Irish dance music: It’s child’s play

Great music is tSeamus_Begleyhe lifeblood of dancing and fortunately, Ireland has it in abundance. One of Ireland’s most beloved musicians and singers, Séamus Begley (RIP 2023) reveals more (hear audio link below) about the unbreakable bond between Irish music & dance when being interviewed by Joan Armatrading for the BBC.

As he says, his experience of playing music on his accordion was only for dancing and when there was no dancing, he was told to “put it away”.

So, how do you tell a jig from a reel? Or a polka from a slide?

As with most things Irish, it’s complicated. The intricacies of music mathematics can be a difficult thing to get your head around: even the best musicians seem to struggle to explain how it works mostly because there are style differences in the playing, in some cases. In addition, some of the names sound like musical timings – eg, “treble jig” and  “light jig”, but are actually names of a dance rather than a specific musical timing. So, thinking about all this too much will not help your understanding.

Happily, one of the best ways of learning this difference is by moving or by singing/ humming to each different signature timing, and this also goes for musicians who are learning to play Irish music. And why not try to remember each different type – hornpipes, reels, jigs, waltzes, polkas, slides– by what we did when we were kids?

By having fun – playing, clapping and singing to nursery rhymes, and using pictures and word games to remember the basics.

I learned my first hornpipe dance when I was doing ballet and it always reminds me of the Sailors Hornpipe -sailors dancing on the deck of a ship that is gently rocking on the sea (BLUE is for the sea). Hornpipes are played in common time (4/4) just like reels and are similar to flings, have an even step when you are dancing but it has a rock or sway to it and you count:

1-and-a, 2-and-a, 3-and-a, 4-and-a, 5-and-a, 6-and-a,7 -and-a 8–

Irish hornpipe description Nursery rhymes to hornpipe timing include:

  • Miss Molly Had a Dolly Who Was Sick, Sick, Sick
  • Michael Finnegan (SEE BELOW- The Wiggles are an Australian kids band, and if you can bear the mixed-up Scottish & Irish character, I think it’s sensational!)

Dancing to hornpipes with our newest Irish sean nós dance steps

“All the best dancers love to dance to reels” was what I was told when I first started Irish set dancing. Originating in Scotland, the Irish have claimed this rhythm and tempo as their own, particularly all down the West coast of Ireland, from Donegal to Clare. Reels are RED, are also played in common time (4/4) and a basic reel dance step also has 4 even steps, like this:

Irish reel music timingNursery rhymes you can use to practice your reel timing:

  • Hokey Pokey
  • Horsey Horsey
  • This Old Man (see more of The Wiggles below)

Dancing to reels with our Irish sean nós dance steps

POLKAS (2/4 TIMING-similar timing to a SINGLE REEL)
I danced my first polka dance when I was doing ballet – very lively music but the Irish version is quite different! Polkas are played in 2/4 timing – similar to 4/4 timing but there is emphasis or sharpness on every second beat, and they are usually played quite fast for dancing. You should be able to do a fast clap to each beat of this music when you’re singing along to The Grand Old Duke of York and thinking of PINK polka dots:

Irish polka music timing


Dancing for polka timing, you can have a look at this very bouncy up-style polka set:

This is probably the most familiar timing to most people, as it is popular in classical music as well as a wide range of folk music genres. A simple musical timing with lyrical flow that really lends itself to dancing, Irish waltzes are played a little faster than classical waltzes. You can try the very Irish song Cockles and Mussels for good waltz practice

JIGS  (6/8, 9/8 AND 12/8 TIMING)
Jigs are considered to be indigenous to Ireland  (GREEN is for jigs) and come in a number of forms, including:

  • Double jigs (6/8 timing) and the most common form you will dance to-examples below;
  • Slip jigs (9/8 timing) which is unusual, and these are really only danced by Irish step dancers both traditional and modern-examples below;
  • Single jigs (6/8 or 12/8 timing) which are very similar to double jigs but different – sound more like what Irish step dancers and Irish set dancers would use for an up-jig step or skip jig, rather than a down step. Musically*, single jigs have 2 groups of notes per bar crotchet + 1 quaver;  and double jigs have 2 groups of notes per bar with 3 quavers. Slides are technically single jigs played fast 150bpm, and have a l-o-n-g short sound.( See below for more about Slides)

Double jigs – There are many, many nursery rhymes with 6/8 jig timing, so you can take your pick.

  • Pop! Goes the Weasel
  • The Farmer in the Dell
  • Jack and Jill
  • Little Miss Muffet
  • Teddy Bears Picnic – initially 6/8 then signature changes but still useful for down jig step.
  • Row Row Row Your Boat- can be played at 6/8 or 4/4 timing but danced at 6/8.

I have chosen the Teddy Bears Picnic for two reasons:

  1. My mother used to play this on our old pianola rolls, peddling furiously while my brother and I jumped around the lounge room as tots, and;
  2. It has words like J -I -G goes with 1-2-3!

Irish Jig Music timing








Dancing to double jigs with my Irish sean nós dance steps

This is very unusual timing (according to Derek Hasted) and most likely the most Irish of all the jigs danced, and are most familiar to Irish step dancers, both traditional and modern.

Timing is:
1,2,3,4,5-&a; (2 bars)
1,2,3,4,5-&a; (2 bars)
1,2,3,4,5-&a; (2 bars)
1,2,3,4,5—   (2 bars)

No nursery rhymes here but a repeat of that lovely slip jig dancing by Celine Hession and Donncha O’Muimhneacháin, where you will clearly hear the rhythm:

SLIDES (6/8 or 12/8 TIMING like SINGLE JIGS but different!)
Now we are venturing into really contrary territory- I have not yet found a really good explanation of what a slide really is musically, and what seems to happen is people “slide” with a long movement followed by short, fast steps.This is backed up by the The Companion to Irish Traditional Music* saying about slides:

“The slide is in effect, a fast single jig. The predominant rhythm involves the alternation of crotchets and quavers, creating the feeling of long and short. Slides are essentially dance music and the long-short rhythm of the tune is echoed by the movements of the dancers”

This is what the Wikipedia entry said:

“Though slides contain the same number of beats per tune as a single jig, melodies are phrased in four rather than two beats. Consequently, single jigs are notated as having eight bars per part and slides as having four bars. Furthermore, the pace is quicker than single jigs, often around 150bpm.”

Slides are all Co.Cork and Co.Kerry to me,  and I would struggle to not think of that part of the country when dancing to slides including the two people who remind me most of them- Séamus Begley and Timmy McCarthy, featuring below.

I liken slides to a combination of musical styles:  jigs (single jig) + polkas ( fast tempo!) + reels (slidey step);

Irish slides and musical timingDancing to slidesThe Ballyvourney Jig is everyone’s favourite danced here to the very wonderful, lively Abbey Céilí Band music, and is very playful:

There are no nursery rhymes for this musical timing, but what we do have is fun and jokes in abundance- Cork and Kerry style, including one of Séamus Begley’s favorite parting shots:

If I don’t see you in the spring, I’ll see you in the mattress!

Have fun!

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

irish bliss globe of world flags

* Source: Companion to Irish Traditional Music (1999) Fintan Vallely, ed. New York University Press, NY.

2 thoughts on “Irish dance music: It’s child’s play

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