Blog: the Blaarrggh


The Flute in Irish Tradition Music: an Overview

(Some of you will have seen this essay before. in 2007, I gave a guest lecture to the music department at UCA, and distributed copies of this essay at that time.)


Traditional Irish music began as a largely unwritten folk music, mainly used to accompany dance, in Ireland and to a lesser degree the other British Isles, and which was subsequently carried throughout the world in the early middle nineteenth century during the Irish Diaspora: where the Irish settled, they brought their instruments and music with them.

The dance forms primarily found in Irish traditional music include the jig, the reel, the hornpipe, the polka, and the waltz. There are also other forms less commonly played which include the air, the listening piece, mazurkas, flings, and tunes by blind harper Turloch O'Carolan (1670 – 1738), which are some of the oldest known Irish tunes.

The origins of most Irish dance tunes are lost, but very few of the tunes are believed to be older than a few hundred years.

It should be mentioned that there are separate traditions of Irish vocal music, which include the very ancient form of unaccompanied singing known in Irish as “sean nos,” which means “old style,” and Irish ballads, which are yet a separate form of folk music. The different folk traditions of Ireland have very little overlap, with the single exception that occasionally the air from a sean nos song will be played as an unaccompanied solo air. The playing and proper interpretation of airs is a very advanced form of Irish music, and is an art which many attempt and few master; as is also true in art music, just because it isn't fast doesn't mean it isn't difficult to perform correctly.


We largely owe the introduction of the flute into Irish folk music to Theobald Boehm's invention of the modern Boehm-system flute in 1847; after his flute began to gain in popularity, the wooden simple system flutes of both professional and amateur players began with increasing frequency to find their way into pawn shops and second-hand stores, where they were bought by Irish musicians eager to integrate their reedy, resonant sound into their music.

This is still the form of flute most often played in Irish trad: made of wood, with a conical bore and cylindrical headjoint, fitted with a metal tuning slide and 6 or more keys, based in large part upon two “families” of English flute design, the Rudall & Rose, known for its sweet yet penetrating sound and its “old scale” tuning, which was close to quarter-comma-meantone with its open third, and the Pratten Perfected, based upon the innovations introduced by virtuoso English flutist Charles Nicholson (1795 - 1837): larger bore and tone holes, and a tuning much closer to equal temper, with a much sharper F-sharp, closer in pitch to that of the Boehm-system flute. The range of the English 8-key flute was largely comparable to that of the Boehm-system flute, consisting of three chromatic octaves beginning with middle C.

Because of the difficulty of obtaining surviving 8-key flutes from English makers, quite a few flutes of German, French, and American make can be found in the hands of traditional players, and use of the modern Boehm-system flute is not unknown.

The old simple-system flutes were widely criticized in their day for many deficiencies, but not for their tone. The tone of the old wooden flutes is darker and reedier than the Boehm-system flute, with a bit of the cutting edge of the oboe in the first octave and a lovely glistening sheen in the second and third. This tone had the unique and much-desired quality of both being able to cut through the orchestra at need, and yet it could blend extremely well with the sound of the other orchestral woodwinds.


There are two unique performance practices on the old wooden flutes which are not largely followed by modern players of Boehm-system orchestral flutes: avoidance of vibrato and sensitive notes.

The old wooden flutes were generally not played with a breath vibrato (and its use was considered vulgar, a convention which survives in Irish music to this day). On longer notes, a kind of fingered vibrato called a flattement was sparingly employed as an ornament.

A famous quote which is critical of breath vibrato: "For three hundred years flutists tried to play in tune. Then they gave up and invented vibrato." (attributed to Bernard Goldberg, Pittsburgh Symphony principal)

A large criticism of breath vibrato then and now is that it is too often found to be omnipresent and unvarying; properly utilized in a controlled manner, it can add tremendous presence and beauty to the sound of some melodies. Jean-Pierre Rampal was a modern master of the Boehm-system flute who frequently employed breath vibrato to good effect.

Not all historical authors were critical of breath vibrato, and from this we can deduce that at least some players utilized it. Agricola in 1528 listed “trembling breath” as a “special grace.” Praetorius in 1619 described vibrato produced by the diaphragm, and Mersenne in 1636 wrote of “certain tremolos which intoxicate the soul” and suggested four vibrations per second as the model for wind players to follow. Delusse suggested its use in 1761 as a measured expression of “solemnity and terror.”

