An Introduction to the Structure of Irish Music
"We are fortunate possessors of a remarkable heritage of national dance music, consisting of Single Jigs, Reels, Double Jigs, Slip Jigs, Hornpipes and Set Dances - tunes so full of Rhythmic Vitality that listeners can seldom resist the inclination to tap the feet"
Cormac Mac Fionnlaoic, Um Caisg, 1939
Undoubtedly it would be possible to dance Irish dance steps to many types of folk music, but one of the most basic pleasures in learning Irish dance is the opportunity to dance to the unique sound that is Irish music. Irish music developed to its modern form during a period of suppression of all manifestations of Irish culture. Because of this, traditionally the music was not written down, but passed from player to player by listening and repeating. This leads to the Structure of Irish Music, a basic background in which may prove helpful to the dancing student. However - fear not - a degree in music notation is not a prerequisite to an enjoyment of Irish dancing, so don't let the technicalities below put you off! It is much more important to posses the "rhythmic vitality" referred to by Cormac Mac Fionnlaoic above.
Irish music is built up of eight bar sections. A tune consists of several eight bar sections which have to be played completely, the first eight bar section usually being used as an introduction. Subsequent eight bar sections are usually repeated once (to allow musicians learning the tune to join in). The tunes for solo and Ceilí dancing are divided into Jigs, Reels, and Hornpipes based on the number of notes in a bar.
The reel is almost universally accepted as being Scottish in origin, but they are the most popular type of tune in Irish music. The time signature is 8/8 (i.e. eight notes to a bar) or more commonly written 4/4. There are eight quavers in each bar in groups of four, referring to two beats on the first and the fifth quaver. Because there are two beats in each bar, there are four counts (often expressed as "1 - 2 - 3 and 2 -2 -3 and 3 -2 -3 and 4 - 2 -3") with the emphasis on the bold beat, i.e. the first and fifth quaver, and "and" representing the second weightless step, where for advanced dancers a treble can occur).
Examples of reels include Rakes of Mallow and Cooley's Reel
Jigs are played in six-eight time (6/8), with two beats to a bar. The notes are represented in two groups of triplets (expressed as "1 - 2 - 3, 2 - 2 - 3, 3 - 2 - 3, 4 - 2 - 3" where the commas represent a weightless step) For a double jig, the triplets consist of quavers, with the beats being on the first quaver in each triplet. As all the weight of the body is on the feet during these times, the other steps on the off-beat can be danced with a "treble" by an advanced dancer - a rolling of the foot giving the typical "batter" sound of hard-shoe dancing. Because of this extra complication these tunes, known as treble jigs, tend to be played rather more slowly than double jigs. Single Jigs are also in six-eight time - the triplets being usually represented by a crotchet followed by a quaver. These tunes lend themselves to soft-shoes dances danced with solo steps. Variations of the basic Jig in 6/8 time are Slip Jigs which are played in 9/8 time, with the beats being on the first, third and seventh quaver. These tunes are generally played slower than normal jigs.
Jigs are widely held to be Irish in origin, although dances with similar timing have been recorded in Italy from medieval times. It is said that Queen Elizabeth I of England was very much taken with the Irish Jig, an irony as her soldiers at the time in Ireland were actively suppressing all manifestations of Irish culture.
Examples of jigs include Shandon Bells and Coopers and Brass
As with Reels, Hornpipes are in 4/4 or common time, but the hornpipe is played much more slowly than the reel. Due to this, Irish musicians can use many more complications when playing hornpipes. Due to these elaborations, advanced dancers can make a step on each quaver - thus lending hornpipes to more advanced hard shoe dances.
Examples of hornpipes include Greencastle Hornpipe and Murphy's Hornpipe