The Parameters of Style in Irish Traditional Music



Ornamentation is a term used by all traditional musicians but as a concept is again not easy to define.  Some of the ornaments we will discuss are easily defined as such, like cuts, rolls and crans, but ‘ornaments’ such as single note triplets as used by fiddle players or accordionists could strictly be regarded as articulation but generally would not be so defined.  A working definition could be the addition of extra tones to (or the division of) a main tone which is regarded as being embellished.  Central to the idea of ornament is that a note is being ornamented and as such no ornament has any life beyond the context of the ‘main—tone’.

Travelling in Europe and North America it becomes apparent that the traditional musicians of those countries see ornamentation as central to what it is traditional music in this geographical context and, although not always central, it certainly is perceived to be more prevalent in the performance of traditional Irish music as opposed too say English, Welsh or much Scottish music.   It is essential to remember that there are conventions of ornamentation that are held across the Irish tradition but the terminology is often not.  Sure enough the pipers, perhaps because of the literacy and urbanity of their tradition, seem to have a reasonably well defined vocabulary for their ornaments and indeed this vocabulary is borrowed throughout the tradition.  Some vocabulary is now very common.  All know what a roll is however the distinction between a long roll and a short roll is not so easily made and the terminology begins to loose its regularity (the long-roll, short roll distinction was first published by Breathnach, a piper (1971)).

A long roll is usually represented as below in fig.1 although the rhythmical structuring of it can vary between it and what you can see in fig.2.  Generally the rhythmical structure tends to concentrate on the end of the tone being ornamented.  The structure is of five tones in the following sequence; the main-tone; a tone above; the main-tone; a tone below.

Fig. 1
Audio 1

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



Fig. 2
Audio 2

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



The intervallic relationship (i.e. the distance up and down) between the main tone and the two others (one above and one below) can be changed because of the nature of the instrument or the aesthetic judgement of the musician.  For example many B/C accordion players who like using rolls are forced to play upper and lower notes which may be only a semitone away from the main tone to avoid a change in the direction of bellows while some south-Sligo flute players (notable Seamus Tansey and Peter Horan) will choose to have wider intervals to make a more audible and rhythmical effect.

The short roll (sometimes called a half-roll) is generally described as being the same as the above but with the first note missing so can be represented as follows;

Fig. 3
Audio 3

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



Unlike the long roll this ornament occurs at the beginning of the note being ornamented so the note of the ornament with longest duration is the last.  This ornament works particularly well in smaller spaces but there are problems if the tune is coming from a tone above.

Rolls tend to occur over notes of longer duration that are usually represented as having a duration of a crotchet or dotted crotchet but in recent years, and particularly on the pipes, whistle and flute, some virtuoso players have been getting them into much smaller spaces.  Of course this can also lead to a further complication of the terminology used to describe these ornaments with musicians talking about ‘short long rolls’ and ‘small short rolls’ etc.  

The overall effect of a roll is invariably rhythmical where the tones above and below can often not be distinctly heard – what can be heard is the punctuation of the main tone.  There are also other words used for roll, notably in west Clare the word beril would be used (as in the title of the tune recorded famously by Mrs. Crotty, ‘The Reel with the Beril’) which would also have been used to describe a turn or curl in someone’s hair.  Interestingly enough the term is used in Scotland to account for a piping ornament that is not dissimilar to a roll.  These terms have an obvious metaphorical root when we conceptualise the sound of these ornaments as spatial entities.

Single or double notes ornaments from above and below are given a variety of names.  The word cut is used most often to describe a single note ornament from above which can be represented as in fig. 4.  A pat is often used by traditional musicians to describe a downwards double note grace note as is illustrated in fig. 5.  These ornaments tend to occur at the beginning of the tone being ornamented although the Sligo flute player June McCormack illustrated to me how she would sometimes use them towards the end of a main tone.  Again, usually the emphasis is on their rhythmical effect, accentuated to start of the main tone which often occurs at the beat (see figs. 6 and 7 where I show how they could be used in the first bar of Willie Coleman’s Jig) but again occasionally they can be used to take up to over half of the duration of the main tone to suspend or hide cadence points.  Fig. 8 shows how this can be combined with a short roll in the first bar of the second part of Willie Coleman’s (the first four bars are illustrated together in Fig. 9).

Fig. 4
Audio 4

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



Fig. 5
Audio 5

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



Fig. 6
Audio 6

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



Fig. 7
Audio 7

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



Fig. 8
Audio 8

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



Fig. 9
Audio 9

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



Another popular ornament (again from the pipers) is the cran which is popular on pipes, flute and whistle but now can be heard used by fiddlers and accordion players although some would argue that for the sake of traditionality they should be left to the pipers.  A cran is multiple note ornament which includes at least two notes, usually above the main tone and none below [ii].  It is often represented as follows;

Fig. 10
Audio 10

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



They are most popularly used by pipe, whistle and flute players on a D where most often there is not the facility to play a roll on the D but it is more and more common to hear musicians using crans on other notes (I often hear flute players referring to crans on other tones as flutters).  Indeed Sean Donnellan mentions a disagreement in the letters page of the Evening Herald in 1930 between pipers Séamus Mac Aonghusa (the father of Seamus Ennis) and Leo Rowsome about the appropriate notes on the pipes to cran (Donnellan 1988, p.133).

The above is just a few examples of the ornaments used by traditional musicians and the names they use to classify them.  In recent years it is fair to say that the technical complexity of ornamentation and the sheer quantity of its use has increased and there is much argument as to whether is trend is to welcomed or not.  It would not be uncommon for a young flute player to play a complex ornament as illustrated below that incorporates aspects of the cran, long roll and double note ornament going down!

