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Ornamentation in Irish Music

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:

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:

Ornamentation of Irish 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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