notes were written by Eric Foxley, and are based on an
EFDSS document produced by a working party he was involved
in. The notes have since undergone a number of additions
music should make people want to dance, and should
fit the rhythm, phrasing, style and tempo of the dance and dancers. It
can be achieved in a number of ways.
The first is by critical listening to yourself, the rest
of the band, good records, CDs and tape recordings
of yourself. From a recent selection of 12 dance CDs we
listened to, we classed only one as good dance music!
The best musicians are good dancers. We should therefore
encourage all musicians to become competent dancers: this
point cannot be over-emphasised. If your band is large enough,
members can take time off for a dance during the evening.
Always play within your limits. It is better to have a small
repertoire, well known and performed at a sensible speed, than a wide repertoire
of tunes played with difficulty as a series of disconnected
notes. Far too many bands like playing "clever" tunes, and
changing tunes before they have relaxed into any of them.
Musicians should at all times be aware of the needs of the
dancers; always slow down, speed up, give more lift or stronger phrasing, as
appears necessary from watching the dancers.
It is excellent practice to take the opportunity of playing
solo for dancers when the chance arises; solo playing is
far and away the most demanding.
- There is a geat difference between plaing for dancing and playing just to be listened to. The latter needs no particular phrasing.
of rhythms and styles
is important to understand the distinction between the major
rhythms. As a general rule, the different categories should
not be mixed within one dance.
These are usually in 6/8 time, and can be subdivided as follows:
jigs: the characteristic single jig melody consists
predominantly of "crochet followed by quaver" sequences,
as in Hundred Pipers, Blaydon Races, Smash the Windows and
Thursday Night. They tend to be "thumpy" "solid" tunes,
good for beginner dancers.
jigs: mostly three quavers in each half bar, as in Irish
Washerwoman, Blackthorne Stick, and all rapper sword tunes.
They are more "runny" tunes than single jigs, and more exciting
for good dancers but with not such a strong beat.
jigs: these are in 9/8 time (Sir Roger de Coverley),
and are unusual in EFDSS circles.
These are either 2/4 or 4/4 time. The categories are less
obvious than with jigs. The usual categories are:
(or single reel): not very "notey", as in Big Corral,
Old Joe Clark and Scotland the Brave.
Reel: more notes than single reels, as in Masons Apron,
Timour the Tartar and Tom & Jerry.
One bar usually contains
two fairly equal beats. Single and double reels relate in
a similar way to single and double jigs from the dancers'
point of view. Suitable for dances with a walking step.
similar to double reels, but each bar contains two beats
making a single phrase. Rant dance steps each take a whole
bar. Examples are Flowers of Edinburgh, Ballantyne's Rant,
Morpeth Rant and Soldiers Joy.
as in Bluebell Polka.
These categories can overlap; a single tune can be played
in different styles to fit into different categories.
and Hornpipes These are usually in 4/4 in a characteristic
dotted rhythm. At a recent conference, we all agreed on the
difference, but not on which was which! The two categories
are as follows:
What Eric calls "step-hop" or "stamp-hop" dances (Drops
of Brandy style, tunes such as Kafoozalum, Keel Row). Each
bar usually corresponds to a step such as "left-hop-right-hop",
needing equal emphasis for the two halves of the bar. The
basic unit of music phrases (melody and harmony) is half
Chassez-type dances (Waltzing Matilda and Castles in the
Air), where each bar corresponds to a complete step such
as "one-slide-three-hop". This needs much less emphasis on
the first off-beat of each bar, and requires that the whole
music (melody and harmony) be phrased in one-bar units.
These are always in 3/4 time; because of the gentle rhythm,
phrasing is even more important than usual. The third beat
gives the lift; the first is played long; the middle is least
Playford dances.A number of the dances from the Playford collection are in 3/2 time. Very genteel!
Classification of styles
of rhythm, the major classifications of tunes are English, Scottish,
Irish, Manx, Welsh, American, 17th and 18th century and contemporary.
Sequences of tunes will normally be chosen from the same category.
Points to note
must be chosen so that its style fits the style of both the dance
(i.e. one should be careful not to use tunes foreign to the
dance) and the dancers (beginners or advanced). Tunes played together in a sequence should either be
matched to each other, or else very carefully contrasted, in
which case the changes between them must be planned beforehand.
Key and rhythm changes need practice. Rhythm changes should
be anticipated by about a bar. Key changes should be preceded
by a bold chord in the dominant of the new key (but which
may be half a beat or a whole beat early depending on how
the first tune finishes).
Inappropriate gimmicks should be avoided.
each eight-bar phrase
It is usual to break up each 'A' and 'B' music into two smaller
phrases balanced by a longer one, i.e. two two-bar phrases
balanced by a four-bar phrase. The climax of each two-bar
phrase should be at the beginning of the second bar.