The other old performance practice which was largely lost with the introduction of the Boehm key mechanism is that of playing sensitive tones.

Sensitive tones refer to leading tones played deliberately sharp in pitch. Special fingerings were used on the 8-key flute to produce this effect. The effect can be achieved for some notes using the open holes of the “French” Boehm-system flute; on the plateau version of the Boehm flute, the original effect is impossible and can only be approximating by deliberately altering the pitch of the note with the embouchure.

Here are some examples of where sensitive tones would have been utilized:

- as leading tones in scales;
- between two notes a half step higher
- in grace notes from below
- as the lower auxiliary in turns, trill terminations, and other ornamentation

Sensitive tones may in one instance involve a deliberate flattening of the pitch; when a note occurs between two notes a half step below it, it may be deliberately slightly flattened.

The use of sensitive tones carried over from the playing of the Baroque traverso, where chromatics such as B-flat and A-sharp were not considered to be the same pitch and were actually produced with different fingerings depending on the context of the surrounding notes. The Baroque flute advocated by Quantz actually had two keys on the foot, one for D-sharp and one for E-flat, instead of the single key for both notes found on most Baroque flutes.

Note that sensitive tones were never used when the note is an integral part of the accompanying harmony.

Sensitive tones are still used by players of early music on period instruments who follow the disciplines of historically-informed performance, but are not used per se in Irish dance music, although some players of sean nos airs do use altered fingerings to produce a similar effect, in an effort to imitate the particular nuances of the singer's voice.


Among Irish musicians, classically trained musicians like myself are often held in disrepute, because the most basic rules of how to approach a piece of music are starkly different from those of Western art (i.e. “classical”) music, and many musicians who are classically trained cannot make the adjustment to the different paradigm.

In Western art music, melody is king and rhythm often gives way to it, and both variation and ornamentation are melodic in nature. In Irish traditional music, rhythm is king and melody entirely secondary.

Additionally tunes are played with a lilt and a lift which cannot be notated using Western notation; this makes sight-reading of new tunes almost impossible, as to be played correctly the tune must be heard first to absorb the complex relationship between the phrasing and the lilt of the tune. The terms “lilt” and “lift” refer to the overall feel of “swing” of a tune, as well as rhythmic emphasis occurring off of the beat.

Ornamentation is rhythmic in nature, and has neither a melodic component nor a measurable duration, consisting of fast, hard slaps of the fingers against the tone holes of the flute or the strings of the fiddle.

The purpose of ornamentation in Irish music is articulation and to enhance the rhythm rather than the melodic flow.


Ornamentation consists primarily of three commonly encountered forms:

A cut is an attack from above the note to strongly rhythmically strengthen the note which follows it.

A tap (sometimes called a scrape) is an attack from below the note to weakly strengthen the note which follows it.

These can be used together to rhythmically subdivide a longer note; when a note is first cut and then tapped, this is known as a roll.

You cannot roll the bell note of an instrument such as a flute or the pipes, as there is no lower note to tap, so a variation of the roll, the crann is used in this instance. It involves a more complex rhythmic subdivision of the value of the note using only varied cuts from above.

It cannot be overstated that the melody line does not determine the placement of ornamentation; rather, ornamentation is a form of fingered articulation and exists to strengthen the rhythm of a tune.

An additional ornament is the slide, which corresponds to the glissando. This involves attacking a note either above or below it's pitch and then sinking or rising smoothly into pitch. Slides from above are relatively rare and usually only occur at the end of a cadence; slides from below are more common and are typically used to emphasize a longer note which occurs in a rhythmically strong position. Slides from below may be combined with other ornamentation.


The most common form of articulation on the flute in other musical styles, tonguing, is generally avoided in traditional Irish music; oddly enough, tin whistle players frequently use tonguing as articulation and this is accepted within the tradition. Tonguing is considered too bright in sound on the Irish flute, and is replaced by a technique known as the glottal stop.

The glottal stop is similar to a light single cough. This can produce a wide range of articulation. It can be executed as a fast, light articulation similar to some of those used in Baroque historically informed performance, which can actually be executed almost as fast as double-tonguing.

Many flutists use breath pulses to accentuate the rhythm of traditional dance tunes, particularly jigs and reels. Breath pulsing can add a great deal of lift and a feeling of powerful excitement to a tune.

