Improvisational Irish Folk Music

With a name like Maggie Molloy, it comes as no surprise that my family is nearly 100 percent Irish. If the name alone didn’t give it away, surely my pale skin and freckles did. (Did I mention “Maggie” is short for Margaret Patricia?) Growing up, my dad always told me I inherited the Irish “love of the language.” Throughout my childhood, I was always eager to express myself through my written work. As I’ve gotten older, writing has continued to prove itself a vital part of my genetic makeup. Truth be told, I love a lot of Irish things: Claddagh rings, Celtic harps, leprechauns, limericks, shepherd’s pie, soda bread, the list goes on and on. But if there is one element of Irish culture that I am most captivated by, it would certainly have to be Irish folk music. Growing up in the Molloy household, there was Irish folk music playing in the CD player of our family room most evenings. When I began studying music more in depth during

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high school and college, I became increasingly captivated by the improvisational Irish folk music tradition. And so, in honor of this past St. Patrick’s Day and my persistent Irish pride, I thought I would share with you a bit about the Irish folk music tradition. There are few written accounts of Ireland’s rich musical history because traditionally Irish music was composed, performed, and passed down aurally. In fact, this aural tradition is a large part of why Irish music is commonly considered a folk genre. Stylistically, Irish folk tunes are characterized by their liveliness and their conduciveness to dancing, improvising, and building community. Classic Irish tunes have been recycled generation after generation with the expectation that each new musician who plays them will add his or her own personal touches, and in doing so inject a sense of energy and enthusiasm into the otherwise simple and straightforward pieces. Because of the aural tradition of Irish music and because the musicians are encouraged to add their own personal flare, the names of the original composers of many traditional Irish tunes have been lost. Instead, over time the songs have gradually become products of the community rather than of individual composers. Most of the tunes are fairly simple and repetitive, therefore making them easier to memorize and easier to embellish. Since community-building was traditionally an important function of Irish music, many of the tunes are written as waltzes, polkas, jigs, reels, and other musical forms which facilitate dancing. Therefore, much of the music emphasizes a constant, continuous beat which makes it easy to groove along to. Reels and jigs are two of the most popular musical forms for traditional Irish music. Reels are written in duple meter (either as 2/2 or 2/4) and jigs are written in compound meter (such as 6/8, 9/8, 12/8, or any other time signature that has a triple pulse within each beat). This makes it easier for musicians to string together a whole series of reels back to back because they have similar time signatures (the same is true for a series of jigs). Watch the video below to listen to a diverse collection of traditional Irish jigs and reels. Traditional Irish folk music uses a relatively structured form of improvisation. Rather than improvising freely, musicians are expected to create variety within a structured piece by making subtle changes in the accentuation, rhythm, phrasing, and ornamentation of the original melody. Since many of the songs are meant for dancing, it is important that any melodic embellishments do not alter the underlying skeletal beat of the song. Instead, musicians are taught to improvise within each beat, adding grace notes, rhythmic subdivisions, slides, and other small flourishes. In this way, musicians are able to quickly improvise on one beat at a time. By mixing and matching a variety of rhythms and pitches within each of the major beats, musicians can personalize the tune while still maintaining the tune’s original melodic identity. Despite its often simple and straightforward song structures, Irish music is anything but bland. It is precisely because the Irish have never played the same tune twice that they have been able to maintain a unique and lively musical tradition which has captured the hearts and minds of people across generations.