Irish Traditional Music 101

Irish traditional music is part of the genre described as “Celtic” — the folk music of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany (France), Galicia (Spain) and the eastern provinces of Canada. It is a vibrant, living tradition that is both popular in its own right and influential on rock, punk, and other styles.

Irish traditional music falls into two broad categories: songs and tunes (dance music), the latter of which is the focus of this article. The characteristic sound of an Irish tune comes from a combination of:

Common dance rhythms


Tunes most often have one or two sharps in the key signatures, probably due to the limitations of keyless flutes and whistles. Within these key signatures are a host of available major, minor, and modal scales:
One sharp: G major, E minor, A dorian (A minor with an F sharp), D mixolydian (D major with a C natural)
Two sharps: D major, B minor, E dorian, A mixolydian
Fiddlers often play tunes in A major and E major, while box players (concertina, accordion, melodion) play lots of C major.

Style Differences — Classical vs. Irish

For classically-trained musicians (myself included), it can be intimidating to start playing in a different genre. After all, there is so much to learn and get “right” in the Western classical tradition — technique, interpretation, sight-reading, ensemble playing — it would take years to learn Irish music, right? Well, yes and no. The technical demands are not as great, so if you’re already an experienced classical player, it’s not too hard to learn new tricks. However, your ears and memorization skills will be put to the test, since Irish musicians do not use sheet music when playing.
Here are the differences I have found most significant:

Classical Irish
learning music usually learn by reading music usually learn by ear
performing music read music, except when playing solo (and even then, reading music is often acceptable) always play from memory
sound smooth, even, “pretty” — lots of time is spent perfecting one’s tone harsher sound is acceptable — rough attacks, lots of breath/bow accents, OK to really push it
vibrato vibrato essential characteristic of sound on most wind/string instruments little to no vibrato on fiddle; finger vibrato on flute and whistle (rapid tapping of finger on open hole without significantly changing pitch of note)
articulation varies, depending on composer and time period slur into downbeat; phrases go into the first note of the downbeat
grace notes on or before the beat, fast or slow depending on composer and time period very very quick, and on the beat
rolls notes within the turn are usually even some notes in roll are so quick, they’re almost imperceptible
other ornaments trills, mordents cuts, slides, cranns, trills
improvisation not unless specified fine as long as it maintains the basic skeleton of the tune, e.g. eighth-note triplet F-E-D instead of two eighths F-D
tempo some degree of rubato (push and pull) is expected depending on the composer and time period rock-steady and driving ahead — keep that flow going!


This post is taken from a short book I wrote out of sympathy for anyone who’s interested in playing Irish traditional music but has no idea where or how to start; in other words, someone like me as of a few years ago. I didn’t know what a session was like, and I didn’t understand why tunes sounded painfully lame when I played them verbatim off the page.

One lazy summer day, I Googled “Boston session” and found out about the slow session at the Green Briar in Brighton, MA. After mustering up my courage, I showed up and sat there, ears open and silver flute in my lap, every week for months until the tunes started to sink in and I saw what other players did to breathe life into them. Gradually I branched out to other sessions, picking up a few instruments along the way and learning a ton from the many fine musicians I have encountered. This book was my way of “passing it forward” — I’ve tried to compile the tips I’ve found most useful while throwing in some great tunes commonly heard around town. Copies are available online at:

(Free to all, just don’t sell it or pass it off as your own.)

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