A heavier glottal stop can be combined with a powerful breath pulse for a technique known as barking, which produces a note which is louder and more forceful than its neighbors, and with a different timbre, but is still in tune. Conal O'Grada (Irish flutist and recording artist from County Cork) is famous for his “dirty playing,” and makes frequent use of this technique in his album “Top of Coom.”

Breathing is also used as a form of articulation in Irish dance music, to define phrases. Notes of the melody are intentionally dropped to allow the player to take breaths; and the placement and pattern of these breaths help form the phrase structure of the tune, which will vary both from player to player and indeed also from repetition to repetition of the same tune as a form of rhythmic variation. Although the melody is not ignored, again the emphasis is on placing the breaths in such a way that phrases are constructed which enhance the rhythmic aspect of the tune.

The “hard D” is a practice which has been adopted by flute players from the techniques of Uilleann pipers.

The Uilleann pipes, the national bagpipe of Ireland, are frequently played in session alongside flute and other melody instruments, and are both softer and more conventionally tuned than their Scottish counterparts, having over a two octave chromatic range.

On the pipes, the hard D is a technique for forcing a larger amount of air down the chanter than normal on the lowest note, which is D. This produces a note which has is rich in harmonics and has an almost harsh, cutting quality, and is a greatly prized technique among pipers.

On the flute, a similar effect is produced using a very strong air-stream combined with an altered embouchure. The note thus produced is forceful, loud, and cutting, and has a certain harshness which is greatly valued for its ability to enhance the rhythm of a dance tune. Matt Molloy (recording artist and member of the well-regarded band The Chieftains from County Roscommon) is a famous Irish flutist who makes frequent use of this technique.


Although most players prefer wooden simple-system flutes, there are several noted players of the Boehm-system flute in Irish traditional music, including Joannie Madden of the band Cherish the Ladies, and Noel Rice of the band Baal Tinne.

Many of the techniques of the wooden flute transfer directly to the Boehm-system flute. The common ornaments such as rolls can be performed on most notes and the sound is very similar to that of the wooden flute.


Because of the difficulty of finding (and affording!) good quality nineteenth-century English wooden flutes in playable condition, several modern flute makers now specialize in producing simple-system flutes for Irish traditional flutists.

These makers generally offer a keyless, diatonic version of their flutes—since most Irish dance music is in the keys of D, G, and A, and their associated modes, keys are not needed for the vast majority of tunes—and also offer up to 8 keys. Since low C and C-sharp are not often used, and some claim that they weaken the bell-note D of the flute, a 6-key flute in D is a very popular configuration. The six keys are the “long C,” B-flat, G-sharp, “long F,” “short F,” and E-flat.

Notable makers of fine Irish flutes include Hammy Hamilton, Pat Olwell, Terry McGee, Michael Grinter, and Chris Wilkes.

Some makers are also well-known for their very durable flutes machined from heavy polymer, these include Michael Cronnolly (“M&E Flutes”), and Desi Seery.

Sources & Recommended Resources

1. Rick Wilson's Historical Flute Page at . This is a wonderful resource for general information about non-Boehm-system flutes in general but not regarding Irish music on flute specifically.

2. The Standing Stones Irish Flute Site at Great information regarding the history of the flute in Irish music, also a treasure trove of information regarding nineteenth century performance practice.

3. The Standing Stones Irish Flute Site on Flute Vibrato at Discusses the place of breath vibrato in Irish traditional as well as nineteenth century performance practice.

4. The Woodenflute Website at Good introductory information on Irish flutes and the flute in Irish music. Includes a list of makers of wooden flutes.

5. There is an ever-expanding database of Irish and other traditional tunes available at Tunes are available as free sheet music and can be searched for by tune name or by type of tune.

6. The Fiddler's Companion at is a searchable treasure trove of history, stories, and general information about specific tunes.

7. The Arkansas Celtic Music Society (ACMS) website at has information about Irish sessions and concerts in the central Arkansas area.

8. The Ceolas Celtic Music Archive at is a portal with links to databases of tunes and extensive information sites regarding Irish traditional music as well as other traditional musics of the British Isles.


Sometimes the truth is the most magical story of all...

Once upon a time, so very long ago that the earth wasn't even here yet, there was a Star.

