Today, let’s take a closer look at something that truly sets Irish music apart and makes it utterly captivating—the beautiful art of ornamentation.
At its core, ornamentation is what gives Irish traditional music its soul. It adds depth, personality, and a burst of emotion to each note, transforming even the simplest tunes into rich, storytelling melodies. These subtle touches not only bring the music to life but also fill it with an infectious energy that’s hard to resist.
Ornamentation is all about adding extra notes and rhythms to a tune, making it more interesting and appealing. It’s a way for musicians to add their own personal touch to familiar Irish tunes, making each piece uniquely their own. What’s incredible about this technique is that it’s not limited to just one instrument. Whether you’re playing the fiddle, the concertina, the accordion, the flute, the tin whistle, the banjo, the mandolin, or the uilleann pipes, ornamentation lets you weave your own story into the music. This is what truly distinguishes Irish music from other folk traditions around the globe.
Different Kinds of Ornaments
Now you might be thinking, ‘If ornamentation is just adding notes to a tune, is there really a certain way of doing so’? And the short answer is, “Yes, there is!” There are a couple of accepted techniques and methods used to play extra notes in an already-existing tune:
- Cuts: Brief, higher notes played right before the main melody note, adding a spark.
- Taps: Similar to cuts but use a quick, lower note for a grounding effect.
- Slides: Smooth transitions between notes, creating a flowing sound, often in slower pieces.
- Long Rolls: Rapid notes surrounding the main note for rhythmic enhancement.
- Short Rolls: Like long rolls but skip the starting main note for brevity.
- Triplets: Three notes played in the time of two for a lively texture.
- Bounces: A note is played, followed by a quick lower note, and then the original note again.
- Crans: Complex grace notes on the Uilleann Pipes, adding depth, occasionally adapted to the flute.
- Casadh: Two extra notes added around the main note, enriching the melody like a triplet.
It’s really important to understand that not all instruments handle ornamentation in the same way. Take the fiddle, for example—it’s quite versatile and can handle just about any ornament you throw at it. On the other hand, the harp might struggle a bit with certain techniques, like playing triplets on the same string. And then there are the Uilleann pipes, which are absolutely brilliant at performing crans with incredible precision. That’s why it’s a good idea to play around with different ornaments to see which types fit best with the unique capabilities of the instrument you’re playing. Adding ornamentation to Irish music can vary in difficulty depending on the musician’s background and the specific ornamentation technique. Generally, it’s a skill that becomes much easier with practice, as muscle memory and ear training improve.
So, we’ve explored the various ornamentation techniques, which leads us to a pretty important question.
When (and How) Do We Use Ornamentation?
Knowing when to add those extra grace notes is a bit of an art form in itself. If you go overboard with ornamentation, you risk losing the original tune under all those embellishments, making it hardly recognisable. That’s why we suggest using ornamentation wisely—it should add to the tune, giving it more depth and character, without taking over completely.
Alongside using ornamentation judiciously, it’s crucial to make sure it blends seamlessly with the tune. As we touched on before, the goal is to enhance the melody rather than change its fundamental character. So, aim for a natural and smooth incorporation of those grace notes. If the ornaments seem to stick out awkwardly or disrupt the tune’s flow, it might be a sign they need to be rethought.
Remember, these aren’t hard and fast rules but rather guidelines that Irish traditional musicians might find helpful. Ultimately, what sounds right is quite subjective and really depends on the musician’s judgement on whether the ornaments fit well.
Diving into the heritage and culture of Irish music opens up a world of ornamentation techniques that have been handed down through the ages. Engaging with this element of Irish music encourages us to delve deep into the tradition’s rich fabric. These techniques, passed from generation to generation over centuries, represent a vibrant, living heritage that keeps evolving with each new interpretation. Experimenting with such techniques as ornamentation is a way for us to connect the past with the present, breathing new life into ancient tunes and making them resonate with today’s listeners.
