McDonnell's Traditional Irish Music Slow Session

Intro to Irish Music Rhythms

Introduction to Irish Music Rhythms

To play Irish traditional music well you need to use and maintain the appropriate rhythms. Whether or not you are playing the melody or the rhythm directly on a guitar or drum, it is critical that you play the appropriate rhythms at a constant speed throughout the tune you are playing. This is especially critical if you play for dancers. Speeding up on easy sections of a tune or slowing down on hard sections significantly detracts from the quality of the music. This tutor was created to teach six common traditional Irish rhythms and to provide tools to help you practice keeping a steady rhythm while playing. It was originally designed for melody players (eg, fidders, box players, flutes, etc.), but it has been well received as a practice tool by beginner Bodhran and rhythm guitar players.

If you learn the rhythms on this Tutor you will be able to play many traditional Irish music tunes. We have attempted to explain how to play the different rhythms in a manner that doesn’t require any previous knowledge of the written music form, but we have also included examples using traditional music notation. For those of you who do not already read music, you may want to look at a beginner’s guide to music theory in your local library or check out the web for sites such as Kevin Meixner’s “The Basics of Reading Music”  or How to Read Music by Michael Noble,  but it is not necessary to use this Tutor.

Tutor Organization

This Tutor is organized into 6 sections: polkas, jigs, hornpipes, waltzes, marches and reels (Click on the word ‘Rhythm Tutor’ in the masthead above to select rhythm). This Tutor includes both a written explanation of how to play the different rhythms and MP3 Music Tracks on which the rhythms are demonstrated at slow to moderate tempos to assist both beginners and accomplished players at keeping in time with the music. The primary drum on the Tracks was created to sound like a Bodhran. The quality of drumbeat will depend on the quality of the speakers or headphones you are using. It helps to boost the bass to get a deep drum sound. We feel the use of the Bodhran to keep the beat provides players with a more realistic practice tool as opposed to just using a metronome. For each rhythm, there are a number of Music Tracks (MP3 files) so you can hear the rhythms played at different speeds. For example, the Polka section includes the following Tracks.


Track 1. MP3 file with Murphy’s Polka melody along with the corresponding slow polka rhythm.

Track 2. MP3 file with Murphy’s Polka melody along with the corresponding moderate polka rhythm.

Track 3. MP3 file with just a learning polka rhythm

Track 4. MP3 file with just a slow polka rhythm

Track 5. MP3 file with just a moderate polka rhythm


Learning to Play Irish Traditional Music Rhythms

Once you hear the rhythms, practice playing along with the slow tracks first until you can synchronize the melody with the beat. The reason Irish traditional recording artists such as Martin Hayes, Chris Droney, Seamus Connolly, Kevin Burke, Paddy Keenan, Jack and Charlie Coen, Joe Burke, Sharon Shannon and Mary MacNamara, to name a few, sound so good is they have perfect rhythm at whatever speed they are playing. Most of these folks learned it at a very early age having been raised in homes filled with Irish traditional music. For those of us not fortunate enough to be raised on traditional rhythms we have to listen, listen and listen until they become second nature.

As you become more proficient at playing the tune in synchrony with one of the rhythm speeds, you can progress through to the faster speeds. We have purposely only included rhythms at slow to moderate speeds in this Tutor for it is important for beginners to play the tune in syncopation with the rhythm as opposed to playing it too fast. The moderate rhythm tempos are significantly slower then you will hear at an up-tempo pub session or at a céilí dance. There is a growing concern amongst the traditional Irish music community that the speed of playing has become so fast we are losing the fundamental nature of the tunes. If you can play comfortably along with the moderate rhythms on these pages you can easily increase the tempo at your own pace.

Please Note

This Rhythm Tutor was created for the sole purpose of passing on the playing of traditional Irish music free of charge to everyone. The information in this Tutor was copyrighted by Mark J. and Collin J. McDonnell in 2003. Any redistribution of this material for profit is strictly prohibited and seriously frowned upon. If you have any comments or suggested improvements please send us an email. Good luck with your music playing and we hope that this Tutor has provided you with some useful information.