Music for Irish Set Dancing
Newcastle Irish Set Dancers
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!
CDs, Cassettes and Videos
Three excellent "Music for the Sets" CDs and cassettes series are the Matt Cunningham, Shaskeen and those from the Brook Academy. When using music particularly for learning and practising Sets we sometimes need to slow down the music to give us the right feel for our level of proficiency of dancing. We find the Music for the Sets source CDs and cassettes often have very fast music which is difficult for beginners. For some figures the length of music doesn't always fit due to regional variations in the way a figure is danced (and compared to how the musicians know it). For example, we have five different versions of instructions for Figure 5 from the Cashel Set!
The Shaskeen CDs and cassettes have a number of sets on each album. Shaskeen are an Irish band specialising in music for set dancing.
Matt Cunningham also has a series of CDs and cassettes specifically for set dancing. Ainm Records have a special Box Set of the 12 CDs (Vol. 1 to 12) of Matt Cunningham for US$99.99 + p.h. [2000 Prices].
Na Piobairi Uilleann also have a series of cassettes specifically for set dancing.
The Michael Sexton Ceili Band also have some CDs specifically for set dancing.
Another source that is worth noting is the video series "Come Dance with Me in Ireland: The Magic of Irish Set Dancing". There are 9 videos with 3 sets on each. These videos generally have instructions for any special steps for a particular Set, then instructions for each figure followed by a display of the figure. If intending to use the music from these tapes for learning and practising the sets you should be aware that on some of the videos the music is sometimes overshadowed by the calling, but viewing the movements with hand, foot and body positions can be invaluable.
MIDI MusicThere is also a wealth of MIDI music of Celtic (and particularly Irish) origin. The advantage of this type of music is that it is easy to slow down and speed up the music to cater for the experience level of the dancers. We find that beginner's classes often need music considerably slower than that used for experienced dancers and a MIDI music program allows you to control this as needed.
Page created by: Arthur Kingsland
Viewed: / Updated: 16 September 2001