Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

Some composers seem to push the envelope, such as Finbarr Dwyer and Paddy Fahey, but still sound ‘Irish’. Are there certain note sequences that give ITM the right sound? Is it the tempo or phrasing? Repetitive tropes? I don’t know much about music theory, but if anyone can shed light on what the essence of Irish traditional music is that distinguishes it from other forms of music, I would love to know your thoughts on this. Thanks.

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Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

Better minds than mine have struggled with this. As a jumping off place let me introduce you to Risteard de Hindeberg, or Richard Henebry, SJ : https://journalofmusic.com/focus/musical-priest
You might be able to get copies of his works through Inter Library Loan.
Mayhap it is like pornography…you know it when you see (hear) it 🙂

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

Here is an electronic version of Henebry’s Handbook of Irish Music: https://www.itma.ie/digital-library/text/handbook-1

Haven’t gone through that yet, but some of the answers you are looking for might be there. Other books are:

Breandán Breathnach, Folk Music and Dances of Ireland, Ossian Publications, 1971
Tomás Ó Canainn, Traditional Music in Ireland, Ossian Publications, 1978
James R. Cowdery, The Melodic Tradition of Ireland, Kent State University Press, 1990

but none of these goes as deep as you mention in your post.

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

"I don’t know much about music theory, but … . "

I suspect that, if there is an authoritative answer to this, (big ‘if’) it would involve quite a lot of music theory, and an analysis of the prevalence of certain intervals, modes, tempi, inflections and decorations in phrasing, to say nothing of the part played by aural, written and recorded sources, the influence of certain players and composers, and the social/cultural relevance of regional - and international - factors. (See Holohan, for example, on whether there is actually an identifiable ‘East Clare’ style as distinct from the way Paddy Fahey played and wrote tunes).

Seems to me a bit like studying accents and dialects without any grounding in phonology or linguistics. I doubt if a layman’s explanation would answer all the questions.

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Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

I think a lot of it has to do with the way you play it.

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

English social ‘folk dance’ of the last few decades tends to be more high stepping than Irish dance, with less of the quick stepping. This comes through in the rhythms, with less of the Irish tendency to ‘fill in the gaps’. I have been told that English jigs in particular are unique in western Europe for their high stepping.

Add to that that a lot of players at English sessions will also play for Morris.

What makes a tune sound Irish

"I think a lot of it has to do with the way you play it."

I was just about to say this, having lived in Ireland for 15 years and playing ITM now for about 50 years. Loads of Irish tunes are played by Americans. Some sound Irish and some sound Old-Time, depending on the player. Same with French-Canadian and Bluegrass. It is style rather than the tune itself.

Here’s Rod Miller, a great fiddler no matter what genre. Here he plays Waynesboro (Over the Moor to Maggie) at 2:10 —— https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=rodney+miller+waynesboro

Just to compare: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpxVDd9I6as

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

Postie makes an attractive suggestion.

I think quite a lot of Irish tunes are in minor keys. As are Jewish and Yiddish tunes. Perhaps reflecting the sorrow of leaving their homeland and wandering the world. English landlords evicted lots of Irish families (see "Old Skibbereen" where Mother died and rest of family went to US). Plus exodus of many of the Irish during the Potato Famine when England failed to send much aid.

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

“…whether there is actually an identifiable ‘East Clare’ style as distinct from the way Paddy Fahey played and wrote tunes).”

Paddy Fahey was from East Galway!

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

Ah well . . yes, Loughcurra. Quite so. That was what I meant to say …

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Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

Paddy Fahy was from Kilconnell east Galway.

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I think quite a lot of Irish tunes are in minor keys. — Nah….

Tunes in minor keys can be bright and happy.

Tunes in major keys aren’t always bright and happy.

A sense of longing is something different….