The Star had shows brightly for many many years, but, as everything alive one day does, the Star got old and he no longer shown so brightly.

One day the Star become desperate to shine as brightly as he used to, and he used himself up all at once, trying to shine as brightly as he could. Because he was old and trying to shine so brightly all at once, he exploded, and nothing was left where the old Star used to be but dust.

A long time later, but still very very long ago, that dust from the old Star gathered around a new Star, and that Star is our sun, that we see in the sky. The dust started sticking together. At first it was very small, smaller than your hand, but as time passed, the dust of that old Star got bigger and bigger, just like a snowball rolling down a mountain gets bigger and bigger, until it finally became so big that it was the Earth, and that's the very same Earth that we live on today.

That's where our Earth came from, and that's where you and me and everybody came from, too: like everything else on this Earth, we are made of the dust of a dead Star, and because we live, in a way that old Star lives on, too, in us, because we are made out of him.

Some people talk to a Father in the sky, but I sometimes wonder if they are really talking to that old Star, because he really was the Father of us all.


Thoughts on what it means to play "in tune"...

Everybody wants to play in tune, but most musicians, even those who have played for years, have only the most basic idea of what "in tune" means--to most folks, if their instrument centers the needle on a tuner, then they are "in tune" and they quit thinking about it.

There's a little more to it than that....

Every note has a frequency, measured in Hertz, or vibrations per second. The note A is usually defined now as 440 Hz, and the note a an octave above it is 880 Hz.

Note: octaves have a 2:1 ratio. That means if you look at their waveform on an oscilloscope, every other wave lines up.

Octaves when in tune are an "open" interval, which means that they are beatless. What you hear as "beats" when two notes are out of tune is actually their waveforms marching in and out of line with each other, creating interference patterns...which are the "beats" you hear.

Perfect fifths, when perfectly in tune, have a 3:2 ratio. They are also a beatless, "open" interval.

Ok, so you start at a note, say C, just to have a point of reference. And you go to the fifth above it, which is G, and you tune them until there are no beats, and they sound absolutely open and perfect.

Then you go to the fifth above the G, which is D, and you tune them to be open and beatless. The tuning you are creating is called "just temper."

Then you tune D to A, and A to E, and so on, all around the "Circle of Fifths," until you finally find yourself having just tuned B-sharp.

B-sharp and C are "enharmonic," which means they are different names for the same note.

Or are they?

The b-sharp you just tuned will be about a fourth of a semitone sharper than the C you started out with. This is about a 24 cent difference, and this difference is called the Pythagorean Comma.

This poses a problem.

If you take the last key you tuned, and just basically pull the last fifth 24 cents flat out of tune, you've created what's called a "wolf fifth"--and the key you are in when you do that just became horrible sounding and unusable, and it's related keys are gonna be pretty horrible, as well.

So now you can't play in all the keys.

Well, maybe that's a big deal to you and maybe not.  If you're playing Christmas carols or traditional tunes, in the key that you just tuned to, then you are gonna sound absolutely long as you don't play against a piano or a guitar.  Here's why...

Different tuning schemes have been used through the years to arrive at different compromises to handle that pesky comma.

The one that finally got settled upon is known as equal divide the comma up equally among all the fifths, so that each one is just a little bit out of true. (Actually, not just the fifths--it gets divided out among the intervals within the scale, and it's divided out exactly the same way in every key.) This makes all keys equally usable.

It also makes all keys sound the same, and you lose the glorious interval of the open, beatless fifth, which is major sucky.

Quick review point:  pianos are tuned to equal temper.  This means that they are intentionally out of tune in every key but by an equal amount.  A piano can play in any key and sound as good (or as bad) as any other key, but no key will sound absolutely wonderful on a piano.  However, since the notes on a piano don't sustain for very long, your ears don't have very long to pick up that the intervals are off, and so it works reasonably well.

