Tune Genres | Bowing Down Home

[Still to Come : Graphic Illustrations showing Notation for Each Genre]

Fiddle tunes are divided into genres according to their meter (time signature), tempo (speed) and function. On PEI, nine genres are represented: reels, hornpipes, set-tunes, jigs, strathspeys, marches, waltzes, fox trots, and airs.

Most fiddle tunes have two parts, which on PEI are referred to as the low turn and the high turn. For the vast majority of tunes, each turn has eight measures and is played through twice before going on to the next turn. I’ll call this structure standard format. Alternatively, some tunes have a short format (one repeated four-bar turn followed by a non-repeated eight bar turn), and others have a long format (one or more sixteen bar turns).

Reels, hornpipes, set tunes, jigs are used to accompany square-sets. Reels are also used to accompany step-dancing.

Reels (Time signature: 2/2 or 2/4; Tempo: in 2/2, half note=c. 110-120). Almost all the most widely played tunes on PEI are reels, also known locally as fast tunes. A typical measure consists of two groups of four eighth or sixteenth notes. Most reels follow standard format, but some are short format tunes. Some popular (long format) reels on PEI are Big John MacNeil, Farmer’s Reel, The Miramichi Fire, Paddy on the Turnpike, Princess Reel and Sheehan’s Reel. Some short format reels are Dancing Fingers, Jenny Dang the Weaver, and Miss Lyall Reel.

Hornpipes (Time signature: 2/2 or 2/4; Format: standard). The modern hornpipe developed in the third quarter of the 18th century as a slow to medium tempo adaptation of the reel designed to accompany step-dancing. On PEI and in most other North American fiddling traditions, hornpipes are now almost always played at the same brisk tempo and with the same note-rhythm as reels. Some examples: Fisher’s Hornpipe, Stack of Barley, and High Level Hornpipe.

Set-Tunes. (Time signature: 2/2 or 2/4; Tempo: same as reels; Formats: standard or long). The term set-tune is a catch-all for cut-time dance tunes that are neither reels nor hornpipes. Some Island fiddlers refer to them as slow tunes – presumably because with fewer notes to play, the fiddler’s bow moves a bit slower than for reels. Many set-tunes are old popular songs that became dance melodies. Some popular set tunes are Kingdom Comin' (also known as Jubilo), Silver & Gold, and The White Cockade.

Jigs. (Time signature: 6/8; Tempo: dotted quarter = c. 120 Format: standard). Island fiddlers recognize two categories: Irish jigs and Scotch jigs. “Irish jigs” are tunes with measures that usually contain two groups of three eighth-notes, such as such as The Irish Washerwoman and Maid on the Green. “Scotch Jigs” is a catch-all that includes most other 6/8-time dance tunes. Some examples: West Point Jig and The Bonny Lea Rig.

Marches. The most common kind of march in the Island repertoire is the Scottish four-part cut-time march, which has four repeated eight-measure parts with a thematic sequence of ABA’B’. Generally, the last or B’-part has a four-measure second ending that recalls the ending of part A. Most cut-time pipe-marches in the Island repertoire – such as MacDonald’s March, The Drunken Piper and The Marchioness of Tullybardine – are played as reels. Note: many Island fiddlers play truncated versions of these marches that leave out one or more parts.

Strathspeys (Time signature: 4/4; Tempo: quarter note = c. 96; Format: usually short). Strathspeys originated in the Strath Spey region (Spey River Valley) of northeastern Scotland and are essentially slowed down, rhythmically elaborated adaptations of the reel form. Both strathspeys and reels were originally employed to accompany a popular 18th-century dance known as the Scotch Reel (the musician would open with a strathspey, then segue into a reel). Most strathspeys dropped from circulation on PEI when Scotch-reel dancing declined, but interest has been rekindled through the influence of Cape Breton fiddling. Some popular strathspeys on the Island are The Duke of Gordon’s Birthday, King George IV, and Athole Brose.

Waltzes (Time signature: 3/4; Tempo: quarter note = c. 116; Format: usually long). There are a relatively limited number of specialized waltz tunes in circulation on PEI, such as Florence Killen, Westphalia Waltz, and Southern Waltz. Alternatively, Island fiddlers sometimes use song melodies or fiddle airs (see below) in ¾ or 6/8 time to accompany waltzing.

Fox Trots: On PEI, the term “fox trot” is a catch all that covers just about any popular tune in “duple” meter (that is 4/4, 2/4, or 2/2) written after roughly 1920. An example: Five Minutes More.

Fiddle Airs are intended for listening rather than dancing. Two examples: Niel Gow’s Lament for his Second Wife, and Lamentation for James Moray, Esq. of Abercarney.