Popular throughout Ireland and one of the most easily-recognised genres of music, traditional and modern Irish music is revered around the world for its harmonies, vibrant instruments and of course, it's ability to stir up dancing and camaraderie. A genre of music with a rich history, Irish music began to appear in written form in the 19th century, but for previous generations it had been handed down in oral form as a way of describing one's history, land, and celebrations.
Old style, or sean nos, is the most traditional example of traditional Irish music and includes simple harmonies, unaccompanied vocals by single or duo singers, and instruments played in unison. In traditional Irish music, there is no counterpoint, which is the term for dual melodic phrases being played simultaneously. Melody, phrasing, lyrics and structural units are symmetrical in nature due to the issues with instrumentation during the development of the genre. Traditional Irish music originated with Irish lyrics, while modern Irish songs can have both English or Irish lyrics.
Changes to the genre of Irish music have occurred slowly, which is a characteristic of traditional music genres. Some of the oldest forms of written Irish music were recorded as early as the 19th century, with many previous forms of the music being passed down orally. Performances were often solo, which was a preference of the folk tradition, but in the mid-1800s ensembles and music groups began to form.
The most popular instruments in Irish music are flutes, whistles, bouzoukis, accordions, fiddles and uilleann pipes, which are a type of bagpipes. In the 18th century, the bodhran, or modern tambourine, was first mentioned and became associated with Irish music. In the 1940s, Irish bands included drums, stand-up bass and saxophones. By the 1960s, guitars and bouzoukis had begun to emerge. In modern Irish music, the tambourine, guitar and bouzoukis are the most popular instruments.
The Tradition of Dance
Traditionally, Irish music was performed during celebrations like weddings, holidays or saint's days, and was accompanied by dancing. For dancing purposes, Irish music is isometric with 16 measures for each step. Irish dance moves performed to Irish music include reels, hornpipes, jigs, slip jigs, and even polkas and muzurkas. The most popular type of dance is step-dancing, which can be performed in the Munster or southern style, and arose during the 19th century Irish cultural revivals in which dances occurred in a line. In modern times, tunes are considered background or dancing music, while songs are always treated with reverence towards the singer, particularly in Irish pubs and bars.
"Riverdance," which is often conjured when hearing the Irish genre of music, originated with a music and dance act that was performed by Michael Flatley and June Butler as an entry in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. "Riverdance" caused an international resurgence of Irish music's popularity.
While Irish music tends to be traditional, it can also be fused with rock and roll and other genres. Popular 20th century folk fusion artists include Sinead O'Connor, Van Morrison, the Pogues, the Chieftains, the Cranberries, Enya and Rory Gallagher.