There are broadly-speaking two categories within traditional instrumental music – dance music and airs. In general, the dance music is composed and then titled, but by and large titles tell us nothing specific about the tune - they are created merely to differentiate one tune from another for identification purposes. Therefore, programmatic or descriptive instrumental music is rare. The Fox Chase would be an exception rather than a rule, as this is an instrumental set piece that attempts to express a fox chase through music.

Amongst other things, titles are often humorous (I Buried my Wife and Danced on her Grave, named after someone (McFadden’s Handsome Daughter), or named after places (The Glen Road to Carrick), but in the main this is probably incidental. Airs, or slow airs as they are often called, are generally song airs, unmetered melodies that were often in existence before words were added. As instrumental pieces they retain the same title as the song.

Dance Tunes

Most tunes are in binary or two-part form (AABB), are modal, and are 16 bars in duration. There are of course exceptions to these general rules. For example, The Gold Ring is a six-part piping jig, and Colonel Frazer is usually played as a five-part reel. But the vast majority of tunes fall into the binary format. Meabh O'Hare illustrates on the fiddle.

  • The Reel (audio & sheet music) - The reel The Flogging Reel - 4/4 time: generally at a brisk pace
  • The Single Jig (audio & sheet music) - The single jig The Humours of Limerick - either 6/8 or 12/8 time
  • The Double Jig (audio & sheet music) - The double jig Out on the Ocean - 6/8 time
  • The Slip Jig (audio & sheet music) - The slip jig The Dusty Millar - 9/8 time
  • The Hornpipe (audio & sheet music) - The hornpipe Chief O'Neill's - 4/4 time: with generally a dotted quaver-semiquaver rhythm
  • The March (audio & sheet music) - The march O'Neill's March - 4/4 time: played at a more deliberate pace than a reel
  • The Strathspey (audio & sheet music) - The strathspey Sterling Castle - 4/4 time: a Scottish snap rhythm of semiquaver-dotted quaver
  • The Polka (audio & sheet music) - The polka Johnny Leary's - 2/4 time
  • The Slide (audio & sheet music) - The slide The Hare in the Corn - 12/8 time
  • The Highland (audio & sheet music) - Ed Reavey's Highland - A Donegal variant of the strathspey (also called a schottische or fling)
  • The Barndance (audio & sheet music) - Eddie Duffy's Barndance - similar to the highland and also known as a German
  • The Set Dance (audio & sheet music) - The set dance, The Blackbird - 2/4, 4/4 9/8 time: a dancing-master’s showpiece tune


Musicians usually benefit by learning an air from a singer. This is helpful in understanding the phrasing, mood and inflections of the song. Knowing the words of the song also helps the musician appreciate where the song is coming from emotionally. Most airs are not in any strict tempo. The structure of these airs is obviously the same as the songs – generally simple (e.g. AABA).


  • willie Clancy - The Rocks of Bawn performed on the uilleann pipes
  • sean keane - Dark Lochnagar, an air performed on the fiddle
  • willie Clancy - The Bonny Bunch of Roses performed on the uilleann pipes


  • mícheál o súilleabháin - Performs his own composition, Ah Sweet Dancer, with comments from Seamus Heaney among others
  • the chieftains - Gol na mBan san Ar (The Women's Lament in Battle)


Ornamentation is difficult to explain in text. Ultimately, it is much better understood by listening and by practice. However, some of the main elements, the roll, the cran, the cut, and triplets, are explained in this section

Sliding from one note to another, double-stopping (playing two strings at once), emphasising a note through stronger blowing, plucking, squeezing or pulling, or a louder bow stroke are just some of the other means of ornamentation. Of course varying the melody itself is a huge part of this process, and accomplished musicians will, instead of playing just the same melodic line time after time, go off on tangents and turn the tune upside down and inside out to find another way of expressing the self. The possibilities are truly limitless and each player and instrument will have colours that are unique. It is very much this sense of freedom that lies at the heart of traditional music.

Musical expression on Highland (Scottish) pipes is executed through the use of embellishments. These embellishments are simply a means of decorating the melody, but they have other important functions, too. Since the chanter cannot be stopped, the embellishments are used to separate notes of the same pitch and are also essential in order to express certain notes or phrases differently from one another through subtle variation in time or stress.

Embellishments can be divided into three distinct types; 1) single grace notes played immediately before the 'theme' or main note; 2) doublings, where the theme note is doubled by adding grace notes; 3) more complicated groupings of grace notes. Different groups of grace notes are given different names and serve different purposes in the music.

For example, a group of grace notes known as 'grip' or 'leumlath' (pronounced 'lame-lua'), is used to leap from one note to another and in fact, the name is accepted as meaning 'leaping'. On the other hand, the 'taorluath' ('tour-lua') is a falling movement. And the 'cruanluath' ('crown-lua') with its accompanying variations, is known as the 'crowning' movement and is the pinnacle of technique in pipe music. Embellishments, in all of their variations, take their time off the following theme note and not the preceding one.

  • The Roll (2 audio files & 2 sheet music) – Long Roll & Short Roll
    The roll is common to all instruments and varies to some degree depending on both the physical attributes of the individual instrument and the idiosyncrasies of the player. But fundamentally, in dotted crotchet form (as often found in jigs), this would be the sounding of the principal note, the note above, the note itself, the note below, and returning to the principal note again. In crotchet form (as found in reels), a roll is executed by playing the note above, the principal note, the note below, and returning to the principal note again.
  • The Cran (2 audio files & 2 sheet music) – d cran & e cran
    The cran is a piping ornament, though it is common on flute and can be adapted to most other instruments. It is confined to the bottom note of the chanter and the note above it (the supertonic), where the execution could be the bottom note, then the 3rd, 4th and 5th notes of the scale rapidly played with the bottom note sounding momentarily in between those degrees of the scale. In the case of the supertonic cran, it could be executed by playing the note, then the notes a 4th, 3rd and 2nd above it, and with the principal note again sounding in between each of those notes of the scale.
  • The Cut (1 audio file & 1 sheet music)
    The cut is a single ornamental or “grace” note, very often the note above.
  • Triplet (1 audio file & 1 sheet music)
    Triplets are three notes played in the time of two. Triplets can be played on all instruments. For example in fiddle playing, there are two forms of triplets: “bowed” and “left-hand”. Bowed’ triplets are the quick playing of three notes on either open strings or on stopped notes. The three notes rarely, if ever, are of exact equal value. Left-hand triplets are essentially “passing” notes, conjoining notes a third apart.