Celtic Jams, Sessions & Ceilis (Part 2)

Time Signatures for Dance Tunes & Celtic Music

One thing that can really help find the beat in Celtic music is to know your time signatures. This applies to playing for English Country Dancers as well. In Celtic music, time signatures are often associated with a particular type of dance, which helps to inform how Celtic players will approach them. All time signatures each have their own unique rhythmic feel. The treatment of them in dance tunes can be notably different, however, from how they are treated in, for example, classical music. The following are some of the most common examples.

  • Jig = 6/8, usually two groups of three eighth-notes, with more emphasis on the first note of each group (so, “ONE two three, TWO two three, etc.), played semi-legato, e.g. DA-ya-da, DA-ya-da. Note that Irish whistle and flute players will often tongue very little if at all, and will instead use ornaments to emphasize certain beats and add texture and colour
  • Slip Jig = 9/8, usually three groups of three eighth-notes
  • Reel = 4/4, often played quite quickly, with emphasis on the first note; tends to be played semi-legato, i.e. neither separated nor slurred, e.g. DA-ya-da-da, DA-ya-da-da
  • Polka = 2/4 (or 4/4), more detached than a reel, with an unmistakable ONE-two ONE-two feel
  • Hornpipe = usually 4/4, often written in even eighth-notes, but meant to be played more like dotted-eighth-sixteenths; if you play them too much like dotted-eighth-sixteenths it will sound stilted, so they are usually played with a bit of a swing
  • Waltz = 3/4 or 6/8; exactly like waltzes the world over, except that the 6/8 “waltzes” (often O’Carolan tunes and the like composed before the waltz as a dance was invented) may move a little more quickly or have a bit more of a lilt to them
  • March = 2/4 or 3/4, depending on the rhythm – it will be obvious by the regular “walking beat” feel to it

There are other forms in Celtic music as well, which don’t necessarily fit into a particular time signature, for example:

  • Air = usually a slower piece; this is one of the few that may be treated “tempo rubato”, or more freely with regards to rhythm and timing; often it is based on a song, and thus played in a very lyrical fashion
  • Set Dance = often a longer piece, designed to accompany a particular dance; the musical cues will tell the dancers which part is coming up next, so it’s important to know exactly how many times to play each part through, and in what order

Celtic tunes are often divided into 2 or 3 parts – these will usually be referred to by the letters A, B, C, etc. (A being the first part, and so on). So if someone says, “let’s start again at the B part”, they mean to start at the beginning of the second section of the piece. Usually one or more of the parts is repeated (so some common patterns would be: AABB, ABB, AAB, etc.)

The best way to get the feel for Celtic music is to listen to it – often! Get yourself a handful of CD’s, preferably from different groups, different regions, different instruments. Listen to fast dance tunes, slow airs, songs, whatever you can find. Best of all, attend as many live performances as you can. Listen in on jams and sessions in your area. Even excellent sight readers will not be able to capture the “feel” of Celtic music without hearing it first.

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