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Traditional Tunes

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Musical Instruments

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Musical Instruments

Traditional acoustic instruments were primarily designed to produce the right sound quality with adequate volume, and the right range of notes as a first priority. The means of actually producing these sounds, i.e. playing the instrument was important, but secondary.

Each type of instrument has it's own characteristics which make it more suitable for playing certain types of music, playing in certain keys, and producing certain expressive effects.

The instruments used for traditional dance music

The violin or fiddle. The most ancient instrument in common use and unchanged for hundreds of years. The violin can theoretically be played in any key, but it is much easier to play in G and D, and their related minors, and most folk fiddlers play only in these keys. The range of notes is from G below middle C up to the B nearly 2 octaves above middle C. The key (and range of notes) of traditional music is often chosen to suit the violin. Nearly all traditional dance music is in a key suitable for the violin. Furthermore, certain other instruments (especially the melodeon) are manufactured and chosen to play in these same keys.

One of the most distinctive features of the violin is its great expressiveness. There is an infinite continuum of notes and a good player can make use of this to apply tiny variations of pitch.

Accordions. Two main types are popular in folk music. The piano accordion which has a piano-like keyboard played with the right hand, and buttons for the left hand giving a large selection of chords. They come in different sizes and are often described in terms of the number of buttons, e.g. a full-size accordion is known as "120 Bass". A smaller instrument is adequate for most folk music and is cheaper and more portable.

Another type of accordion is the melodeon, which is a particular type of button accordion. In its simplest form it has a single row of buttons which determines the key which the instrument can play in. Tuned the same as a harmonica with each button giving a different note depending on which way the bellows are moving.

Most melodeons in common use are two rows, giving two keys a fifth apart. The favourite keys are G and D chosen to be suitable for playing in the keys suitable for violins. Originally the idea was to stick to one row or the other in order to play in G or D, but many musicians use occasional notes from the other row when it is more convenient or accessible. There is a small selection of buttons on the left hand designed to give the most useful bass notes and chords, but the chords which can be played on a melodeon are very limited. Much traditional music is arranged to suit melodeons, especially with regard to the choice of chords used in the arrangement.

Melodeons impart a distinctive rhythm largely because of the need to alternate the movement of the bellows. This often forces a short gap between consecutive notes of a tune, especially in adjacent scale notes, and so makes the melodeon distinctive. See the example tune Speed the Plough on this site which attempts to simulate the effect in a Midi file.

The concertina, invented in the 19th century by the scientific inventor Wheatstone who also invented a form of electric telegraph. It is another type of "squeezebox" with bellows and reeds as with an accordion, but very small. Despite its small size it is remarkably loud.

There are two distinctly different types, known as the "English" and the "Anglo" (short for Anglo-German). These look similar from a distance, but the note assignments of the buttons are very different, and it is not easy for a player of one type to play the other. Despite the similar appearance it is possible to tell the difference from across a room by watching the playing technique.

The English concertina has notes centred on the C major scale, i.e. all the notes without sharps or flats, but alongside these notes are alternative keys for playing the respective sharp or flat. Hence the English concertina is fully chromatic. Notes are the same regardless of which way the bellows are moving. The notes of a scale are divided between the buttons at the two ends of the instrument, and typically each note of the scale alternates from one end to the other. This allows a good player to play very fast, and not needing to frequently change bellows directions helps.

The Anglo concertina. To simplify, this is tuned like a melodeon with two different notes on each button depending on which way the bellows are moving. The buttons for the lower end of the scale are on the left of the instrument, and the upper on the right. The playing technique is similar to the melodeon except that the melody is split between the two hands and there are no bass or chord buttons. In common with the melodeon the need to frequently change bellows directions forces the player to leave slight gaps between most consecutive notes of a tune.

The Tin Whistle, also known as the Penny Whistle, or simply whistle. Sometimes (but not often) made of tin, and although costing more than a penny they can be inexpensive. Very popular in Irish music.

Any one whistle is tuned to a particular key (i.e. the major scale) and they are available in a wide range of keys. The advantage is that a tune can be played with the same fingering in another key simply by using a different whistle. With a bit more elaborate fingering the instrument can be pushed to play other keys.

The tin whistle in the key of D is by far the most popular in folk music and used extensively in Irish music, especially at sessions. It is also easy to play in G on this.

Other blown instruments are sometimes used, such as flutes of various kinds, and instruments of the woodwind family such as clarinets. These demand skill because they are often better suited to playing in different keys.

The Pipe and Tabor is sometimes used in morris. This consists of a special type of whistle which can achieve a full octave but played with one hand, and the player simultaneously plays the tabor, i.e. a drum. The pipe and tabor is traditionally used for morris when there is only a single musician.

Bagpipes are sometimes found at sessions. Usually uillean pipes at Irish sessions. Uillean pipes are not blown by mouth, but the air flow is generated using bellows under one elbow. The presence of a piper will transform a session and the instrument will dominate the music while it is playing, but where other instrumentalists are making a strong contribution the piper may not play all the time.