Fig. 11
Audio 11

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



For this sort of newer and more innovative ornament there is no standard terminology but such terminology does flourish, even if is not standardised.  For example in my teaching I would call the above a ‘tapped-cran-roll’ whereas Grey Larson in his encyclopaedic The Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle (2003) would refer to it as a variation of a ‘double cut roll’.

Of course some instruments lend themselves to more ornamentation than others (notably the flute, pipes and whistle) and some do not lend themselves to crans and rolls at all (e.g. the banjo and mandolin).  Also the way that ornaments are executed is very instrument specific.  For example what concertina players call a roll could be any one of a number of ornamental sequences but often not the five note ornament shown above and usually either something that more resembles what above is a cran or a single note triplet with a single grace note added to one of the notes of the triplet.  Individual tones on specific instruments lend themselves to certain types of ornaments and give different levels of ornamental possibility depending on the way we physically interact with the instrument.  For example, rolls are virtually impossible on an open string on a fiddle where getting the tone below means swapping strings, something that cannot really happen at the speed required.  On a C sharp on a flute, where none of the tone holes are covered ornamentation, which is largely dependant on the fingers of the player interacting with the holes on the instrument, is extremely difficult.  However there are no absolutes in these situations and a performer will always show you how that get over the apparent and assumed embodied limitations of their instrument.

Single note triplets would usually be regarded as ornamental techniques rather than articulation, which is perhaps a less prominent stylistic parameter in the mind of the average traditional Irish musician (if such a thing exists).  These are associated with fiddle playing - more recently the banjo, accordion and most latterly whistle and flute.  This ornament is perhaps motivated by a desire to ornament a note where it is otherwise difficult to use other ornamental tones at speed. Of course on different instruments the effect is produced through different ways of interacting with the specific instrument.  On the fiddle it is achieved through rapid changes in the direction of the bow; on the banjo by a quick succession of single strokes with the plectrum; on the accordion (both the button and piano) by the rapid successive tapping of a single button or key, usually by different fingers; on the flute by using something akin to classical triple tonguing techniques or rapid successive glottal stops.  This is usually used on notes characterised as being of crotchet or dotted crotchet length seen below in bars one and three of Willie Coleman’s Jig.

Fig. 12
Audio 12

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



These ornaments are usually called triplets and, less frequently, perhaps to distinguish from multiple note triplets, trebles.

Some traditional musicians would consider the use of multiple note triplets as ornaments.  These often happen in contexts where the melody involves a jump of tones of a third or more.  For example, again in the second part of the jig, ‘Willie Colemans’;

Fig. 13
Audio 13

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



The triplets that fill up intervals of a third or over can be seen in bar 3 and 4.  A common ornament especially used by older flute and whistle players can be seen in bar 2 above.  It is a type of ornament that would have been used by Micho Russell but in a modern context would be very often replace with a cran, roll or single note triplet depending on the instrument and aesthetic preference.
It is important also to remember that ornamentation is used in the vast majority of cases to accentuate rhythm.  When the ornamentation becomes so overcrowded or complex to interfere with rhythm then many would say that the playing is cluttered and unmusical.

An important issue for these ornaments and their performance is the proportion of duration given to the individual tones.  This tends to change according to the particular instrument, the place in the melody and the aesthetic of the performer.  For example, some flute players like to play rolls as represented in Fig. 9 above but perhaps it would be more popular for them to give the first tone of the ornament a longer duration, aspiring for something that would perhaps be represented as;

Fig. 14
Audio 14

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



The flutes, pipes and whistle lend themselves to this sort of uneven roll that gives a type of rhythmical push to the tune (it is often combined with a dynamic push to the end of the ornament).  However, this sort of uneven structuring of the ornament is not as easy on the accordion and fiddle and is less common or extreme.  The single note triplets above also rarely have equal triplet and quite often are played in way more accurately represented as;

Fig. 15
Audio 15

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed




Fig. 16
Audio 16

Audio player requires the latest version of Flash installed



Also the place in the tune and the type of tune plays a part in the rhythmical structuring of an ornament.   For example in a reel, a roll that starts on the beat will usually be structured differently than a roll that starts after the beat.

As is intimated above, the use and nature of ornamentation is essentially politicised within the tradition.  It is common to hear musicians to complain about the sheer amount of ornamentation used by some musicians and others to disregard the performances of others who eschew the use of much ornamentation as being too plain.  The Sligo flute player June McCormack would encourage the even spread of the notes of a roll of the tune been ornamented (justifying it as being more traditional) whereas I personally would prefer pushing the ornament to the end of the tone.  Also some musicians would disregard some ornaments as being part of another instrumental or regional tradition despite them being able to use them.   I mention above that some flute players refuse to use crans as they are piping technique.  A notable example of this is the virtuosic Cork flute player of a North Connaught style, Conal O Grada who said to the author in an interview “if you want to cran I reckon play the pipes altogether” (Keegan, 1992, p.40).  Indeed, Conal does play the pipes and does use crans on that instrument but prefers not to on the flute even though the motor movement for the technique on both instruments is very similar.   Some ornamental techniques also associated with particular stylistic categories.  For instance, one of the paradigms of Donegal fiddle music is that they use a lot of single note triplets.  Also some techniques are seen to be more traditional or authentic in certain instrumental contexts.  Again it is traditional for a Donegal fiddle player to use single note triplets but not for a flute player.