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Rhythm (Tune Type) Definitions

This page answers briefly the questions:

The table below explains the abbreviations used throughout this site and gives brief comments on my definitions of some tune rhythms. Rhythms not included here are considered self-explanatory. For more definitions, I recommend consulting CITM (see the Bibliography). For a complete list of the rhythm categories I use, see the Rhythm Distribution report.

Difference between jig and reel: (for non-musicians) To tell whether a tune you're listening to is a jig or a reel, let your foot tap along with the music at a natural pace, then see how many fast notes you count between each tap. If you can count to 3, it's a jig. If you can count to 4, it's a reel. To get more precise, keep reading below.

About the term "Jig": (for non-musicians) There are actually several different Irish rhythms which have the term "jig" in their name (see list below). But double jigs are definitely the rhythm you hear most often, so when people say "jig," they generally mean a double jig. Double jigs have three notes per beat, and every other beat is a downbeat. Try saying "rashers and sausages" three times fast. That's a double jig rhythm. For a more complete definition, see "double jig" below.

Note for curious musicologists: I take a fundamentally performance-oriented approach to rhythm identification. Recorded tunes are much more reliable than notated tunes. I have seen enough inaccurate transcriptions to always interpret any rhythmic notation or named rhythm classification with a healthy skepticism. My general method is to "hear" the notated tune in my head and to then let it fall into the melody's "natural" rhythm as best as my sense of the tradition will allow. Note that even for recordings, I have indexed tunes according to their traditional rhythm even when played in a "wrong" rhythm. For example, a few slides have been recorded in jig rhythms, yet I index those recordings as belonging to the slide – unless of course the jig is established in the tradition as its own tune (see my remarks about distinct tunes).

General definitions:

Abbr.Definition
Reel

Two groups of four notes each, adding up to an eight-note bar. Within each group there are two heavy-light pairs. Accordingly, I notate reels in 2/2 meter, not in 4/4. A 4/4 notation is a less accurate reflection of the traditional sense of rhythm in a reel – see my definition of "group" above. See Top Ten Reels for examples.

You will sometimes see notes referring to a reel being "singled" or "doubled." This only refers to whether or not the eight-bar parts of the tune are repeated and not to the unique rhythm of "single reels" (see below). See also the interesting chart Structure of Reels. Reels, far more than any other Irish rhythm, come in a wide variety of lengths and structural forms.

HpipeHornpipe. Rhythmically differs from reel only in the more uneven distribution of weight within the heavy-light pairs and the more frequent substitution of triplets for some heavy-light pairs. But other characteristics, especially their melodic structure and slower tempo, also clearly distinguish them from reels. See also "single jig" below. Like reels, they should be notated in 2/2. See Top Ten Hornpipes for examples.
JigDDouble jig. Six notes per bar, which is usually a single group, but can also be played as two groups at slower tempos. In either case, each bar is divided into two patterns of three notes. The first note of each pattern (referred to henceforth as the "jig pattern" to distinguish it from a triplet) is played longer and stronger than the following pair of shorter notes. This following pair tends to be again unevenly distributed, leading to an acceptable notation of the jig pattern (for teaching purposes) as "dotted eighth - sixteenth - eighth." Customarily notated in 6/8. See Top Ten Double Jigs for examples.

A note about the terms "light jig" and "heavy jig" (aka "treble jig")

These terms exist only among Irish step dancers. They are not used in any other kind of Irish dance (sets, ceili, or sean nós) and definitely not among any Irish traditional musicians. In my experience playing for Irish step dancers at competitive feiseanna, the two equivalent terms "heavy jig" and "treble jig" describe a totally unique kind of rhythm, which I had to learn how to play especially for this unique situation.

Whereas a "light jig" is a plain old "double jig" as everyone else in Irish culture would call it, I describe a "heavy/treble jig" as:

A rhythm with six beats per bar, divided into two groups of precisely equally spaced three beats (unlike a double jig). The rhythm also sounds extremely slow compared to a "double jig." For comparison, if we call each of the two groups of a heavy jig a "beat," then you play this rhythm at 73-92 "beats" per minute (slower for advanced dancers, faster for beginners). Another major difference is that heavy jigs commonly introduce occasional rhythmic subdivisions of each beat (thinking now in six beats per bar) into precisely spaced fourths. That means, if we write a heavy jig in 6/8, that there are occasional flourishes using subdivisions of an eighth note (aka semiquaver) into 32nd notes (aka hemidemisemiquavers), including common patterns such as two 32nds followed by a 16th. I came to this observation by listening carefully to the feet of the better, advanced-level Irish step dancers as I play for them.

What's particularly confusing is that the repertoire used to play "heavy jigs" for step dancers is double jigs, but played instead as heavy jigs. Only some double jigs work well as heavy jigs. Each musician will have to experiment and practice to determine which of his or her double jigs he or she finds comfortable playing as a heavy jig. I recommend that the best way for musicians to learn this rhythm is to practice playing for Irish step dancers who are very good and confident at dancing heavy jigs.