Basic Tips and Tricks
Listen to Recordings: One of the best ways to learn ornamentation is by listening to recordings of experienced traditional musicians. We talk more about this below.
Slow Down the Music: If you’re having trouble deciphering ornamentation in fast-paced tunes, slow down the music using software or apps designed for this purpose. This allows you to hear each ornament more clearly and learn it at your own pace.
Focus on Basic Ornaments: Start by mastering basic ornaments such as cuts, taps, rolls, and slides before moving on to more complex techniques. Practice each ornament individually until you feel comfortable incorporating them into your playing.
Use Ornamentation Sparingly: Ornamentation should enhance the tune, not overpower it. Use ornaments sparingly and strategically to add interest and expression to the music without detracting from the overall tune.
Develop Your Own Style: While it’s important to learn from experienced musicians, don’t be afraid to develop your own style of ornamentation. Experiment with different techniques and find what works best for you and your playing style.
Practice Regularly: Like any skill, learning the intricate ornamentation in Irish music instruments like the fiddle or flute requires dedication and practice. Set aside dedicated practice time each day to work on your ornamentation techniques and gradually build your skills over time.
Seek Guidance from Experienced Musicians: Irish traditional music enthusiasts often seek guidance on mastering ornamentation techniques to enhance their musical performances. If possible, seek guidance from experienced Irish traditional musicians or attend workshops and classes focused on ornamentation. They can provide valuable feedback, tips, and tricks to help you improve your ornamentation skills.
In our other piece, “Top Tips for Learning Irish Music: How to Memorise Music” we explore some innovative strategies for memorising tunes, moving beyond the traditional route of mere repetition. This article introduces methods such as playing with rhythmic variations and adjusting the tempo, which aid in grasping the tune’s essence beyond just the notes. It recommends dividing tunes into smaller, manageable parts for targeted practice and suggests “silent practice” to strengthen muscle memory and internal listening skills. Additionally, singing the melodies is highlighted as an effective way to deeply understand the music.
The Number One Technique
Caitlín Nic Gabhann, celebrated as a three-time All Ireland Concertina Champion, stresses the invaluable role of extensive listening to traditional Irish music. In her article, “Expert Advice on Learning to Play Traditional Irish Music” she delves into the crucial aspects of swing, phrasing, and flow that are integral to the music but often elude notation. Nic Gabhann champions the idea of diving into various musical styles and instruments to capture the true spirit of Irish music, which then naturally influences one’s playing. She further advocates singing the tunes as a technique to internalise their melodies before playing them on an instrument. This, combined with a repetitive exploration of the tunes, enables finding a personal rhythm and flow.
For newcomers to Irish music, embarking on a journey to uncover the distinctive ornamentation styles of famed musicians can be incredibly enlightening. The foundation of understanding and applying ornamentation in music heavily relies on listening—a practice strongly recommended by seasoned musicians for three key reasons:
Grasping the Essence: Irish traditional music thrives on an oral tradition, with tunes and their stylistic details handed down aurally. Listening to recordings of experienced musicians is key to understanding the finer points of ornamentation—the placement of ornaments within tunes, their rhythmic delivery, and their influence on the music’s flow.
Absorbing Phrasing and Timing: In Irish music, ornaments like rolls, cuts, and slides are far more than just technical flourishes. They’re essential to conveying the tune’s expression and texture. Through attentive listening, learners can absorb the natural phrasing and timing, gaining insights into where and how ornaments fit seamlessly into a piece.
Regularly immersing oneself in traditional Irish music recordings sharpens musical intuition, enabling a more sophisticated and individual use of ornamentation. This practice helps in recognising the opportune moments for ornamentation, ensuring it serves to enrich the music rather than merely demonstrating technical prowess.
