Freds Folks Ceilidh Band

for all your ceilidhs, barn dances, folk dances
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Some Thoughts on Playing for Folk Dancing

These 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 and modifications.

Good Dance Music

Good 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.

Rhythms and Styles

Classification of rhythms and styles

It is important to understand the distinction between the major rhythms. As a general rule, the different categories should not be mixed within one dance.

Jigs These are usually in 6/8 time, and can be subdivided as follows:

  • single 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.
  • double 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.
  • triple jigs: these are in 9/8 time (Sir Roger de Coverley), and are unusual in EFDSS circles.

Reels These are either 2/4 or 4/4 time. The categories are less obvious than with jigs. The usual categories are:

  • March (or single reel): not very "notey", as in Big Corral, Old Joe Clark and Scotland the Brave.
  • Double 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.
  • Rant: 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.
  • Polka: as in Bluebell Polka.

These categories can overlap; a single tune can be played in different styles to fit into different categories.

Schottisches 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 a bar.
  • 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.

Waltzes 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 significant.

Playford dances.A number of the dances from the Playford collection are in 3/2 time. Very genteel!

Classification of styles

Independently 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

Music 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.


Shaping 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.

In 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.

Phrasing 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.

Starting and Finishing


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!

Musical Notation

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.

Size of Band

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 crisper sound.
  • A larger band requires more organisation but offers more possibilities for musical arrangements, and can be more relaxing.
  • The balance of instruments appropriate to the music required of them has to be considered.

Band 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 dance music.

  • 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.

Band Skills

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 together.

Band Leaders

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 experienced).
  • How to communicate (orally and visually) with band members and MC.
  • 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) on stage?
  • 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 the end!
  • 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 get tired.

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!

Please! Eric 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 above.

The original working party was in September 1978 in Leeds.


Greenwood Clog Foresters Morris Freds Folks Music database
Page last amended Mon 23-Jan-2023 12:01 , visits
Chaturangan, Foresters Morris Men, Greenwood Step Clog, King Billy Sessions, Young Folk as well as Freds Folks.