What is Irish Music?
The traditional music of Ireland has been handed down over several centuries, though new tunes have been continually added along the way as each generation of musicians makes their contribution to the repertoire. Traditional Irish music includes both vocal and instrumental music. At our school we are currently focusing on the instrumental ensemble music, which was primarily written to accompany solo or social dancing.
Traditional Irish music is played on a variety of acoustic instruments including violin/fiddle, flute, tin whistle, guitar, mandolin, tenor banjo, piano, accordion, concertina, bodhrán (Irish frame drum), harp, and uilleann pipes (the Irish form of bagpipes). It is performed sometimes for listening, sometimes to accompany dancing, and sometimes just for the fun of it, at a “session!” Sessions can happen anywhere, but typically at a pub, restaurant, social hall, living room or patio. Sessions can include two or 70 musicians. Generally three to 10 is considered ideal, so that the contributions of each musician can well heard.
Note that Irish musicians make a clear distinction between tunes and songs. Songs have words that are sung to a melody. Tunes have only the melody, played on an instrument or sometimes “lilted” - sung with nonsense syllables - “die diddle die-dee.” To the traditional Irish musician it is grating to see a streaming site download an instrumental number and label it as a “song.” The proper term would be “track.”
Traditional tunes are divided into “parts.” Each part is typically an eight-bar strain that will be repeated once before moving to the next part. The entire tune can have anywhere from two to 6 or 7 parts. The tune will generally be played three or four times through, before moving on to the next tune. The goal is to improvise or employ variations on the melody on the fly, so that the version one plays is slightly different each time.
There are several common types of Irish traditional dance tunes, generally used for a particular type of steps (in solo dancing) or set of moves (in social, group dancing or “set dancing”). The common tune types are the reels, jigs hornpipes, polkas, and slides. Less common types include barn dances, waltzes, and mazurkas. Some of these tune types, polkas and mazurkas for example, migrated to Ireland from nations further east in Europe, with the people of Ireland putting their own stamp on the music as they combined it with distinctly Irish dance styles. So to many of us this music is now recognizable as part of one of the Celtic traditions, and both the music and the dance have become popular all over the world!
Why Play Irish Music
People can be surprised by the passion the musicians have for playing Traditional Irish Music. It is certainly not the only type of Celtic music around, but it has a way of captivating and inspiring people that can be hard to describe. In recent years, major musical shows like RiverDance and movies with traditional Irish music in the sound track have opened up the world of traditional Irish Music to many as a casual first exposure. In some cases, people may not have realized the music they were listening to was Irish until they find the music in their local community. There is no denying how appealing the music is, especially to those who have some Celtic heritage. With greater exposure via our broadcast and entertainment media in recent years, there has been a major resurgence in the interest of the playing of traditional Irish music. We have indeed witnessed a continued growth and interest in it every year here in the Texas.
Many players of the music become strong Irish culture enthusiasts also learning about Irish dance, language, arts and crafts, history, and even Irish dogs. For those with such interests we recommend the North Texas Irish Festival (NTIF), held annually at Fair Park in Dallas the first weekend in March. There will be 7 or 8 stages of music going steadily, performed by some of the best bands from around the country and from Ireland, The NTIF includes many other cultural features (cooking, equine and canine exhibits, for example) and hundreds of vendors with Irish-related wares. Houston has two organizations that may sponsor similar cultural events, namely the Irish Network Houston
Houston now has its own annual musical event, the Gulf Coast Cruinniú (Irish for ‘gathering’), held in June each year at the University of St. Thomas. It includes a series of workshops and cultural lectures for musicians and, of great interest to the public, a Saturday night Instructors’ Concert, where the visiting faculty from around the country and Ireland play our favorite music.
The William J Flynn Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas sponsors other Irish music concerts each year, lectures on Irish culture, a visiting professor from Ireland and exchange students to and from Ireland. There are a number of private Irish dance studios in the Houston area that teach traditional Irish dance.
There are a small number of regular sessions of music around town. These are listed and updated regularly on the website
To those who play Traditional Irish Music with some regularity, there are many things about it that are appealing. The lyrical nature of the music just seems to get in your head and it is infectious. The fact the music is memorized and learned by ear makes it different from much other music that is played casually. People invest time in learning a large number of tunes that they participate more fully when playing in the company of other like minded people. This makes Irish music a very social style of playing. It also gives people from often a very diverse background something amazing that they have in common and a great reason to socialize and interact with each other.
And last, but not least, the inter-generational aspects of Irish music make it one of the few common types of music where children, parents and grandparents all play the music together in one social venue. House sessions occur occasionally and include all ages. Seeing a nine year old girl sitting beside an adult engineer or a retired therapist and each smiling and enjoying the music and each others company is something that is so rare today in our culture where children and adults socialize separately and live in such different worlds. It is for this reason that we recently changed our school’s enrollment policy to include all ages.
So whether you fell in love with RiverDance, want to revel in all things Irish, or want a great way to play music with a wonderful community of players as well as involve your whole family in the art, traditional Irish Music has a lot to offer and can provide a lifetime of wonderful experiences and memories.