Irish dance

Irish dance music has a long history. Some of the dances can be traced back hundreds of years. The music is memorised and passed on through generations – an example of oral tradition.

Irish dancing
Irish dancers

Musical characteristics

Melodies are often eight bars long and symmetrical.

Tunes are usually divided into two eight-bar phrases or strains. The first strain uses dance steps on the right foot and the second strain uses the left foot.

Melodies are decorated with:

  • ornaments (decorative notes) such as pitch bends (slides to another pitch)
  • grace notes (a single-note ornament)
  • turns (four-note ornaments)

One tune is often followed by another without a break.

Irish dance music usually uses modes (a type of scale often found in folk music).

The most common modes used are:

  • Mixolydian (the white notes on the piano from G to G)
  • Dorian (the white notes from D to D)
  • Aeolian (the white notes on the piano from A to A)

Chords are often played with the third missing giving a bare, drone-like feel that is neither major nor minor.

Several instruments play their own version of the melody at the same time resulting in a heterophonic texture.

Some Irish dance music is for solo instruments such as flute, tin whistle or fiddle. This has a monophonic (one line) texture.

Common Irish dance forms

The reel

The reel is the most popular dance. It is fast with two beats in a bar usually 2/4 or split common time (a fast 4/4 with main strong beats). It mainly uses quaver movement. Two or three tunes are grouped together with each tune repeated two or three times before moving on to the next.

The jig

The jig is a lively dance with jumping steps. It is fast and in compound time. The double jig is the most common type of jig. It is in 6/8 and often uses groups of three quavers. The final bar ends on a crotchet.

The single jig is in 6/8 or 12/8. The predominant rhythm is a crotchet followed by a quaver.

The slip jig is in 9/8 time, has graceful movements and is danced in soft shoes.

The hornpipe

The hornpipe has a relatively slow tempo. It is usually in 2/4 or 4/4 time with dotted rhythms and is danced in hard shoes.

Play the video to hear examples of a reel, jig and hornpipe.

Traditional Irish instruments

A young Irish girl playing the bodhrun.
A young Irish girl playing the bodhrun

Some of the most common instruments used to play Irish dance music are the:

  • bodhran - (pronounced ‘bow-ron’) a hand-held frame drum with a skin of goat hide and played with a double-ended beater
  • tin whistle

The Floggin Reel

  • flute - made out of wood and usually played without vibrato
  • fiddle (violin) - usually played without vibrato
  • harp - small harps of many different types known as 'cláirseach', played both solo and with vocal accompaniment
  • Uillean pipes - sweet sounding, played through a chanter with bellows under the right arm

The Ballintore Jig

Irish dance steps

Irish dance steps are characterised by a stiff upper body, rapid leg movements and quick precise foot movements. Stepdance was popularised by the show Riverdance.

  • Some dances use soft shoes, others use hard shoes.
  • Hard shoe dancing includes heel clicking, stamping and tapping.
  • Stepdance competitions use solo dances and céilí dances.
  • Reel, slip jig, hornpipe and jig dance forms are commonly used.
  • Céilí dances come from a list of social dances made up by the London Gaelic League in the late 1800s.
  • Céilí dances are danced by formations of couples of two to sixteen people.