it was, for me anyway, not about bars or measures or beats or note-values or any of that, but about phrases, larger phrases that had a sweep to them, each phrase a self-contained tune with a beginning, middle, and end, having a climax and a resolution.

I’m no expert. I don’t speak Irish or sing Irish. I’m not Irish at all, but an American. What do I know about it? Probably not much. I feel, though, that airs finally make sense to me and that I can play them fairly well.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Spot on Richard.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Right on, Richard.

It helps to have some local sean nos singers of some quality around you can record for study purposes…you can also find recordings of highly regarded sean nos singers on various media platforms, just poke around a bit. Youtube certainly has some good ones. For the more obscure airs you’re going to have to find someone who knows it and will allow you to record him or her singing the song. It’s a bit of work but it pays off richly in terms of personal enjoyment and your ability to connect with an audience that needs an occasional break from dance music.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Agree with what Richard said.
Not wanting to re-open the "dots v ears" debate, but you will find slow airs written down in notation: sometimes, but rarely in trad scores, you may find phrase marks over those magical phrases, just as it might be if you were singing it. It may have a time signature even: 3/4, 4/4, but maybe a lot of pause/held marks or odd bars in another time sig. You can learn the sequence of notes from such a score, but not how to play it. Yes, listen, listen, listen, including to yourself, even record yourself: but do not try to replicate exactly what you hear on a CD. as that player will probably never play the same tune exactly the same twice over: put your own interpretation on it, or as they say in singing circles, "make the song your own". RUBATO is the magic word. Love it, feel it, move with it, react to it………….
I speak as one who is besotted by slow airs. If you are not, just stick to jigs and reels in regular timing!

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

For me, the notation of the dance music is close enough to the sound that a trad musician who happens to also be a sightreader can sightread a reel that he’s never heard and, using his knowledge of the traditional reel idiom, produce an acceptable rendition. He won’t be playing what’s written, exactly, but will instead use what’s written to suggest a traditional-sounding reel.

For me, sean nos airs aren’t like that. I’ve yet to see airs written out in such a way that I could produce an acceptable version of an air I’ve not heard by reading the sheet music alone.

I have a book of airs, and they can be played as written. This produces nice-sounding tunes but they’re not related to the art of air-playing.

So for me, sheet music of airs is useless, and unrelated to the process.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

That is a pertinent point regarding reading the notes of airs. I remember having a hell of a time of it when I tried reading airs from o neils.

With reels and jigs it was fine once I had already learned how they generally sound from audio because their structure is constant so I just use the framework I already learned from recordings and only needed to learn the notes from the book (when no recordings are available as the yellow o neils has loads of nice obscure/forgotten tunes).

I can’t imagine how you would learn airs only from notes given that there is not uniform structure to them? How would you ever know how the phrasing was supposed to go for each one as they would all have to be treated on a case by case basis?

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Slow airs for me are trying to replicate the human voice with my instrument. Understanding the sean nós style and how singers of this style will approach notes, the variations they use etc will certainly help.
Seamus Ennis has a version of "Eamon an Chnoic" in which he sings the song and then plays it which I always enjoyed.
The difficulty is that not all tunes that are classified as airs are derived from songs or the original song has been lost to memory. It has been sometimes uses to lump in other types of tune. in Uilleann piping there used to be a concept of a "piece" like the Foxchase which has recognisable tunes on it but also allows improvisation and variation so it only can be learned by listening and moving on with the interpretation when you’re comfortable with it.
No substitute for listening to lots of airs unfortunately but Looking back that’s been half the fun.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Richard is nailing this, perhaps it’s the interest in pibroch? Anyways for my part I’ll say I can hold my own in the playing of traditional in many cases. When it comes to airs you can forget it. I play a few and I play them well enough that I have even been paid to do it but believe me every single one has been like pulling hen’s teeth. The only ones I play well I learned from being in direct contact, with both players and the music. I’ve spent some wonderful time in the company of great a great pibroch player in pretty much one to one tuition but I’ve not the place and time and the immersion in the tradition it takes to really get on top and I haven’t got anywhere as a result. I’ve learnt 2 things over the years in this regard, learning directly is pretty much a must and playing out and learning to express what you have learned through your own lens is absolutely critical. You’ll die on your feet, guaranteed, but if you persist you will learn to express what you can play with a feeling that makes it worthwhile for some one to want to listen to it eventually. By the way I will express one concern. When it comes to airs try and leave those over formal churchy sort of settings alone. Everyone is too polite and too into other stuff to really feed back to your playing. You need to find a real audience.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Reading that again, I guess what I am trying to say is beyond the basic structure of the tune there is no formula. I’ve also argued this in the past regarding jigs, marches and reels and just about every other form where people have asked for some kind of magic cure all to how to play a piece of music. You have to learn it and you have to feel it. If you have done both you have probably got it right but you will never know until someone you don’t know unexpectedly shows some kind of appreciative emotion that echoes your own when you play the piece.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

From one who doesn’t play airs — in all music, and especially in fiddle tunes, I listen for musical phrases and think of them as questions and answers. I’m thinking this might help you organize the parts of a no-tempo air.

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Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

In pibroch, have the variations become formalised or is there freedom to add your own interpretation?

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Good question Seamus and there isn’t really an easy answer. I’m not into the whole competition scene myself so I’m not the best judge but I’ll offer this. Certainly competition has formalised and proscribed what is allowed as variation however as with all musical performance expression is ( supposedly at least ) valued by the judges and this does allow a certain amount of grace to the player regarding timing, setting choices and so forth. Recently players less attached to the whole competition thing have been reclaiming pibroch from this proscription through an understanding of Gaelic language, original sung tunes and the notion that ultimately these melodies were and ought to remain beautiful and relevant. The music of this tradition is not as free form as an Irish air of the type I believe the op has in mind but there are certain similarities I’d suggest.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCRbURorYE8

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

It seems fairly clear that ceol mor was extemporised in a manner not unlike jazz: the musician would play the tune, a song-air perhaps, then proceed to play a series of variations.

While the style of the variations and their order were formulaic, the exact number of variations, the exact ordering, and the details of the way they were played would probably vary from performance to performance.

A tiny percentage of the old performances happened to be captured in notation (usually canntaireachd) and sadly these came to be viewed as a canon of permissible versions. Nowadays some piper/scholars are reviving the old way of presenting ceol mor, Barnaby Brown for one.

I’ve heard echos of ceol mor in the air-playing of some uilleann pipers: they will play the song-air in a more vocal manner the first time, then the second and third playings of the tune become more ornamented. Some airs played in this manner are notated in O Neill’s.

Re: How do I ascertain the ‘beat’ notes/general structure in slow airs as there is no standard rhythm structure for this class?

Usually I might listen to a few versions of the air and then try to hear it sung as well. That usually helps me with the phrasing and expression. Finding out the background for the song as well. I don’t speak Irish so might sometimes be able to read an English translation of the words to play with feeling and emotion.