Irish Music 101

What Is Traditional Irish Music?

The Chieftains in Los Angeles, 1993
The Chieftains in 1993.

Waring Abbott/Getty Images

Irish music sounds very much the same today as it would have two hundred years ago. Irish music is a diverse genre of folk music which has many regional variations. The majority of traditional Irish music is music for dancing, but there is also a substantial ballad tradition.


Traditional instruments used in Irish music include fiddle, bodhran, wooden flute, tin whistle, Uillean pipes, and the Irish harp. Also common are the accordion or concertina, guitar, banjo, and bouzouki (a large mandolin). These instruments have all become popular in Irish music within the last 100 years.

Tune Styles

The time signatures and styles of tunes commonly found in Irish music include single jig (12/8 time), double jig (6/8 time), reel (4/4 time), hornpipe (swing 4/4 time), slip jig (9/8 time), and occasionally versions of polkas (2/4 time) and mazurkas or waltzes (3/4 time). All of these tune styles have corresponding traditional dances.

Vocal Music—Sean Nos

Sean nos (pronunciation: sean like shawn, nos rhymes with gross) literally means "old style" in the Irish language. Sean nos refers to a style of solo a cappella ballad singing. Though sean nos songs are not for dancing, they are an important part of traditional Irish music. Traditionally, sean nos songs are in Irish, but some more modern ballads may be in English as well.

History and Revival

Irish music has always been an important part of both rural and urban life for the Irish people. However, after centuries of British rule, significantly renewed interest in Irish music and dance coincided with the burgeoning Nationalist movement of the late 1800s. A second major revival coincided with the American folk music revival of the 1960s.

The Influence of Irish Music on American Folk

It is a common misconception that Irish music was hugely influential on American old-time and bluegrass music. These genres came from Appalachia, where there was never a substantial amount of Irish immigration (most immigrants there were Ulster Scots, Scottish, and English). Irish music did, however, have a significant influence on the 1960s folk revival. That later influence went both ways—many American artists influenced Irish artists as well.

Irish Rock and Irish Punk Music

In the late 20th century, it was commonplace for young musicians to merge their traditional folk genres with rock and punk. Irish musicians were at the forefront of these folk-rock pioneers. Irish punk groups like the Pogues and Flogging Molly have opened a window into Irish music for a new generation of fans.

Traditional Irish Music Starter CDs

The Chieftains - Water From the Well
Solas - The Hour Before Dawn
Altan - Harvest Storm