Scottish fiddle styles

Note: This information was previously found on this website, which is no longer available:
The information was recovered from the archived version on the Internet Archive, edited, and condensed
See also Scottish fiddle

Scots fiddle music encompasses tunes written in certain styles. The types of tune covered in this page are hornpipe, jig, march, reel, slow air, and strathspey.

Scots fiddle music is usually played in sets. A set of tunes for dancing follows a strict form and generally opens and closes with a chord to give the dancers a lead in and a well rounded-conclusion. A set of tunes for listening can do pretty much anything that makes musical sense (although some traditionalists might debate that point). A fairly classic order for a solo fiddle set is march, strathspey, reel. Unless a set is made up of slow airs, it will often start and finish with the same tune.

It is important to understand that the tunes as notated are the bare bones of the music. The character of Scottish fiddle music isn't captured by classical notation.

Types of Scottish fiddle tunes || Scottish fiddle styles

Types of Scottish fiddle tunes
The hornpipe evolved from tunes played on a double reed wind instrument dating from around the 13th century. Hornpipe music was used to accompany dancing on British naval vessels in the 18th century--an activity undertaken more for the value of the exercise than the joy of dancing. Ship's companies often included fiddlers and so the music migrated to the fiddle.

Today there are two main types of Scottish hornpipe: those with an even rhythmic structure played fairly quickly and those with a dotted structure played at a slower pace. The more jaunty but slower tunes came to the fore in the 19th century. They have become a musical cliché to denote matters maritime.

Originally hornpipes were originally written in 3/2 time, but today they tend to be written in 4/4. It is fairly common, though, to find the faster ones written in 2/4 time to give a better sense of pace.
The reel has an even rhythmic structure that is played fairly quickly (sometimes very quickly), in a crisp, even, and clean style. Reels are written in 2/4 or 4/4 time.

Ornamentation should be used sparingly for best effect in a reel, although varied bowing is often used to break up the relentless drive of the rhythm if the music is being played to listen to rather than to dance to.

Occasionally a reel will be spiced up with the judicious use of a dotted rhythm or even a birl (a characteristic ornament that can be notated as two 16th notes followed by an 8th note, or two 32nd notes followed by a dotted 8th note; it is played near the tip of the bow, with a rapid flick of the wrist).

Reels arose from tunes used to accompany a variety of circle dances. This form of dance, and music, is still found throughout Britain and Ireland.
The march derives from the martial music of Scotland and is closely associated with the music of the Highland bagpipe. Indeed, many marches played on the fiddle are actually pipe marches with ornamentation and key signature adapted for the fiddle.

Marches are played at a steady pace (after all they are for marching to!) but usually with vigor and spirit. Unsurprisingly many marches are named after battles, military garrisons, and the like.

Most marches are in 2/4 or 6/8 time, but there are some in 4/4. Some marches are more or less lifted directly from the pipe repertoire with suitable changes being made to ornamentation and perhaps transposition to another key.
The jig in early-17th-century Scotland was considered to be very characteristic of Scottish music. Today, the jig tends to be more associated with Irish music and in fact many jig tunes appear both in Scottish and Irish fiddle repertoires. However, the Scottish jig is alive and kicking.

Today the most popular jigs are good-going tunes constructed in either 6/8 or 9/8 time. There are 3 types of jig: the single jig in 6/8, the double jig in 6/8, and the slip jig in 9/8. The 6/8 jigs are most common in the Scottish idiom. The distinguishing feature between single and double jigs is the prevalent rhythm. Single jigs are based on a quartet note-eighth note pattern while double jigs are based primarily on eight notes.

Even though the current fashion is to regard jigs as fairly brisk tunes, this hasn’t always been the case. In the 18th century the slow jig was an established form in the Scottish repertoire.
The slow air evolved from a variety of historical roots. Some slow airs are referred to as laments or pastorals. These distinctions tend to apply more to the reason for writing the music than to any real structural characteristics within the tune. Laments are slow airs written to mourn a death while pastorals are written as beautiful tunes for listening.
The strathspey evolved from the reel, becoming popular in the 18th century. The various members of the Gow family from Perthshire played a great part in popularizing the strathspey. Their compositions, collections, and performances contributed greatly to its acceptance and propagation outside the confines of Scotland. Indeed, for a while, strathspeys were even considered to be stylish by the English nobility.

Strathspeys are characterized by dotted rhythms and very colorful rhythmic shapes. In order to grasp the spirit of the Strathspey there really is no substitute for listening to skilled exponents of the art. Classical notation carries only the framework around which the real music is built.

Originally Strathspeys were played at much the same tempo as reels. Today, the strathspey is played using a variety of tempos ranging from very slow to very brisk. The slow strathspey has practically become a different musical form in its own right. Slow strathspeys have tended to be written expressly to be listened to, often by composers of great sophistication. This is in contrast to strathspeys that serve to accompany dances, which tend to be more simple is shape, though just as much fun to listen to

Scottish fiddle styles
There are a variety of different styles current in Scots fiddle playing. An understanding of them can help enhance enjoyment of the music. This is a summary of the main ones:
The West coast style refers to the West coast of Scotland, specifically the western highlands and islands. The style and repertoire of the West coast fiddle player is strongly influenced by the music of the Highland bagpipe. Marches and jigs figure strongly in the repertoire and ornamentation tends to follow the piping idiom.

Many of the slow airs in the West coast repertoire are directly derived from songs in the Gaelic language or have developed from the harp music of Scotland (now largely lost). Some of the airs are very ancient and can be extremely haunting in their simple beauty.
The East coast style tends to feature strathspeys in much the same way as the West coast style features marches. Playing the strathspey can become a very sophisticated art. In the hands of a skilled exponent the rhythms, bowing, and ornamentation add a unique character to tunes which can, in essence, be very simple.
The Shetland style originates from the Shetland islands. The music has very strong Nordic influences, reflecting the history and geography of the islands. The Shetland reel is now part of most Scottish fiddlers repertoire. The Shetland fiddler will play the reel with much use of ringing strings, where open strings are struck along with the tune producing an effect reminiscent of the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle.

Shetland is a group of 100 islands, some 567 square miles in area with approximately 900 miles of coastline and a population of 23,000. Its location in the North Atlantic, to the north of the Scottish mainland, places it as close to Norway as it is to Aberdeen.
The Cape Breton style emanates from Nova Scotia in Canada. Scottish emigrants carried the art of fiddling with them to the New World where it has flourished to the great enrichment of the Scottish tradition. The style is closely related to Scottish fiddling as it was practiced 150 years ago in Scotland itself. Exponents of this style have produced some truly great music in the Scottish idiom.