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

And don’t forget the modes… A lot of Irish tunes are in one mode or another: some of which sound more "minor-ish", others more "major-ish".
There are a lot of modal tunes also in the Scottish canon, especially in the bagpipe repertoire, using its scale.

What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

To clarify my post mainly about English music - I don’t think you can say "what makes a tune sound Irish" just by describing Irish music. I think why another music that shares some tunes (English, Old Time, Bluegrass) **doesn’t** sound Irish is part of it.

There is a lovely bit in a clip of one of the Irish music in London documentaries on Youtube where an old guy from Ireland says of Miss McLeod something like "She may be from Scotland but she was naked when she came up the shore. We had to dress her".

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

What makes Irish sound Irish is the same thing that makes any indigenous music identifiable. It is the evolution of a regional sound that owes nothing to musical theory because, unlike classical music, it did not develop as a technical system of music. I suppose you can reverse-engineer it to figure out the elements that make it tick, sort of like dissecting why Mexican food made in the U.S. tends not to taste like that made in Mexico. However, if you are Mexican, you will probably know.

I think the insight you seek is best acquired with emersion and experience with the music. Any rules you unearth via a technical analysis will likely lead to the discovery that there are also lots of exceptions. In short, you can’t capture light in a bottle. ITM sounds Irish because it developed in Ireland.

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Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

I take your point David Levine - about tunes in minor key being possibly happy. However, there is something about that "sense of longing" that does tend towards the "minor". I quote again "Skibbereen" (or "Old Skibbereen") though there is great anger in the song which gives the tune a powerful, swirly quality - which, without knowing the words, might be thought of as joyful? (My granddad William was born not too far from Skibbereen). I had a Jewish Songbook until recently and - believe you me - so many songs were in minor keys, (much used and became raggedy).

But naturally songs - which depend on words as well as music - are a subject in itself. I guess most of those posting here refer to Irish dance tunes (thereby pleasing the ever-vigilant Jeremy..)

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

Just love that quote by David50 about Miss Macleod. (Hop High Ladies is a name given to that tune in USA).

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

A few years back on the now defunct Footstompin’ site, a very well known "younger" Scottish musician commented within a discussion to the effect "I take great offence in being told that my music isn’t *Scottish* enough"(emphasis mine).
🙂

So, we should maybe differentiate between Irish(Or other country’s music) in terms of style, structure, origin, birth place or residence of the composer. There are lots of tunes which sound "Irish" composed by musicians who have never been there and many quite different styles of tunes composed by born and bred Irish musicians even those who are usually, but not exclusively, traditional players.

Personally, I don’t think that it matters too much as far playing in sessions and the like is concerned. If a tune has become popular enough to be accepted as part of the tradition whether it’s strictly "Irish" (Sounding or otherwise) or not, then that’s OK as far as I’m concerned. Arguably, there are also very many "Irish sounding" tunes which just don’t get played either because they aren’t strong enough or they don’t seem to "fit in".

I also like the "You’ll know it when you hear it" explanation too.

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

It also depends on the particular setting.
In this example, I think the second setting is probably more "Irish" than the first.

https://thesession.org/tunes/2399

🙂

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

One of Cage’s catchier tunes has been in the news:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-54041568

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

I would argue that from a theoretical standpoint, Irish music features very unique systems and circumstances that when put together, make it distinguishable from other musics.

1. It’s melody-lead, which means harmonies and rhythmic accents follow the melody.

2. Because it’s melody-lead, it doesn’t have a typical circular chord system(like the 4-chord system in pop music) and the chords are more open to interpretation in their quality and phrasing.

3. It’s circular AB+ system is unique compared to the standard chorus/verse “rondo” system(ABACA) you hear in pop music, especially when considering that it’s melody-lead.

4. It utilizes several rhythmic systems for it’s melodies, expanding it’s musical palette.

5. The style of playing those melodies was directly influenced by the capabilities discovered of a very specific instrument: The Uilleann Pipes(?).

