Sean-nós singing style
Sean-nós singing is a highly ornamented style of solo, unaccompanied singing defined by Tomás Ó Canainn as:
...a rather complex way of singing in Gaelic, confined mainly to some areas in the west and south of the country. It is unaccompanied and has a highly ornamented melodic line....Not all areas have the same type of ornamentation—one finds a very florid line in Connacht, contrasting with a somewhat less decorated one in the south, and, by comparison, a stark simplicity in the northern songs...
Alternatively, it is simply "the old, traditional style of singing" and therefore is not always ornamented. It varies very much from one part of the country to another, as according to Hiúdaí Ó Duibheannaigh, who served on the Irish Folklore Commission from 1936 to 1939, "...people now, that word being used these last forty years, think it's a particular style of singing: it's not!"
Sean-nós songs can be relatively simple, though many are long, extremely stylised and melodically complex. A good performance classically involves substantial ornament and rhythmic variations from verse to verse.
Ó Canainn identifies most ornamentation as melismatic ornamentation. This is when a note is replaced or emphasised by a group of adjoining notes, unlike intervallic ornamentation, in which additional notes are used to fill up an interval between two notes.
Decorative elements common in sean-nós singing include:
- Highly ornamented singing where the voice is placed near the top of the range
- A second form of nasalisation, used in the south, produces an "m", "n" or "ng" sound at the end of a phrase
- Melisma (singing one syllable in a word to several notes)
- Brief pauses initiated by glottal stops, "slides" or glissandi (predominantly when sung by women)
- Very long extended phrases
- A tendency to draw breath after a conjunction or linking words rather than at the end of a phrase:74
- Ending some songs by speaking the finishing line instead of singing it:80
- Varying the melody in each verse
An example of the sean-nós singing style, sung by Bridget Fitzgerald, may be heard here.
All these strategies serve an assortment of aesthetic purposes, such as:
- Connects the text to the interpretation of the melody
- Enhancing a sense of continuity such as by filling the gap between phrases with a nasalised drone
A number of songs are modal, as opposed to major, in melody.
Distinguishing social features
"Songs were made to accompany the work inside and outside the home, to express the many emotions - love and sadness of daily existence, to record local and other historical events and to often mark the loss of family and friends whether by death or by emigration".
- The singer may require cajoling—this may be considered as part of the recital.
- The singer may occasionally adopt a position facing the corner of the room and away from the audience, with eyes closed, a position that has acoustic benefits, aids concentration for performing long intricate songs from memory, and perhaps has some additional ancient significance.
- The listeners are not expected to be silent throughout and may participate in the performance through words of encouragement and commentary. Sometimes a listener will hold the performer's hand, and together they will move or "wind" their linked hands in the rhythm of the song. Such interactions do not disturb the flow of music, and the performer will often respond musically. (The Irish Gaelic verb cas means to turn or wind, and an idiomatic expression for singing is to turn/wind a song: cas amhrán.)
The performance of most songs is not restricted by gender, although the lyrics may imply a song is from a woman's or man's point of view. There are a few songs that men have a tendency not to sing. Women, however, do not seem to have the same hesitation.
Content of lyrics
Many of the songs typically sung sean-nós could be seen as forms of love poetry, laments, or references to historical events such as political rebellions or times of famine, lullabies, nature poetry, devotional songs, or combinations of these.
Comic songs are also part of the tradition (e.g., An Spailpin Fanach, Cunnla, Bean Pháidin), as are references to drink (An Bonnan Bui, Preab san Ol, Olaim Puins is Olaim Te).
There are four main styles of sean-nós, corresponding to the three areas where Irish is still spoken as a community language, the Gaeltachtaí of west Munster (parts of Kerry, and Cork), east Munster (Waterford), Connacht (Connemara and Meath); and to Ulster. "It would not be correct to say sean nós is not practised outside these areas, but only those four distinct styles can be recognised. Singers from the Galltacht (i.e. outside the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking areas) and indeed from outside Ireland may blend them, depending on where they learned". These differences in style generally correspond geographically to the various dialects of Irish.
While sean-nós singing varies around Ireland, with ease of travel and the influence of recording media, these distinctions have become less definite since at least the early twentieth century; singers sometimes adopt different styles from various parts of the country.
The Donegal style has been heavily influenced by Scottish Gaelic singing. It is a relatively unadorned and nasal style. The melody is sometimes less ornamented. As a result, the Donegal style can stand out from other regional styles.
A more decorated style, with forms familiar to a traditional instrumentalist along with other more complex forms. (e.g. as performed by Bridget Fitzgerald)
West Munster style
Also a highly ornamented style. The notes to be ornamented can be adjacent to each other like in Connemara, but at other times the gap between them can be wide.
The term "sean-nós" is popularly applied to songs in English and Irish, with the style of singing that is characteristic. A number of sean-nós songs are macaronic, combining two or more languages. Normally they combine Irish and English, but occasionally Irish and French or other European languages, including Latin. Some traditionalists nevertheless believe that songs must have some Irish lyrics to belong to the tradition.
To the first-time listener accustomed to Western music, sean-nós singing may sound "Arabic" or "Indian". Film-maker Bob Quinn, in his Atlantean series of films, suggests a north African cultural connection.
History of sean-nós song and modern developments
The tradition of sean-nós song was exclusively oral, and remains customarily so. However a few songs were known to have been conveyed to script as early as the 16th century. A songbook for Elizabeth I contained English interpretations of sean-nós songs. Songs started to be more extensively written down in the eighteenth century and distributed in print from then on.
New composition is a controversial issue within sean-nós song circles. Some singers insist that the traditional should be supplemented with new material, arguing that since society has changed, then the content of the lyrics should reflect this. On the other hand, some singers say that only the older, "traditional" songs represent the essence of sean-nós song and therefore deserve a protected, preferential status.
Means of preserving Irish music and dance
Sean-nós song is a sean-nós activity, which also includes sean-nós dance. These forms of Irish dance and song have been documented by scholars of ethnomusicology, musicology, linguistics and other fields, such as Hugh Shields, Tom Munnelly, Fintan Vallely, and Lillis Ó Laoire.
The practice of sean-nós dance, sean-nós song, lilting (also known as "mouth music"), and "the bones" (a simple percussion instrument convenient to carry in a pocket) exists for centuries. It might be interpreted as a minimalist means that helped preserve a musical and dance heritage at a time when musical instruments were too expensive for most peasants.
Other Celtic unaccompanied singing styles
- Tomas Ó'Canainn, Traditional Music in Ireland (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), pp. 49, 71
- Ó Canainn, Tomas (1993). Traditional Music in Ireland. Cork, Ireland: Ossian Publications Ltd. ISBN 0-946005-73-7.
- "Sean Nós article first appeared in Ulster Folklife No 37 (1991): pp 97-105".
- Amhranaíocht ar an Sean-nós, Tomás Ó Maoldomhnaigh, Treoir, Volume 36 Number 1, Spring 2004 https://comhaltas.ie/music/treoir/detail/amhranaiocht_ar_an_sean_nos/
- Sean-nós in Donegal, Julie Henigan http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/sean-nos.htm
- Irish Step Dancing – A Brief History, Don Haurin & Ann Richens
- Newton, Michael (15 September 2013). "The Fallacies of "Celtic Music"". The Virtual Gael. Retrieved 7 April 2017.
- Dorothea E. Hast and Stanley Scott, Music in Ireland: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 84–136.
- Sean-nos singing – A Bluffer's Guide by Anthony McCann in Living Tradition magazine
- TG4 occasionally has music programs featuring sean nos
- Songs in Irish – An index of sean-nós songs with translations