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Irish Music and Scottish Music: What's the Difference, Really?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Irish Music and Scottish Music: What's the Difference, Really?
The music of Ireland and Scotland tends to get tossed into the same Celtic bin these days. And most Celtic bands, whether from Irleand, Scotland or other Celtic-rooted cultures such as Wales and Brittany, look pretty much the same, with an assortment of fiddles, flutes, accordions, guitars and pipes pumping out ancient dances tunes such as jigs, reels, and waltzes.
        But are Irish and Scottish music really the same? Ireland and Scotland are very different places, after all, with distinct histories, cultures and musical heroes.
        Many of the important differences are clear in the music made by the sizzling Irish band Lunasa and the sublime Scottish quintet Old Blind Dogs.
        Where the Dogs' sound is defined by the soft, sweet baritone of Jim Malcolm, Lunasa is an entirely instrumental ensemble. And while there is a vibrant vocal tradition in Ireland, the song and the instrumental traditions seem on much closer terms in Scottish music.
        Lunasa brings an ornamental glee and jazz-like arrangement precision to their jigs and reels, with a captivating blend of traditional reverence and modern compositional savvy that led the Washington Post to dub them "the Bothy Band meets the Flecktones."
        Old Blind Dogs perform their instrumental tunes with a muscular drive and warm-blooded pulse that is uniquely Scottish. While both Irish and Scottish music are melodic at heart, Scottish music seems more straight-ahead and rhythm-driven; Irish music more punctuated with ornamental trills and grace notes.
        Lunasa flutist Kevin Crawford says many people think Irish music is faster than Scottish music, because the musicians embellish melodies with so much quickly played ornamentation. But making room for these trills tends actually to slow Irish tempos.
        "The difference is not that obvious to the listener," he says. "It's only when you try to play along that you notice, geez, the Scottish music is really going along at a gallop. A lot of Irish players seem to be playing faster than they are, because they're putting all those ornaments and grace notes in there."
        This results in a dramatic difference in overall sound. Scottish fiddling is much more bow driven, giving it a throatier, more muscular sound. Irish fiddling is defined more by ornamentation played by the left hand, resulting in a more intricate style.
        With an understandable Irish-centric bent, Crawford describes this as Ireland's "rolling, flowing" approach, while Scottish music is "more choppy and faster." Scottish singer Malcolm describes the distinction somewhat differently: "The Irish tend to skiddly-diddle more than we do," adding that the same ornamental approach affects their singing: "It can take an Irish singer a half-hour just to sing the line, 'One morning in May.'"
        Boston fiddler Hanneke Cassel is equally fluid in both Scottish and Irish styles, a U.S. Scottish National Fiddle Champion who plays in the band of Irish-American singing star Cathie Ryan. Cassel says the root of the differences may lie in the influence of the bagpipes on Scottish music.
        She also points out that, while both musics share the sprightly 6/8 jig,  2/4 hornpipe and stately 4/4 reel, the Scottish repertoire also has strathspeys, a 4/4 cousin to the reel, and fiery marches not commonly found in Irish music.
        "I play lots of pipe tunes in Scottish music," she says. "Pipe jigs, pipe marches, and airs where the fiddle is pretending to be a bagpipe. Even in what Scottish people write today, there are are lot of pipey tunes, with notes going back and forth the way pipers would."
        Lunasa's uilleann piper Ciaran Vallely explains that his Irish pipes are different in that they are able to play nearly anything a fiddle or flute can.
        "The uilleann pipes' chanter has a chromatic, two-octave scale, so you can play in a lot more keys. The chanter on the Highland pipes, the part that plays the melody, has eight notes, which influences the sound of the music. Because of the number of notes, the tunes tend to be more driving, rhythmic, high-pitched and forceful."
        The differences in the vocal traditions are even more pronounced. In Irish music, the vocal and instrumental repertoires have always been quite distinct, with singing done primarily a cappella until well into the 20th century. In Scotland, they have been warmly melded for centuries.
        Why? Malcolm has an immediate, one syllable response.
        "Burns. Robert Burns is our Shakespeare; not just our greatest poet, but the genius who codified our culture. He took a lot of the fiddle tunes and wrote words to them, as well as writing his own songs, and collecting, rearranging and preserving 600 traditional songs. That brought the two traditions together."
        The two traditions also join in a Scottish tradition called "mouth music," in which instrumental tunes are sung to nonsense syllables, like scat-singing in jazz, to accompany dancing. There is a similar scat-like tradition in Irish music, called lilting.
        Many of these distinctions were informed by the different ways the two cultures dealt with the common problem of British colonial domination. Because Scotland largely accepted its colonial status after the 1745 rebellion, British society found its traditions acceptable, even fashionable.
        Nationalist artists such as Burns and Sir Walter Scott sought to soften attitudes toward Scotland by romanticizing its traditional culture among British elites. There is a long tradition of Scottish tunes played with classical arrangement and technique, for example.
        Irish music was much more harshly repressed, by both the political power structure and the Catholic church, which saw it as innately licentious. The music tended to be played in homes and village pubs, away from the ears of authority. The result is that it was much less altered by revisionist influences. About this, Malcolm is clearly envious.
        "Irish culture was more of a rebel culture," he says, "where Scottish culture became very kind of trendy. That tended to push Irish traditional music ahead of the Scottish when Ireland became a Republic, and Scotland remained in the Commonwealth. We only got our own parliament back three years ago, after 300 years of being politically joined to Britain. So Irish culture has had a lot more time to organize itself, regroup and revive their music on its own terms, which is why I think it is much more advanced around the world. In North America, we always feel like we're in the slipstream of the Irish."
        Originally appeared in The Boston Globe

updated: 8 years ago