Ornamentation In Irish Music Essay Scholarship

 Leaving Cert Music

Ornamentation is the general term for the techniques associated with dressing up tunes. These techniques include the roll, tip, cut, cran and triplet. A player/singer won't play a tune in the same way from verse to verse or from performance to performance. Variation,  either rhythmic, melodic, phrase or harmonic,  is another way of dressing up tunes. How different performers use ornamentation and variation depends on his/her style.
Instrumental ornaments
A cut
is like a grace note, i.e. a quick extra note played above the main note.
A tip is the  opposite of a cut. i.e. the extra grace note is lower.
A roll is a combination of cuts and tips. Rolls can be short or long.
A triplet involves playing 3 notes in the time of 1 beat.
The ornaments above are fairly universal. That is, they are used on all melody instruments. Some ornaments are associated with particular instruments but it is common now for techniques associated with a particular instrument to be played on other instruments. (see "changes" notes)
The Cran is an ornament associated with piping. On a low d, its not possible to play a roll as there is no lower note. Therefore the piper uses several notes above the main note to simulate a roll. a, g, and f# are alternated with the main note d.
Double stopping involves playing 2 notes together, the bottom one usually being an open string and is obviously associated with the fiddle, perhaps in imitation of the drone of the pipes. This technique is often borrowed by accordion and concertina players.
The slide is associated with the fiddle where the player slides between notes, especially on slow airs. Dont mix this up with the slide dance which is in fact a fast single jig.
Variation is a priciple where performers vary tunes every time they play them. Rhythmic variation involves  changing the rhythm. Melodic or intervallic variation involves changing the pitch of a tune.  Phrase varation is where the player changes the phrasing. e.g. breathing in different places or using different bowing. Harmonic variation is where the change (melodic really) actually changes the implied harmony.
Again it is important to stress that its up to the player to uses these techniques as they see fit. A good player will improvise them. A really good player will have an element of composition about them. i.e. there is a sence of direction, a structure to the whole performance.

Irish Music Ornamentation.

Ornamentation is a key element in making Irish music what it is. Ornamentation is achieved by adding extra notes within the basic notes of a tune to "decorate" it. The best musicians are able to vary the ornamentation at will often playing a tune differently each time they repeat it.

Different instruments are played in very different ways and so ornamentation in many cases is instrument specific, what is possible on a whistle may not be possible on a banjo, notes that fall easily on a fiddle may be very difficult on a concertina, and so on.

Before we start it is useful to follow a few guidelines:

  • Make sure you have a tune in your head before you start to add ornamentation.
  • Don't play a tune too fast, you need to be able to add notes without interfering with the timing and lilt of the basic tune.
  • Practice the ornamentation so you can add without having to think about it, it becomes a natural process.
  • Do not add too much ornamentation to a tune, the trick is to keep it simple but effective.

Grace Notes

We ornament a tune by adding "grace" notes to it, to decorate it. The grace notes are not part of the basic tune.

Here are the commonly known forms of Irish tune ornamentation as they can be written in music:


The most common decoration is achieved by adding an extra note between two principal notes of a tune giving a "triplet". The three notes of a triplet are generally (note - there are no set rules in ornamentation) played in the same time as the two principal notes would be without the extra note between. The three notes may rise upwards - example c-d-e, fall downwords e-d-c, they may rise then fall c-d-c or fall then rise c-b-c. In many tunes these triplets have become accepted as a fundamental part of the tune itself.

Single Note Triplets

A Single Note Triplet is when a note is played three times in very rapid succession, it is soften used to ornament a principal note that is of long duration. A long note is effectively broken up by two "stutters". This is achived in different ways depending on the instrument, with a fiddle the bow may change direction to stop and restart the note, on a whistle a couple of dabs of the tongue may be used while on an accordian or concertina a single button may be tapped rapidly using one, two or three fingers.

The Cut

A Cut is the simplest form of ornamentation and is played as a single grace note played quickly immediately before a principal note in a tune. Cuts are usually played as a note a tone or semitone above the principal note it preceeds. This additional note is played very quickly sometimes with the note clearly audible but sometimes so quickly that the grace note sounds almost like a stutter rather than a note in itself. On a stringed instrument (such as a fiddle or guitar) cuts are often played by "hammering off," a string which is plucked, struck or bowed and immediately a finger is quickly "lifted off" the sounded string to quickly lower the note.

The Tap

A Tap is the same as a cut but with one difference - the grace note is below rather than above the principal note that it preceeds. On a stringed instrument we "hammer on" (hence the name tap) quickly tapping a finger onto a sounded note to raise the pitch of the note being played.

The Casadh or Pat

A Casadh or a Pat consists of three notes played in rapid succession and is like a cut but with two grace notes added before the principal note rather than one, the first grace note is the same as the principal note, quickly followed by a second grace note which is higher than the principle note and finally the principal note itself.

The Roll or Long Roll

A Roll or Long Roll is played by quickly playing five notes in rapid succession. We start of with a principal note which is followed by a grace note higher than the principal note, the principal note is played again followed by a grace note below the principal note and finally finishing with the principal not again as in Do Re Do Tee Do - for example d-e-d-c-d. The five notes are played very quickly so as not to distrurb the established rhythm of the tune.

Rolls tend to be played on principal notes with a longer duration in the tune. A roll is known as a "beril" in West Clare.

The Short or Half Roll

A Short or Half Roll is just the same as a Long Roll except that the first note is left out as in Re Do Tee Do. This may be necessary due to the timing of the tune or the capability of the instrument being played. On a Concertina rolls are often played leaving out the middle note of the five so we have Do Re Tee Do

The Cran

A Cran is an ornamentation first created by Uillean pipe players but has been addopted by flute and whistle players. A cran is played by playing a note then repeating the note two or three times each time with a cut just before it. Some say that the three cuts should vary with the first cut being above the noted being ornamented, the second being lower and the third being lower still. Crans are often used on the D note where the fingering is most suited to the ornament.

Crans give pipe music that characteristic "stuttering warble" that Uillean pipes are noted for.

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