Trombone player in a morris band

A few brass instruments are used in certain situations. Many brass instruments are unsuitable for the style of music and better suited to other keys, typically Bb. The most common brass instrument to appear is the trombone where there are no special difficulties in playing in the right key and they are usually used to add a bass line in either morris or at sessions.

Plucked string instruments of the guitar family are used in folk music. Guitars are not well suited to playing melodies, but are used for chord accompaniments. The mandolin is well suited to melody playing as it is tuned exactly the same as a violin. Many fiddlers also play melodies on the mandolin because the positions of the notes are the same. The mandolin is also used for chord accompaniments, and sometimes played this way by guitarists. There are bigger variants of the mandolin family, sometimes simply transposed to a lower pitch, as with a mandola, or otherwise with different tunings.

There are various types of banjos. The 4 string banjo is tuned similarly to the mandolin and violin, but lower in pitch, and so is also suited for playing the same melodies. The 5 string banjo is tuned quite differently and mainly used in American music.

Percussion depends very much on the situation. In sessions only the bodhran drum is common, and mainly traditional for Irish sessions. In morris music the main percussion is a big bass drum, but the marching type of snare drum is common. Other percussion occurs as a result of the dancing from the use of sticks, clogs and bells.

In a ceili the range of musical instruments is largely based on those listed above, but there are other possibilities due to the presence of a P.A. and no need for portability. There is a much greater use of keyboards and guitars, especially electric guitars and bass guitars, than elsewhere in folk dance music.

Learning to play an instrument

This section is aimed at adults learning to play folk instruments and probably for the first time. Learning as an adult is quite different from when a child learns. Adults have many skills which children lack, and these skills can be applied to playing music.

Who am I to advise on learning a musical instrument? Anyone who knows me will know I have only moderate ability as an instrumentalist. Well, I didn't play any musical instrument as a child and only learnt to play instruments as an adult. I can remember the methods I have used and know what was successful and what was not. I suppose much of my knowledge of the subject it comes down to learning from mistakes. I've made them all and so identified all the wrong ways to do it!

Playing an instrument is a combination of different pursuits. There is necessarily the need for some basic technique. Further progress may then be either learning a repertoire of musical pieces, or may be to learn to read and play from sheet music, i.e. sight reading. Alternatively it may consist of learning to improvise either by ear, or by application of music theory.

I think the best way to do anything is to directly practice what is required. In the case of playing an instrument this means learning to play a particular tune, or play from a particular piece of sheet music, or whatever. I really do not advocate practicing scales or doing exercises. If you want to play a scale, play a tune which has sections of scale in it.

A large part of learning to play is learning how to think during the process of playing. Learning how to direct your concentration to different aspects of playing at different times.

Choice of music to play

You should choose the right music to play. Certain instruments are better suited to certain types of music, and certain keys. Even in classical music there is acknowledgement that music is composed for particular instruments. The instrument itself will make a contribution to the music and you should not try to combat this. It is far better to play something to suit the instrument, and to play the style of music you want right from the start. There is a temptation, when playing a melody instrument, to play the melodies of songs. I do not advocate this. Songs often sound second best when played on an instrument. There is plenty of instrumental music available to play.

Music is often published for specific instruments. Ideally this will be in the right key and suitable for reasonably easy playing on the instrument. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes music has simply been taken from other sources and crudely adapted to make it possible to play on the instrument. It is a good idea to take notice of what tunes others commonly play on your chosen instrument.

Tunes which are difficult to play do not necessarily sound any better to an audience than those which are easy. It makes sense to choose the easy ones.

Copyright should be taken into account. Learning a tune is a big step. It might be played and improved upon over years. If you are going to make that commitment it is better if someone else doesn't 'own' the tune. This can restrict your freedom to perform, record or modify it. There is plenty of excellent traditional music which is free of copyright.


In the end it's all about performing and I would encourage musicians to start performing in a modest way at an early stage. I have known people who have practiced for long periods to achieve perfection before performing in front of others, and then found the experience totally different, being unable to perform properly in front of an audience.

Many beginners when learning an instrument, especially children, will stop and start again if they make a mistake. If you do this too often in a performance it looks really bad. After learning the basics, all practicing should be aimed at performing. Everyone makes mistakes. It is not so much a matter of avoiding them, but learning how to deal with them. The player should learn to recover from mistakes, that is to be able to proceed despite it, without it affecting the rest of what he does. This skill is best acquired by always trying to keep going even when practicing.

When playing with others, or with any form of backing it is most important to be in step with the others, i.e. to be playing the right thing at the right time. It is better to miss a bit out, and to stay in the right place in the song, than to be determined to play every single note at any price. This is also true when playing alone.

Timing and rhythm are the most important aspects of music. Again it is more important to achieve good rhythm than to play every single note. One can find oneself unable to think quickly enough what the next note should be, or to be physically unable to play it quickly enough. If this happens the most important thing is to get the rhythm right. There are times when the music must have a strong beat of rhythm, and it may be better to play the wrong thing, but something, anything, rather than leaving a gap.

When playing solo, if YOU don't put in the rhythmic emphasis, no one else will!

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