6. The repertoire was directly influenced by composers of very specific instruments.

I mean, you could go on and on and on, and all of this is just skimming the surface. I would argue that it would take hundreds of hours of dedicated study to learn why Irish music sounds Irish, and thousands of hours to learn why Irish music sounds different from similar musics from the same “family”.

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

"3. It’s circular AB+ system is unique compared to" That pattern is common to much of the traditional dance music of western Europe.

"5. The style of playing those melodies was directly influenced by the capabilities discovered of a very specific instrument" I would expand that to "the capabilities of a groups of instruments with similar characteristics - pipes, flute, whistle". Making a superficial comparison with Ireland’s neighbours: it tends not to have tunes in A the way Scottish music, with a prominent fiddle repertoire, does or as many tunes limited to the range of the GHB; it tends not to have chromatic accidentals the way music of Wales, where the harp tradition is the least broken, does; it rarely has tunes that drop to a lower seventh the way English music, with its English pipes and recorder, does.

One thing that struck me when I started learning English tunes on whistle after building up a small repertoire of well known Irish tunes was that English tunes in G often have comparative awkward passages involving B, c, d and e that are rare in Irish tunes - things that are straightforward on GDAE instruments and free-reeds. I suspect the whistle/flute/pipes influence in Ireland - maybe in the ‘beginner tunes’ repertoire.

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

Thank you for that expansion David.

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

I don’t listen to a lot of Scottish or English music the way I do Irish music, and I’m an enthusiast not an authority even on the Irish, but hey it’s the internet and why should that stop me from advancing an opinion?

I think there’s tons of overlap and blurry edges around all these styles, understandable given the physical proximity of the cultures and historical cross-pollination. In general I think it’s a great point that the player/playing makes a tune sound Irish, or Scottish, or English. But tune structure plays a part, too. I think Irish music is more "horizontal" in that the emphasis is on the push-pull of rhythm. Scottish seems more "vertical" and tends toward arpeggios and syncopation. I think English (eg. Playford) is "horizontal" dance music, only with squarer, less subtle rhythm and simpler melodies than one usually finds with Irish music.

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

Playford is a red herring. It doesn’t represent English traditional music from the 19th and 20th centuries and can’t be compared with ITM from the same period. It is 17th century music for the middle and upper classes, those who could afford books and dancing masters and wanted to be up with the latest fashions. Some of the tunes may have been folk tunes (and some have since found their way into the folk repertoire) but others are by well-known composers such as Henry Purcell. If there is a comparison to be made, it is with Carolan and his contemporaries, not ITM as it understood now.

I agree with joe fidkid that there is a great deal of commonality between all these islands’ musical cultures. Generally speaking, the tunes share a similar structure, usually based around multiples of 8 bars. They share similar rythyms. They are played on mostly the same instruments. There may be preferences for particular modes and note sequences, but on the other hand a considerable proportion of the repertoire itself is shared.

What distinguishes them is the style in which they are played, the accent if you like, just as we can distinguish people from the accent in which they speak. A lot of that comes from the nuances of colour and ornamentation that players put into the tunes, the very things that people spend a lot of time discussing here. It is often said that an Irish jig goes "diddly-diddly" and an English jig goes "rumpty-tumpty" and whilst this is a simplification there is a kernel of truth. Of course, within the national traditions there are a great many local accents, just as you find with speech.

These are easily recognised by anyone with some acquaintance with this music. Pinning down these accents is another matter. It would take a lot of time to analyse all these differences, and would probably require very technical language and forms of notation that only a few would be able to understand.

Re: Searched on this; didn’t find anything helpful. What makes a tune sound Irish rather than, say, English (eg. Playford), Scottish, or other?

"What distinguishes them is the style in which they are played" An exploration of some of that on this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDCIKxL-hEY


The introductory words are after about 1 min 40 . You have to wait ‘till about 9:40 for the focus to come onto ‘Irish style’.