While it’s important to master specific ornaments such as rolls, cuts, or slides, the deeper skill lies in attentive listening and understanding their role and application in traditional Irish music. This fundamental approach underpins all other learning aspects of ornamentation, establishing it as the most critical technique for those exploring the intricate and vibrant realm of Irish traditional music ornamentation.
Here’s how to make the most out of listening for learning ornamentation:
How to Listen
Choose the Right Recordings: Start with recordings of well-respected Irish traditional musicians. Look for solo performances where the ornamentation is clear and the pace is moderate enough for you to follow.
Active Listening: Don’t just play the music in the background. Sit down with the intention of listening deeply. Use headphones if possible to catch all the nuances.
Break it Down: Focus on one aspect at a time. Initially, you might listen for the types of ornamentation used (e.g., rolls, cuts, slides). On another listen, focus on how they vary ornamentation with each repetition of the tune.
Sing or Hum Along: Try to mimic the ornamentation with your voice. This can help internalise the rhythm and flow of the ornaments.
Slow Down the Music: Use software or online tools to slow down the recordings without altering the pitch. This allows you to hear exactly what’s happening in fast passages.
Compare Different Performances: Listen to different musicians playing the same tune. Note how each artist applies ornamentation uniquely, reflecting their personal style.
Transcribe: If you’re able, try to write down what you hear. This can be challenging but is incredibly beneficial for understanding the structure and placement of ornaments.
Practice: After listening, pick up your instrument and try to replicate what you’ve heard. Start slowly, focusing on getting the ornamentation right before increasing the tempo.
What to Listen For
- Placement and Frequency: Notice where musicians place ornaments within the tune and how often they use them.
- Variety: Pay attention to the different types of ornaments used and how they might vary even within the same tune.
- Effect on the Tune: Consider how the ornamentation changes the feel or emphasis of the tune. Does it drive the rhythm? Add emotional depth?
Example Tunes on YouTube
For practical examples, YouTube is an invaluable resource. Here are some suggestions for tunes and artists known for their exemplary use of ornamentation:
“The Bucks of Oranmore“ played by Matt Molloy – A fast-paced reel where Molloy’s flute playing showcases intricate ornamentation.
“Siobhan O’Donnell’s“ – A beautiful jig with clear examples of ornamentation that can be heard in bodhrán accompaniment as well.
Kevin Crawford – Any solo performances by this renowned flutist will provide excellent examples of ornamentation in action.
Martin Hayes – Listening to Hayes’ fiddle playing is beneficial for understanding how ornamentation can be used sparingly to great effect, focusing on emotional expression.
“Toss the Feathers“ – A popular reel with many variations available on YouTube, providing a good opportunity to compare how different musicians approach ornamentation.
Remember, the key to learning from listening is repetition and active engagement. The more you listen with a focused intent, the more you’ll start to recognise and internalise the patterns of ornamentation in Irish traditional music.
Want to Learn More About Irish Music?
Delving into the world of Irish music instruments offers a glimpse into the fascinating techniques used in traditional ornamentation. If you’re eager to delve deeper into the realm of Irish music, be sure to explore our wide array of blog posts, including:
To wrap up, the practice of ornamentation in Irish traditional music is more than just a technical skill—it’s a deep link to heritage, culture, and creativity. Grasping the subtleties of ornamentation in Irish music brings a layer of depth and authenticity to your playing, enhancing the overall musical journey. By prioritising the essential technique of listening and incorporating various practical tips and techniques, you’ll tap into the transformative essence of ornamentation, bringing depth, emotion, and true authenticity to your music.
If you’re keen to start your own adventure in learning Irish music, head over to our website at mcneelamusic.com. There, you’ll discover a wide range of Irish instruments, including violins, Irish flutes, tin whistles, banjos, Irish bouzoukis, harps, bodhrans, guitars, mandolins, and much more. With commitment, regular practice, and a genuine love for Irish music, you’ll soon find yourself deeply engaged in the rich tradition of ornamentation and storytelling that marks this enchanting musical genre.