Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Ten Reasons Why Irish Music is the Right Choice (the Only Choice) for Me

If I was going to focus on one style of music to play it would have to be Irish music. In fact, I've come to the conclusion that Irish music might be the only choice for me. I'll be moving to the Portland, Oregon area in a few months and in anticipation of that I've been trying to get back into playing Irish tenor banjo. I haven't played much Irish music since 2018 but it's starting to come back. Here are some reasons why I think Irish music is/was the right choice in the first place and will the best choice going forward.

All Melody All The Time

If you play one of the melody instruments, such as I do, then in most situations you just play the melody in unison with the other instruments doing the same thing. You don’t have to solo or play chords. You just play the tune…same as the violin, tin whistle, concertina, accordion, flute, et cetera.

No Chords or Soloing

I’ve tried and failed to learn chords many times over. I will never be a New Orleans style tenor banjo player. I completely understand how chords are formed from a theory perspective, but that doesn’t mean that I know what the chord changes should be for any song in the world. So, it’s a relief not having to think about chords at all. Also, I have no interest in soloing like people do in bluegrass or jazz, therefore it’s another relief that in traditional Irish music you don’t have to ever solo.

My Instrument is one of the Instruments

I play tenor banjo. There are two main styles of music that the tenor banjo is a part of: New Orleans jazz and Irish trad. Of those two, Irish trad is the only viable option for me. While the banjo is often made fun of, it is also generally considered an acceptable instrument for participating in an Irish session. More accepted than showing up with a saxophone would be.

A Welcoming Community

If you understand the etiquette and how to interact with others, then your local Irish trad community can be a fairly built-in social group to be a part of. It’s a pretty insular crew and once you prove yourself to not be completely ignorant you are usually made to feel welcome simply because of your common interest. It’s sometimes more about your ability to hang than it is about your ability to play.

A Common Repertoire

Once you become familiar with the repertoire, the style, and the etiquette, you can pretty much go to any open Irish session and find common ground. At least that’s been my experience. Especially sessions that are accepting of learners/beginners.

The Music is Available in Tab and Notation

Those who can pick up tunes by ear definitely have an advantage, but the music to any well known Irish tune is going to be available for free online. You can usually also find it in mandolin tab, which works for Irish tenor banjo. Plus, it’s easy to find audio examples of almost any tune several times over so that you never have to just rely on the audio alone or the notation alone.

A Variety of Time Signatures and Rhythms

It’s not just 4/4 time. There are also jigs, slip jigs, polkas, and slides. Barn dances, marches, and hornpipes have a different feel as well. You cover a decent variety that way and get to play in time signatures that some genres completely ignore.

Play Alone or in a Group Setting

In Irish music the tune is the tune. One instrument playing the tune makes it complete. So it’s a great style of music for the hobbyist who plays tunes at home by themself. Of course in a group setting you have to listen closely and keep time with the other instruments, but what you played or learned at home by yourself (should) easily translate when playing along with other people.


Irish music is often played in public settings, but having participated in this environment I can tell you it doesn’t feel the same as performing for an audience on a stage as part of a band. For the part that I’m able to play along with - the instrumental tunes - the circle would be doing it the same whether there was anyone listening or not. The occasional song might break out and that may be the closest it gets to a performance, but in that case I am going to be sitting back and taking a break from playing. It’ll never be me signing the song!

The Tunes Themselves are the Practice

Once you get the basics down, the practice can be as simple as learning the tunes and building up speed playing them. There’s no need to work through a bunch of scales, etudes or exercises. In Irish music the learning and playing of the tunes usurps these other forms of preparation.

The Limitation of it Being a Specific Thing

There’s something to be said about limitations. Within the world of Irish music, there are hundreds of tunes you could learn, but for the most part a reel is a reel, a jig is a jig, and so on. It becomes less overwhelming when you view it as a specialty and hone in on the traditional repertoire. I can finally say "I play Irish tenor banjo" and leave it at that.

It’s Fairly Entry Level - You can be self taught

Some might disagree, but the fact that I can play it is proof that it is fairly entry level. It’s pretty much the only “genre” or option that I have for playing music. Anything else would be out of my depth, but Irish music I can kind of grasp. And yes, I’ve had some lessons but really for the most part you can learn it all yourself. It doesn’t require an understanding of music theory or even how to read music. In my case, I like to look at the music and I like knowing about modes such as Dorian and Mixolydian, but you don’t need any of that to play the music. 

AABB - Consistent Structure

There might be hundreds of tunes, but many of them follow an AABB structure, meaning a two-part tune. Play the A-part (first part) twice and then play the B-part (second part) twice. 16 bars each. Twice through the A-part and twice through the B-part equals one time through the tune. Play through the tune a total of three times and there you have it. I think this consistency stems from the music being of service to dancers who require this format.

It’s Non-Electric

No fussing with cables, pedals, amplifiers, microphones and so on. You just play your instrument!


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