JigSlSlip jig, also known as hop jig. Played either quickly as one group per bar (e.g., Michael Coleman's style), having three jig patterns per group, or slower (e.g., for step dances) as three groups per bar, each of which is a jig pattern. Some slip jigs employ primarily heavy-light pairs instead of the jig patterns, similar to single jigs, and one could justifiably define these as another species of slip jig. Customarily notated in 9/8. See Top Ten Slip Jigs for examples.
SgJig Single jig. Although its name misleadingly indicates a relationship to the double jig, it is really much closer rhythmically to the hornpipe and especially the fling. I am currently trying to figure out whether it's even possible to always tell a fling from a single jig by listening. If you do want to compare it a double jig, you will note the high frequency of heavy-light pairs where a double jig would have the three-note jig pattern. Various print publications have notated single jigs as hornpipes and vice versa, and I have even found several instances of single jigs showing up in books as reels (which is how flings, too, sometimes get mistakenly transcribed or labeled). On paper (but never when listening or playing) it is easy to also confuse single jigs with slides (see below). Sometimes notated in 12/8, but more often in 6/8, which is how I've defined them in terms of bar counts. See Top Ten Single Jigs for examples (but be aware that I'm somewhat of an oddball for trying to keep the single jig tradition alive.) The step-dancing community has kept the single jig dance alive, but their lack of familiarity with the music often leads them to take perfectly good slides from books and have musicians abuse them grievously as single jigs. This of course is made possible by the fact that most musicians aren't too familiar with the playing traditions of either slides or single jigs.
Slide

Uninitiated listeners, of which there are many, and even some tune-book editors have mistaken slides as hornpipes, single jigs, polkas, or double jigs, since slides share various traits with each. Once you know a few, you realize they are distinct from any of those.

The tempo is rather quick, often in the 150 bpm range, if you were to count each heavy-light pair as a beat. But in practice each beat of a slide (counting around 75 bpm now) gets two pulses, which is either a heavy-light pair or a fairly even triplet – not a jig pattern. Thus if all four group-halves in a bar were triplets – which is uncommon –, you'd have a twelve-note bar. The ratio of heavy-light pairs to triplets in a slide is slightly in favor of the pairs. Most slides break the pattern once or twice in a tune by delaying the strong note for a bar's second group until that group's second half, creating a cross-rhythm with respect to the foot taps. Other unique characteristics of slides are not necessary additional information for identifying them – only for playing them!

Note that slides are peculiar to the Southwest of Ireland, and some are directly related to double jigs, single jigs, or hornpipes played elsewhere in Ireland. Musicians quite familiar with slides are generally unfamiliar with single jigs, and some otherwise respectable authorities on the slide have rashly pronounced that single jigs "are the same as slides." On the other hand, some musicians simply use the term "single jig" to mean "slide," and are apparently unaware of the existence of the distinctive single jig rhythm in Irish music. Over the course of the 20th century the customary notation for slides shifted from 6/8 to 12/8, which I think is an improvement in accuracy. However, I have given bar counts for slides here according to the 6/8 notation, for the very practical reason that the set dancers count them that way! See Top Ten Slides for examples.

SetDSet dance, also called "set piece," sometimes misnamed "long dance." Usually a hornpipe rhythm, but sometimes a jig rhythm, and often with an asymmetric large-scale rhythmic structure which corresponds to a particular solo step dance. See Top Ten Set Dances for examples. Note that these have nothing to do with the social group "set dances" for two to four couples. "Long dance," also unrelated, is a term for social ceili dances which are now danced to jigs and reels. Note that there is also the confusing usage of these terms for ceili dances danced to particular tunes with rhythms such as the march-like "old polkas" (for example, The High-Cauled Cap, and see Polka below) and single jigs (such as The Sweets of May #1867).
SgReel Single reel. See also note above under "reel" regarding the confusing and common use of the term "single reel" to refer to a regular reel "played singly" or "played single." The distinct tune type "single reel", which is only rarely encountered in Irish music, is easily mistaken for a polka or a reel, even by experienced musicians, or for a fast hornpipe or barn dance. Considering the unique dance steps that go with single reels known in certain geographical pockets of Irish set dancers (within Cork and Donegal, at least), it seems to be most akin to the class of polkas that are very march-like (see "Polka" below). The term "lancer" is sometimes applied to this rhythm, taken from the historical name of the figures of set dances (i.e., quadrilles) that used this rhythm. I would also agree that you could characterize it as a reel with a frequent substitution of a held note for a heavy-light pair, especially on strong beats. The term "single reel" depends more than other rhythms on performance context: if used for a single-reel dance such as Borlin Jenny (as collected from Bantry Bay), or identified by the player as a single reel, then we might as well consider a tune to be an example of a single reel. Single reels are usually notated in 2/4, like polkas, and my bar counts reflect that notation.
PolkaI am biased towards Kerry and Cork-style dance polkas as the definitive Irish polka (examples: #974, #1062). Nevertheless, I have included here both "Sligo polkas" (also known as "double polkas" or "Clare polkas"), which are much more march-like (examples: #2146, #464), as well as the old long dances (see "Set dance" above) which are in march-like rhythms.
BDnce Barn dance. A Northern subspecies of barn dance is called a german. I have heard this referred to as a "onestep," too. See Session Barn Dances for examples.
SchotSchottische. Actually fling, but often labeled schottische on recordings. I'll sort flings and schottisches out later, once I'm more adept at playing them properly.
HlandHighland fling. I have limited my use of this term to tunes explicitly labeled as such by Northern musicians. Otherwise I categorize them as "Fling."
StrathStrathspey. Immediately recognizable by the Scots snaps rhythms. Sometimes called "highland" in northern Ireland.
MzrkaMazurka. Not to be confused with its cousin the waltz. By far the most popular example is Shoe the Donkey (#2099).
WaltzSince waltzing is a relatively recent introduction into the Irish tradition, there are very few native Irish waltzes. Thus it is common for Irish musicians to freely adapt traditional pieces, airs, marches, and songs as waltzes as the need arises. For such tunes you will see the note "(also as waltz)" if I have found recordings of such adaptations or when even I am guilty of occasionally colluding in the "waltzification" of the tune. You will also note that most of the genuine waltzes in the Tunography are directly and knowingly imported from other cultures by Irish musicians looking for better waltzes. I am including redowas in this category for the time being.
PieceNot for dancing or singing, and not an air. See Top Ten Pieces for examples.