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Understanding Scottish Dance music

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I hope this is what you're looking for -- and as a caveat, this is only my understanding based on observation/listening, not on any authoritative source. Also, you must know that this is not the best way to learn this stuff! It would have helped to know which tunes you know; I've included some examples that I think are common, but they might not be in your experience. I hope you can find some kind person to show this to you interactively; reading text is a terrible medium for this kind of information. Nevertheless:

What characterises each kind of tune is the rhythm. You must be able to hear differences in rhythm in order to tell one from the other.

First of all, listen for the "downbeats" or major rhythmic accents. These kinds of dance tunes are evenly divided into measures (also called bars) and the downbeat is the first beat in each measure. Counting the number of beats from one downbeat to the next is the first step in distinguishing one type of tune from the others. The examples that follow the explanations (the BUMP bahs, etc.) are best understood said aloud if possible, and/or tapped with the hands, fingers or feet, to get a physical sense of the rhythms.


Reels and strathspeys, and most hornpipes are counted in four, that is, they have four beats to a measure. Jigs of all kinds are in three (have multiples of three beats to the measure). A pickier (or more knowledgeable) person might say that many reels, etc. are in fact counted in two rather than four, but for purposes of simplification, I'm calling it four. Likewise, jigs are counted in three or multiples thereof.

Reels and single/double jigs have two beats to the measure. Strathspeys have either 4 or 2 depending on the style (RSCDS - Royal Scottish Country Dance Society - tends to be in 2, while Cape Breton and Highland are in 4). To illustrate, if someone were playing a typical reel, Flowers of Edinburgh, for example, no one would clap 4 beats to the measure. Rather they would normally clap two beats to the measure. Likewise, the musicians will normally tap two beats with their feet, if they tap at all. The same is true of jigs. The difference is what happens in the beat. In reels there is a duple rhythm, which could be expressed as 4 notes to the beat, 8 notes to the measure, while in jigs there is a triple rhythm with three notes to the beat or six notes to the measure. I've seen some people give metronome markings of the beat =240, counting 4 beats to the measure, but that strikes me as ridiculous. It's almost impossible to count at mm=240, but not too hard at mm=120 and two beats to the measure. BTW, RSCDS seems to use about mm=112 for both reels and jigs.

In a reel, the notes are for the most part evenly spaced -- that is, all the fast notes have the same time as each other, and the same with the slower ones. And reels are played quickly. Very quickly, usually.

Hornpipes and strathspeys are usually slower, though of course this depends on the players. Some people play everything as fast as they can manage, to the detriment of the beauty of the music, IMHO.

Though this is not always the case, I think of hornpipes as having what is called "dotted time" (because of the way it is written). The first note is held longer than the second, so a bar of this kind of rhythm might be illustrated:

Bump bah bump bah

where the "Bumps" have half again as much time as the "bahs" or even twice as long as the "bahs", giving the hornpipe a feeling of triple time within a 4 beat measure.

But dotted time is usually only one component of the rhythm. Other rhythmic figures such as triplets and regular quarter notes are sprinkled in amongst the dotted. The triplets work out real well with the dotted rhythm.

Another common feature of hormpipes is that the parts often end with three beats. For instance, perhaps the most well-known hornpipe, The Sailor's Hornpipe, ends this way, though, I'm sorry to say, it doesn't have dotted time. The Rights of Man hornpipe has both.

Hornpipes can be played in several different styles. RSCDS tends to treat hornpipes as reels, which tends to force the notes into equal value, like a reel. On the other hand, they can be played slowly with the dotted rhythm. Sailor's Hornpipe certainly can be played that way, though most people don't. BTW, do you mean the Popeye tune for Sailor's. That tune is known in most Scottish collections I've seen as the College Hornpipe, with another tune being called the Sailor's hornpipe. Thought I would mention it since it does cause some confusion on this side of the pond from time to time.

Strathspeys are even harder to explain, though if you got the bit about dotted time, you might understand this explanation too. As I understand it, strathspeys feature what we might call "reverse dotted time" where a measure might have

Bah bump, bah bump or Bah bump, bump bah

as a rhythmic feature in many of its measures. This is called the "Scottish snap" since strathspeys are a Scottish invention. They often have regular dotted time, quarter notes, and triplets as well.

In general, then, hornpipes and strathspeys are both slower than reels and have more varied rhythmic figures. Marches are also slower than reels, but have that sense of even rhythm that is good for cadence.

Strathspeys can be quite fast, if beat in 4. It's not uncommon to have a strathspey (in 4) going at mm=128 while a reel (in 2) is a mm=116. Marches can be played as quick two-steps, such as Duke of Fife's Welcome to Deeside, or as slower pipe marches and retreat marches. There should be a swing and lilt to a march, though, which often involves dotting the rhythm somewhat, not unlike a hornpipe or strathspey. Alasdair Fraser has written a march, the Aberdeen Alternative Festival March, which started out as a strathspey. He decided that the form of the tune called for it to be considered a march. Another interesting category in marches is the 6/3 marches, such as the Atholl Highlanders, and the retreat marches, which are in three beats to the measure, such as the Bloody Fields of Flanders, which is the tune for The Freedom Come-All-Ye.


Jigs are in three, usually counted as six, or nine, or twelve. To my ear, distinguishing between the 6 and 12 often seems somewhat
subjective, but that's probably due to a limitation in my powers of discernment.

Double jigs, single jigs, and slides all have a sense of two or four-ness about them -- the underlying beat is in twos. I'm not sure what the difference between double and single jigs is -- though I believe that double jigs are counted in six, and slides are in twelve.

