Jigs, reels, polkas, hornpipes and mazurkas are commonly heard in traditional Irish music. Set dancing most commonly uses reels, jigs, polkas and hornpipes. It is generally accepted that the jig was derived from ancient Irish roots. Reels are considered to have come from Scotland and to have been developed to a distinct form by the Irish as played in modern Irish interpretations of traditional tunes.
The time of music defines how fast and how many notes are played for a given measure. For example, jigs are in 6/8 time meaning there are six beats per bar (the standard measure) and each beat is 1/8. A full note is a brieve (shown in musical notation as an open ellipse without a tail). A half note is a semi-brieve (an open ellipse with a single vertical line); a quarter note is a crochet (a black filled in note with a single vertical line); and eighth note is a quaver (a filled in note with a vertical line and a small tail). Figure 1 shows part of one version of the tune "Sweets of May". This starts with a crochet followed by 7 quavers, etc. The vertical lines indicate the start of each bar.
Figure 1: Sweets of May (part)
In the Jig with 6/8 timing there are 6 notes per bar and an even emphasis on each beat: ONE-two-three-four-five-six.
A slide has 12/8 timing and has emphasis ONE-two-one-two-three or ONE-two-ONE-two.
A Reel has a timing of 4/4, i.e. four crochets per bar. The emphasis is ONE-two-three-four.
For Irish Set dancing Jigs and Reels are played relatively quickly. When Newcastle Irish Set Dancers teach figures that use Jigs the tempo is usually from 65-68 bars per minute while the demonstration group often uses a tempo of 68-70 bars/min. For Reels the tempo varies from 58-64 bars/min when learning a new set, however the demonstration group often uses more complicated battering footwork requiring that the music is slower than that used for beginners. At present the group uses Reels varying from 54-58 bars/minute for this purpose.
Hornpipes and Polkas are also in 4/4 timing, but use different combinations of long and short notes to give a different sound and feel. The hornpipe is usually relatively slow (45-52 bars/minute) with the emphasis on the first and third beats, i.e. ONE-and-a two-and-a THREE-and-a four-and-a. In the case of the Stacks of Barley we even use a Hornpipe at 32 bars/minute for beginners.
Polkas are usually played and danced to a very fast tempo, with the standard beat being ONE-two THREE-four. When beginning to learn a new Polka Set Newcastle Irish Set Dancers uses a tempo of 65-70 bars/min while demonstrations may use a tempo of up to 75 bars/minute. Some of the dance music we have has Polkas up to 80 bars/minute!