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