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, meter designation, 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).
- A bar is a useful notational tradition which not only allows us theorists to discuss rhythmic structure, but also allows traditional musicians to communicate with traditional dancers about the overall lengths of individual tunes.
- A group is defined here as a sequence of notes whose first note is synchronized with the (main) tap of the musician's foot in a traditional performance. We could use the conventional term "beat," but in my experience some music teachers implant firm ideas about what "beat" means that just cause distracting arguments with people from outside that school.
- Heavy-light pair is my own term for an uneven pair of notes, the first of which is both stronger and longer than the second. I introduce this as a less misleading description than overly specific (and thereby inaccurate), customary time indications like "quarter note, eighth note" or "dotted eighth note, sixteenth note" or - as often notated in books - simply "eighth note, eighth note."
- A well-played tune will artfully elaborate upon the basic rhythm by occasionally shifting and removing emphases, using a variety of instrument-specific techniques.