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Traditional Tunes

Musical Principles

Tuning Systems

Musical Instruments

Music Copyright

Traditional Tunes

The tunes described on this site are mostly tunes from the British Isles, i.e. England, Scotland and Ireland, but there are also some from the American Appalachian traditions.

Listen to music

Using the links below you can listen immediately to some traditional music.

This site has mp3 sound clips, midi files and some video. It is also an informative site about organizing a barn dance.
The Cat's Whiskers Band.

This site has some tasteful Midi files

Contents (this page)

This page gives some general information about the tunes and then provides a search facility to find the location of tunes and songs, both printed music and on the Internet in Midi, abc, and other formats. There are an estimated 7000 tunes listed so far and the list continues to increase.

About the tunes of traditional dance music

Sources of tunes

About the tunes of traditional dance music

The keys of dance tunes

Because this is dance music, the most important aspect is the rhythm and tempo. The key of dance music is unimportant to the dance, and so there is complete freedom to choose the key to suit the instruments and the players. Furthermore, whereas songs sometimes require a key to be changed to suit different singers, there is no such problem here as the music is entirely instrumental. It has become a universal convention to present the tunes almost entirely in the key of G and D, together with their closely related minors, Am, Em and Bm. Nearly all sheet music presents the tunes in these keys, and similarly most tunes on the Internet in either Midi or ABC format. Nearly all musicians learn and play the tunes in these keys. This is very useful, because if two people know a tune they can play together at a session for example.

The choice of which key, for example whether it be G or D, depends on the range of notes. The violin is the driving force behind the choice of key, and usually the key will be chosen to fit the range of the violin. (As melodeon tuning is designed or chosen to closely match a violin, it suits the melodeon too). Sometimes there are two alternatives, in which case the higher is usually used, provided it can be played without going higher than the high B on the E string, i.e. nearly 2 octaves above middle C. Tunes rarely go down as far as middle C and hence not low enough to need to play on the G string at all.

Nearly all tunes are presented and played in the same key regardless of the source or player. There are just a few tunes which might sometimes be in one key, and sometimes another, for example The Rose Tree is playable in either G or D. Conventional practice would favour the higher, i.e. D, but some players might prefer the lower. On the violin some players might prefer to avoid the high B and so take the lower option. Haste to the Wedding (which has almost exactly the same range) is another tune usually presented in D, but Dave Swarbrick chose to play it in the lower key of G on the Fairport Convention album Bonny Bunch of Roses.

A very few tunes might be preferred in a different key again, and for other reasons. Maggie in the Wood would probably be usually in G, but playing this particular tune in A can be better on the fiddle because it facilitates some fast melody runs without changing strings, and it happens that the low G# (which is a bit awkward to play) never appears in this tune.

The rhythms of dance tunes

Dance tunes are classified by terms which correspond to a dance style, for example waltz, polka, hornpipe, etc. Often the music itself, together with the time signature, will be sufficient to clearly define the rhythm. Sometimes, however there are subtle differences of emphasis between dance types which cannot be depicted in sheet music. The exact rhythm should suit the dance, and the ideal way to determine the rhythm is to watch the steps of the respective dance type.


Hornpipes are played with a rhythm which departs considerably from the printed music. They are in 4/4 time and consist mainly of quavers, or eighth notes (8 per bar). In each pair of quavers, the first is intended to be emphasized in relation to the second, i.e. it is lengthened somewhat. The amount by which it should be lengthened is not precisely defined and may vary between players and between tunes, however it will normally be between 1.5 and 2 times the length of the second.

When the first note is twice the length of the second the result is indistinguishable from 6/8 time. It is interesting to ask "What is the difference between a hornpipe and a jig?" Any comments?

Shows alternative ways of depicting a hornpipe.

(See the illustration above). Sometimes hornpipes are presented in sheet music with equal length notes (left), whereas sometimes the notes are shown in the usual dotted format (right). Either way the player is expected to interpret the tune and play the correct hornpipe rhythm. In fact neither notation correctly shows the rhythm. The dotted format, if interpreted literally, would give a first note 3 times longer than the second, which is much too large an emphasis for a hornpipe.

Compare the following versions of The Cliff Hornpipe.

cliff0.mid - All notes of equal length as sometimes presented in sheet music. Suitable for conveying the tune information to a musician, but should not be played like this.

cliff.mid - The first note is 1.5 times the length of the second. Good, but cannot practically be depicted in sheet music.

cliff2.mid - The first note is twice the length of the second. An acceptable alternative.

cliff3.mid - As shown by the dotted sheet music notation. The emphasis is far too much.

Presenting hornpipes in Midi files

Fortunately Midi allows note lengths to be defined precisely, so the hornpipe rhythm can be incorporated into the file (as above). However it will still be impractical to see this in any music notation derived from the Midi file.

Presenting hornpipes in ABC files

ABC notation is closely related to sheet music and can depict sheet music as written. However the same problems with depicting intermediate note lengths, which exist in sheet music, are also applicable to ABC.

My preference is to show hornpipes without the rhythmic emphasis shown, i.e. with notes shown with equal length, but with a direction somewhere that the tune is a hornpipe. In both sheet music and ABC it is clearer and easier to write. It is also actually mathematically closer to the required rhythm.

Sources of Traditional Dance Tunes

This is dealt with more fully on the main tunes page of this site:


The remainder of this page is a cut down version of that page.


For information about books of traditional music see books.html . The page lists some of the major tune collections and gives some information about where they can be obtained.

Tunes on the Internet

There are thousands of tunes available on the Internet in the form of computer files of various kinds and which can be an alternative to printed sheet music for musicians. Traditional instrumental music is particularly well supported because there are no copyright problems.

The Tune Search

This is now on the main tunes page of this site:


Tunes on this Site

There are so many tunes available from the sources indicated on this site that there is no point in repeating them here. Tunes here will be either those which are difficult to find elsewhere, or in versions which I prefer.

Tunes will be added occasionally.

For the tunes on this site click this link to this site's Tunes page:

File Types

The file types most suitable for conveying tune information are GIF, ABC and Midi.

GIF are simple graphics files of the sheet music itself which can be read from the screen or printed. However, the largest amount of tune data is available in ABC and Midi files which can be converted to sheet music with suitable software, but better still can also be played audibly.

More about this at this site's Tunes page, www.folk-music.org.uk/tunes

For more about the file types used for music and sound see the sound technology page by the same author:


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