The phrasing can be helped by the choice of appropriate harmonies
which emphasise the "2-bar, 2-bar, 4-bar" structure described
above. Avoid wandering harmonies in the early bars (stay near
the tonic), encourage them in the last 4-bar phrase. Use sequences
which change slowly (or not at all) in the first and third
bars; change steadily in the last 4 bars.
many tunes, bars 5 and 6 are the same melody notes as bars 1 and
2. They should not sound the same. Bars 1 and 2 should
sit back as a 2-bar phrase. Bars 5 and 6 should be played
leading to a crescendo at the end of the 8 bars.
to suit the dancers
Phrasing should suit the occasion. Inexpert dancers need more
positive phrasing, the early part of the evening needs more
positive phrasing, the first tune of each dance may need more
positive phrasing. This reflects also the choice of tunes,
since some have more positive phrases (Log Cabin has long
phrases, Eliza Jane has short phrases).
To obtain the correct lift for folk dancing it is necessary
to consider the relative emphasis and shape of the beat and
the off-beat. There is a difference, for example, between
a one-hop-two-hop step and a one-two-three-hop step. And for morris dance musicians, Sherbourne dance use a one-hop-two-three step, needing more careful emphasis on beat 2.
The last beat before each phrase should be a lead-in harmony, usually the dominant 7th, e.g. A7 in the key of D. This is particularly important when changing key.
Possible lengths of lead-in are: 8, 4, or 2 bars, 2 notes,
single note or chord, depending on the style of the tune or
dance and the band's choice.
Be consistent, so that dancers know what to expect.
Possible endings again depend on the style of the tune or
dance (more dependent on the tune), but should be agreed beforehand.
The ending may depend whether the MC wishes to keep the dancers
on the floor.
The objective in planning beginnings and endings is to help
the dancers; this implies that, in general, starts should
be of a uniform type (unless the MC is going to announce them).
Precision is of the essence!
Although not essential (traditional players rarely use music)
musical notation can be of considerable use in a band.
It helps in building one's own collection of tunes, and
in collecting together onto a single page sets of tunes
to be played as a sequence.
It ensures security/accuracy/conformity of harmony and melody;
melodies often occur in different variants, and harmonies
even more so.
It enables new members to learn the band's repertoire quickly.
It enables friends to join in, thus adding to the number
of people who have experienced playing for folk dancing,
and who may later contribute to a band somewhere.
The size of the band, if under the control of the leader,
can affect the playing in several ways.
A small band has greater rapport, greater freedom and a
A larger band requires more organisation but offers more
possibilities for musical arrangements, and can be more
The balance of instruments appropriate to the music required
of them has to be considered.
and MC Relationship
The MC and band are a team, with the MC responsible for the
dance programme and the band responsible for providing appropriate
There should be contact before the event and throughout
the event. This should include agreed start and finish signals
and timings (some MCs give one bar's warning of the finish,
others give a complete turn's warning).
Remember that a band can appear formidable to the lone caller
- be adaptable and sympathetic.
One of the distinct skills which has to be learnt is that
of listening to other members of the band while you are playing.
It is a skill which doesn't come without practice. Play more
gently and staccato to help you hear the others. Only when
you are always aware of the other instruments can you get
a good rapport, and fit harmonies, bass lines and variations
The band leader has particular responsibilities additional
to those of the rest of the band, and must be aware of the
following aspects of the environment.
The pattern, style and pace of each dance.
The nature of the floor.
The characteristics of the MC.
The type of dancers (young or old or mixed, beginners or
How to communicate (orally and visually) with band members
Acceptable use of amplification.
Need for continuous training of the band.
Professionalism: the image to be presented by the individual
or group, on or off stage.
What Butlins call "dressage"; stand or sit? face front or
each other? uniform dress? junk (instrument boxes, coats)
Organisation: size and position of stage and band layout;
lighting; amplification; problems of the piano.
Well-being of band members.
Etiquette: arriving on time, being attentive (ready when
the dance is called), not causing feedback by too much knob
twiddling, and not practising while the MC speaks.
Having the music organised to be ready for any requirement;
check unusual items (any dance with its special tune) with
the MC beforehand, plan where to include your favourite
tunes so that they're not too early on, and not lost at
Have some music ready for listening to, for the interval,
or when the dancers are tired.
Don't play variations early on in the evening, or first
time through through a tune. Unlike you, the audience haven't
heard it fifty times in the last two weeks, they need to
hear the straight original version first.
Reels in the early part of an evening reduce the urge to
skip, if you need to reduce it!
Beware of MCs who want to run-through the dance 8 bars at
a time. It's good for dancers, but demanding of the band.
- Beware of MCs who plan the whole programme beforehand. They can't be taking the capabilities of the dancers into account.
Plan beforehand your technique for communication between
band members. It needs to be 2-way communication!
Keep it off the beat all through the evening, even if you
My closing comment on any music course
When you help run for example a weekend course for morris musicians, all they really want is a weekend of playing, not listening to a teacher. I always try to have one point that they may remember:
The spaces between the notes are much more important than the notes themselves!
Foxley would appreciate comments on the above, with a
view to expanding it to be more comprehensive and self-explanatory.
See also the page for Music Database which includes the tunes mentioned
The original working party was in September 1978 in Leeds.