Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Music

A fiddle tune is only one kind of music that is played on the fiddle, but fiddle tunes make up the bulk of the repertoire for the modern fiddler. You will also see fiddlers play along on bluegrass, country, and rock songs. Fiddle tunes are played on many instruments, including banjo, mandolin, whistles and flutes, but many were written on the fiddle and have melodies that work well with a fiddler’s left-hand technique. The typical fiddle tune is 32 bars long although there are many exceptions including half-length tunes, longer three-part tunes, and “crooked” tunes that don’t fit any mold.

The most popular types of thirty-two bar tunes in America are reels and jigs. Also played are waltzes, marches, hornpipes, schottisches, and hambos. Fiddle tunes are designed for dancing. A typical tune has an 8 bar A part that repeats and an 8 bar B part that repeats. Within each A and B part, many tunes have a melody that ends four bars with a half cadence and then repeats with a full cadence. This repetition makes the tunes easy for dancing and easy to remember. In a square dance or a contra dance, the two most popular types of American folk dancing, most of the dance figures are four or eight bars long and the entire dance is 32 bars. Some kinds of Ceilli dancing and square dancing only require a strong beat in the music, and don’t need 32 bar tunes.

Fiddle tunes can be centuries old or written last week. Throughout the ages fiddlers have composed tunes that have caught on, along with traditional tunes that have been passed down through the generations. When musicologists did research into the music being played in the remote parts of the Appalachian Mountains in the late 1960s, they found Irish tunes that had parts switched around, were played in different keys or different styles, but still had discernibly descended from known Celtic tunes. In this way, a fiddle tune can be known by everyone but never played exactly the same.

Many fiddlers will learn a tune from someone else and end up with a note or two different and a good fiddler changes the music every time on purpose! Double stops, ornaments, and small improvisations are all welcome in fiddling and are enjoyed by performers and dancers who are looking for variety. The tunes in this book are traditional and written without bowings or ornaments. Students and teachers alike should feel free to ornament them and add their own bowings and musical ideas.

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