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Music

Ryan & Brennish Thomson

Updated September 16, 2021

There are several thousand different Irish dance tunes either on recordings or in tune books. Out of these there is a smaller collection of what traditional musicians call "session tunes." There are probably about 400 to 500 tunes in the general pool of commonly played pieces. I travel widely and have attended hundreds of Irish sessions from California to Ireland. 

 

This is a list I've compiled from memory of what tunes seem to be played the most often in my experience. I don't yet play all of them myself, because I'm learning as I go. Sometimes I attend a session and get sidetracked, and decide to learn some new tune that I've never heard before. Therefore, this is merely my personal list, not intended to be the be-all and end-all authoritative source for session music.

 

This isn't a complete list since I haven't yet learned the names of many other regularly played tunes. I've purposely left out dance tunes that I like personally but that I don't consider "common" session tunes. For example, I like playing "Flowers of Edinburgh" and "Banish Misfortune," but I don't hear them often in Irish sessions where the standard format is three different tunes, three times each, so they're not on this list.

 

I will keep updating this list as I go along however. Many people categorize O'Carolan's harp tunes in a different class than "traditional Irish music," so I haven't put them on the list either even though I play a number of them personally. Then there is the class of newly composed tunes. Many experienced players compose new tunes and if others like them enough, they may enter the general session repertoire. One of my own tunes - New Hampshire Hornpipe, is beginning to be played widely in New England. I've even heard of someone playing it in a local fiddle contest.

 

To be able to attend a serious session and play most of the time, one's repertoire needs to be a bit over 200 tunes. However, if you are just getting started, I'm confident that you could learn any 5 or 10 of these tunes listed below, and go to any regular weekly session in the US or Ireland, and someone else there would know at least half of them to play along with you. The more tunes you learn, the less you'Il have to sit out at a session and wait for the regular musicians to play a tune that you know. 

 

Violinists often ask me for sheet music that they can read along with at sessions. Unfortunately this is not very practical for several reasons: A medley of  3 tunes is often spontaneously selected by the person who starts a set. If that person has to preselect the tunes and playing order to announce to the group, it takes away a bit from the fun and continuity of the session. 

 

Yes, a lot of the fun for experienced players is TO NOT KNOW what tune is coming up next! There is often a noticeable quieting of the music when a set reaches the third time through the first or second tune, and then everyone leans forward to hear what the next tune is going to be - like unwrapping a present! Those that know it jump right in, and those that don't listen carefully to it, and make a note to put that one on the “tunes to learn list."

 

I have witnessed frustrated players trying to shuffle through written music at sessions, in dimly lit pubs, desperately trying to locate a tune before the session leader finishes playing it and gets on to the next tune in the set. Also, there is no one particular source for written session tunes, rather, there are several different tune book compilations which cover about 90% of the common tunes. Each tune book is likely to have a different version of each tune. You can listen to alternate versions of most tunes on Youtube to get ideas about creating your own personal version.

 

Session playing is a "style" of music. To participate fully, one need to memorize the music, since this meets one definition of a "session." There's an old saying, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." This advice is true for other styles of music as well. To play classical chamber music, for example, one must brush up on sight reading and technical violin playing skills. You can't just show up at a chamber group expecting to play by ear! 

 

The standard session format is three tunes of a similar type, each played 3 times: jigs, reels, hornpipes, slip jigs, and slides. Some special tune types can be played by themselves and not in a set: aires, waltzes, mazurka, O'Carolan tunes, set pieces like "The Blackbird," and "barn dances."

 

Its important to keep in mind that most of these tunes have alternate names, though I've tried to pick the name that is used most often in my experience. Also remember that the traditional repertoire doesn't remain constant, but gradually changes as new tunes are composed and older obscure tunes are rediscovered and released on recordings by popular groups. Sometimes tunes also seem to get "worn out," from being played too much, and lose favor at sessions. 

 

I've started adding the "key" of the piece after the name, but I'm not finished yet. Note that I haven't labeled any tunes as to whether they are jigs, reels, or other tune type.

 

Session Tunes in Alphabetical Order:

Another Jig will do

Bank of Ireland 

Battering Ram

Behind the Haystack ...D

Blackthorn Stick

Bobby Casey's

Boyne Hunt 

Boys of Blue Hill....D

Boys of Wexford

Brenda Stubbert's

Butterfly...Em

Chicago Reel 

Chief O'Neils Favorite.....D

Clifs of Moher.....Am

Collier's

Concertina Reel

Congress Reel....Am

Cannaughtman's Rambles.....D

Convenience Reel

Cooley's Reel......Em

Crabs in the Skillet

Cup of Tea...Em

Dennis Murphy's Slide

Dick Gossip.......D

Dingle Regatta

Dinky's.......Am

Docherty's

Doctor Gilbert's...Em

Drowsy Maggie......Em

Drunken Landlady.....Em

Dust on the Windowsill......Am

Earl's Chair

Egan's Polka......D

Far from Home......G

Faral O' Gara

Farewell to Ireland    

Father Kelly's 

Foggy Dew......Em

Foxhunter's reel....G

Frieze Britches

Garret Barry's

Gravel Walk....Am

Hardiman the Fiddler

Harvest Home......D

Haste to the Wedding......D

High Reel

Home Rule/Hangman's Noose.......D

Humours of Tulla

Hunter's House....G

Hunter's Purse

Hunting the Hare

Jackie Coleman's......D

Jenny's Chickens

Jig of Slurs

Julia Delaney......Dm

Kid on the Mountain.......Em

Kilarney Boys of Pleasure

King of the Fairies

Lark in the Morning.....D

Longford Collector

Love at the Endings......D

Maid Behind the Bar......D

Martin Wynnes 1 &2

McMahon's(The Banshee).......G

Monaghan's jig......Em

Mooncoin

Morning Dew........Em

Morning Star...G

Morrison's jig.......Em

Mountain Road........D

Mug of Brown Ale

Musical Priest    

My Darling Asleep........D

Nine Points of Roguery

O'Keef's Slide

Off to California.......D

Old Copperplate

Out on the Ocean...D

Paddy on the Turnpike

Plains of Boyle

Providence reel

Rights of Man.......Em

Road to Lisdoonvarna.......Em

Rocky Road to Dublin.......D

Rolling in the Ryegrass........D

Rose in the Heather

Sailor's Bonnet

Saint Annes's reel........D

Salamanca reel

Sally Gardens reel.......G

Scholar, the

Sculley's Reel.......D

Sean Ryan's jig(the Banshee)

Shaskeen

Ships are sailing........Em

Silver Spear

Silver Spire

Sligo Maid

Star of Munster......Am

Swinging on a Gate.........G

Tarbolton.......Em

Temperence(Tee-Totaler's)Reel....G

Ten Penny Bit

Tobin's Favorite.......D

Top of Cork Road

Toss the Feathers

Tripping up the Stairs......D

The Virginia

Walker Street reel.......G

Wind that Shakes the Barley.......D

Wise Maid......D

Ryan Thomson's List of Common Irish Session Tunes

Learn some of these if you want to 

play along at sessions!

This article by Ryan J Thomson 2001

revised 2016


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