If you're counting a double jig in six, it'd be

ONE two three Four five six <or>
ONE two three Two two three
^ |
[Sorry to beat this over the head, but the "ONE" gets the major stress (^), and the "Four" or "Two" gets the secondary stress (|). You might try beating this out yourself with the right hand doing the beats with stresses and the left doing the others (or v.v. if you're left-handed)] Likewise for slides, it's

ONE two three Four five six Seven eight nine Ten eleven twelve <or>
ONE two three Two two three Three two three Four two three
^ | | |

Slip jigs, however, have the very different feel of three-ness:

ONE two three Four five six Seven eight nine
ONE two three Two two three Three two three
^ | |

The Butterfly Jig is a good example of a slip jig. Waltzes are also in three (or six), but much slower.

As I understand it, single jigs tend to have a predominant rhythm of long-short for each beat, such as The Stool of Repentance opening measure. Off She Goes might be a better example. Double jigs have the three notes to the beat rhythm. Most RSCDS jigs are single or double jigs. Some ceilidh dancing, such as Strip the Willow, can be done to slip jigs. Slip jigs are much less common in Scottish music that, I think, in Irish music.

Waltzes are a completely different animal, and should not be confused with jigs in any way.


I have yet to discover the nuances of the way people write tunes out; for example, most reels can be written as a series of quarter and eighth notes, or as eighth and sixteenths. I'm sorry if this is getting too technical, but the point is that I don't think there are hard and fast rules governing how to write this stuff out.

Depending on how you write them out then, tunes usually have four or eight bars in each part, then that part is repeated once immediately after playing it the first time. Most tunes have two parts; call the first part A, the second B, and so forth. So most tunes are sixteen or thirty-two bars. Taking the case of the thirty-two bar tune, it would be two A parts of eight bars each, then two B's of eight bars each.

A (8 bars) A (8 bars)
B (8 bars) B (8 bars)

In RSCDS, most reels and jigs call for 32 bar tunes, so the tune is either played AABB or ABAB once through before going to the next tune. Strathspeys are usually 16 measures in length, so they are usually played twice, so that the same 32 bars are reached before going to the next tune in the set. Some dances call for 40 or 48 bar tunes, which causes odd repeat patterns. As a practicing musician, I don't particularly like 40 and 48 bar tunes because I'm used to playing 32 bar tunes and I actually have to try to remember the odd repeat pattern. Can cause screw-ups at dances, though I usually make it through.

Also, MOST of the time, people play this whole shebang twice through before heading off to the next tune in a medley. Sometimes they play it more than twice, but rarely do they play it only once through.

RSCDSs, because of the insistance on 32 bar tunes, tends to have but one playing of a reel or jig, most of which are 32 bar tunes if played AABB, before going to the next tune. However, I never let a tune go only one time in concert, unless it's a long, usually 4 part, pipe tune where the 3rd and 4th parts are strongly related to the 1st and 2nd parts.

There are many exceptions to all of this, of course. One of my favourite tunes, The Galtee Hunt, has eight bars in the A part, and twelve in the B part.

Let me know if this makes any sense to you, or if I'm talking way below or above your understanding. I've tried to explain this before on the net, but as I said, text is hardly the best way to get this across. It's interesting to me to try to verbalise stuff that has become almost second nature to me. Though, I hasten to add, I frequently have to count to figure out what a tune is.

One other caveat: Sometimes the title of the tune is the Such-and-such Reel or whatever, and it's not played in that rhythm at all. I don't know why this happens, and it's rare, but it does happen. Sometimes people just change the way it's played for fun. There's a hornpipe called The Banks Hornpipe that Michael Coleman plays as a hornpipe, but I've heard it played here in the States for contradances as a reel. Just human perversity, I guess!

A strathspey is actually a type of reel which developed in the valley (strath) of the river Spey area in Northeast Scotland. There are several ways to play strathspeys. For the more formal Royal Scottish Country Dance Society dances, the strathspey is played essentially in two, but with a strong afterbeat on the second beat to lead into the next measure. Since the music is written in 4/4, the basic rhythm for RSCDS dancing would be ONE two THREE Four, with emphasis at least every other measure on the Four. For Highland dancing, the playing is done in a vigouorous four, and somewhat faster than the RSCDS tempo of approximately 60 for the half-note. Highland would be somewhat faster than 120 for the quarter-note. Cape Breton strathspeys are sometimes slower and sometimes faster, but are usually in four beats to the bar. A common pattern is to have a slow strathspey lead into a faster strathspey, which gets faster until the players and dancers break into reels, which are actually slower than the strathspey (in four) is at that point.

Strathspeys can often be identified by the Scottish Snap rhythm, usually notated as a 16th - dotten 8th, but played more like a 32nd - double dotted 8th, which occurs at various times in the piece. While strathspeys are in 4/4, not 12/8, I understand that Scottish pipe band drummers often treat them as if they were in 12/8 because of the tendency to make dotted (dotten 8th - 16th) rhythms sound as if they were some form of triplets. However, they are notated either as regular dotted rhythms or as equal notes. Strathspeys often do have triplets notated in them, and they are notated as triplets. They also often have runs of 4 16th notes, and the two features are often found in the same strathspeys. The feel of a strathspey is quite different from that of a slide (an form of jig in 12/8) or of jigs, and the music should be thought of as 4/4 or 2/2 which may have triple or quadruple rhythms, not as a firm triplet rhythm as in a jig.

For more information on Scottish Dance, contact the only organisation devoted to the Traditions of Scottish Dance and Dance music, who can be reached at:

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