Making Your Music Your Own, Within the Style You Play 

There are purists whose aim is to preserve every piece of traditional music in the exact form they find it. This preserves musical styles, but the folk process (the natural tendency of aurally-learned music to undergo change) is an essential part of our heritage, too. Folk music is the music of the people. We are the folk.

There are some some forms of music in which the folk process is not appropriate. Written music serves the purpose of preventing the folk process, which is absolutely necessary for classical music and original compositions that a composer wishes to be preserved intact.

Within each musical style, there is a set of usually-unwritten and often unspoken “rules” that make the music sound right for the style. In certain social groups in various regions, locally and globally, there are subtle and profound differences within musical styles, much like the regional dialects that we hear in spoken word. Music is a language; therefore it develops dialects just a spoken language does.

Awareness of these musical dialects comes with exposure. Therefore, for instance, people who grow up with one style of music sometimes don’t know there are others! I recently met an elderly man at an old-time music camp who played mostly Texas Swing music, which is a distinct old style that is easily recognizable and is characterized by certain rhythms and chord progressions, and he played it very well. Occasionally he would join an Old-Time jam (“Old-Time” refers to music originally from the Appalachian back-country, which is also quite distinct from other styles). In conversation he remarked to me, “This Old-Time music is OK but I don’t like it all that much. I’d rather play regular music.” I asked him what he meant by ‘regular”. He said, “You know, all the other music.” It was clear to me that he was actually referring to what he grew up with  –  Texas Swing  –  and that in his experience that was “all the other music”.

Interestingly, classically trained and other “paper-trained” (no insult intended) musicians sometimes assume that if a piece can be read from notation, it’s right. But notation lacks certain information; without the impossible-to-notate nuances of musical dialect, it comes out sounding not so right, at least to the ears of those who do know the style. (It’s fair to say that as an ear-learner, I am a sad case when it comes to playing classical music, so it goes both ways.)

Here are a few observations about Celtic music styles. There isn’t just one “Celtic” style. There’s Irish, Scottish, Breton, Galician, Manx, Welsh, and CapeBreton, and within those there are variations depending, for instance on which part of the country the musician comes from. For example:

*CapeBreton style fiddlers use a tone that may sound harsh and scratchy to, say, a Scottish Fiddler.

*Irish and Scottish music are characterized by specific rhythms and ornamented melodies, and harmony types that depend largely on 5ths and octaves.

*Scottish music contains specific ornaments that you won’t hear in Irish music. There are also Scottish dance music styles you won’t find in Irish music. For a list and explanation please see The Harper’s Manual (available at , click on “books”). Although the book is for harpers, it contains info that most musicians can use.

*There is an Irish singing style called Sean Nos, meaning “old style”, from which the tradition of Irish tenors emerged. For female singers, the voice is quite high-pitched and sometimes sounds thin. From this style of singing came the Appalachian (American Southeast) “High Lonesome” singing style still sometimes used by male and female singers in Bluegrass and Old Time music.

*Breton music has French influences. Medieval French music sounds simple to the unitiated, until you try to learn it. The melodies are repetitive but quite complex in format and in rhythm, and don’t stop or pause where you might expect them to if you’re accustomed to playing Irish or Scottish music.

*Galician music has Moorish and Celtic influences. It can sound quite Middle Eastern and Irish at the same time.

*Manx music has Norse and Celtic roots. Nordic music has differently timed ornaments and uses interesting modes and scales. See Beth Kolle’s book “The Northern Folk Harp” for some great tunes.

The way instruments are used in each culture differs greatly from the way they are used in Eurocentric classical music. For instance:

*A classical guitarist wants a round tone and plenty of sustain, while a Flamenco (Spanish Dance style) guitarist wants a more brash sound that can be heard above the clatter of stomping feet.

*A traditional fiddler from just about anywhere often concentrates more on stylistic essences and a bit less on tone production than does a classical violinist, for whom tone is paramount.

*An Irish flute player plays a wooden flute and aims for a somewhat nasal tone, whereas a classical flautist strives for a round tone on a silver flute. (I use the term flautist out of respect for those who prefer the term rather than flutist, though I’m told many classical musicians these days feel it’s too affected. But if I didn’t use it, someone would correct me!)

*A Bluegrass mandolin player aims for speed and rhythm, whereas a classical mandolinist aims for accuracy and expression.

This is not to say that there isn’t some overlap. Cello, for instance, is a classical instrument, but is used very effectively in Scottish music (i.e. Abby Newton). And there are some classical violinists who can play Celtic styles wonderfully. And one of my favorite Irish pennywhistle players is James Galway, the famous classical flautist.

Well, I guess I’ve said enough for now about styles. I’ll change the subject completely for the next post.