I have to tell you, in all honesty, that I usually go into hiding around St. Patrick’s Day.
“Why?” you ask. “Why would a person who loves Irish music, especially Irish singing, go into hiding on St. Patrick’s Day?”
The reason is simple. I love traditional Irish music. And traditional Irish singing, in Irish Gaelic, is very, very different from what most people think of as “Irish music.”
Old-Style Irish Singing
What many people think of as “Irish singing” (songs such as “Danny Boy” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”) actually come from the English and American Music Hall/Parlor Music tradition.
What they often don’t realize is that Ireland has a rich and ancient singing tradition that is very, very different from these all-too-familiar music hall songs. In Irish, it’s known as sean-nós — old style — singing.
What makes sean-nós “sean-nós”?
Sean-nós (pronounced “shan nohss”) means “old style.” It is a term that was devised to distinguish classical Gaelic singing from the music hall and art music singing styles that began to be popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Here are some of the features that distinguish sean-nós singing from other forms of Irish singing:
- It is always in Irish. A sean-nós song may have an English word here or there, but the bulk of the lyrics will be in the Irish language.
- It is unaccompanied. While there is a trend nowadays toward adding accompaniment to songs in the sean-nós tradition, classical sean-nós singing is always a capella.
- It’s almost always solo. You’ll occasionally hear two or three family members sing together, but even then the focus is on making the song sound as if it comes from a single voice.
- No dynamic variation. Unlike other forms of western music, which can get louder or softer to emphasize parts of the song, sean-nós singing does not allow for dynamic variation. Instead it uses ornamentation for emphasis (more on this in a bit).
- It’s metrically “free.” Sean-nós songs don’t always conform to a strict meter.
It’s not just the form it takes that distinguishes sean-nós singing from other forms of singing. It’s performed differently as well.
Unlike most performers, the sean-nós singer doesn’t interact with the audience, or attempt to convey the emotion of the song through gestures and facial expressions. In fact, he or she typically sings with eyes closed, or fixed on a location beyond the audience.
In fact, you might say that the sean-nós singer is not so much a performer as he or she is a medium for the music.