Before the days of the ascendancy of the piano, different keys had different, characteristic sounds.  The key of E-major was very bright and happy,for instance, where the key of E-flat major sounded more melancholy, and it's related C-minor sounded just tearjerker sad.  Composers used to use this and write for it, which means that in particular when you hear Baroque music played on modern instruments, you are NOT hearing the music as the composer wrote it, and much of its original nuance is lost.  This is why there the "HIP" (historically informed performance) movement exists, where musicians go back to period instruments (or modern replicas), and try to find out as much as possible about historically-accurate performance practice as possible, so that the music they produce is much closer to the music that the composer intended.  One thing that fascinates me about Irish flute playing is that, unlike many other instruments, we know exactly at what point in history Irish traditional musicians began playing the transverse flute, so that Irish flute performance technique is a very clear window into early nineteenth-century flute performance practice...those folks who heard my guest lecture at UCA have heard me drone on about this before.  <grin>

Now tuning a flute (when you make a flute as opposed to when you play it) requires its own set of compromises. One key on a simple system flute will be diatonic...that is, its tone holes will form the notes of a D scale if opened one at a time. But these diatonic notes also have to work in other keys, and the top tone hole also has to be the octave vent for the D and it also tunes your cross-fingered C-natural.

Also the octaves have to be in tune. Just two octaves isn't too bad, but when you add the third, things get very dicey, and more serious compromises have to be made or the third octave notes will just be too horrible to ever use.

Finally, the tone holes need to be where the fingers can reach them, which is really not the best place for them to go, so they wind up being different sizes, which creates yet another set of problems that have to be worked around.

So the tuning of a simple-system flute isn't really any traditional tuning, per se.

Some makers tune closer to just, others closer to equal, yet others closer to some of the older, more antiquated compromise tunings like "quarter-comma meantone," which is a scheme that allows you to keep your open thirds, which is another open interval in just tuning.  This allows each key to have some of its original character (though the effect is reduced), while opening up the possibility of actually being able to play in any key.

Some folks are surprised to learn that thirds can be (and should be) beatless, because the major third in equal temper (like on a piano or Boehm-system flute) is anything but beatless. In fact, in equal temper the third is very sharp. Pull it down a bit and it'll get more and more open until it's finally beatless.

Hmmm...the bell note on a flute is D and the F-sharp is one major third up from there. Maybe tuning that F-sharp "flat" compared to a Boehm-system flute or a piano isn't a mistake after all, hmmm?  So the currently tendency of some flute players to try to "lip up" that note, depending on the context of the key that they are playing in, is very probably a mistake, and is going to make their playing sound worse, not better.

Which brings us full-circle:  with tuning, and playing in tune, everything is context.  The G-sharp that is in tune relative to A-major is NOT the A-flat that is in tune relative to E-flat major.  Context.  Also, blows this whole ridiculous idea "enharmonic notes" right the hell out of the water.  <grin>

These are deep waters, and I've only gone just slightly past the surface in this long reflection. There is a lot more to it.

But it's pretty cool stuff to know, because it explains a lot of the "whys"--why a flute is tuned like it is, why on a Baroque flute B-flat and A-sharp aren't fingered the same, why it just may be a bad thing that on the Boehm-system flute every key sounds like every other key.

Fascinating stuff. <grin>   And lots of lovely math!!! <evil grin>


Gaming Tip

If you are using Vista and gameplay is choppy, try turning off Readyboost.


History's Mistery: of absinthe and irony

December 5, 2008

About ten years ago now, I became fascinated with the wooden simple-system flutes that were played by nearly everyone in the 19th century. The flute had a popularity then which is has never since regained; literally, one of the defining hallmarks of the 19th century gentleman was his skill at playing upon the flute.

I began researching to try to find out why it was so popular, and what happened--why don't you see men walking down the street with specially made canes that had a built-in flute, or prominently displaying their flute case? These were common sights in the early and middle 19th century.

Well, I found out what happened: one T. Boehm, desiring to make a more perfect flute, designed the new metal instrument, and it caught on pretty much like wildfire everywhere except England and Germany, and the places strongly influenced by them. Finally, the famous English flutemakers Rudall, Rose, and Carte "caved" to pressure and revamped their line of flutes around the Boehm-system instrument. This has to be one of history's all-time worst business decisions: it single-handedly killed the popularity of the flute as a solo instrument, a blow from which it wasn't to even start to recover until J.P. Rampal's post-WWII Baroque revival.

But I digress. In reading about the flute in the 19th century, I discovered that there were two things which were the defining hallmarks of the artist and the gentleman: they played flute, true, and they drank copious quantities of something called absinthe.

It didn't take much reading to determine that absinthe was banned in 1915 and now has a widespread reputation of being a very dangerous hallucinogenic poison. I read that there was an elaborate ritual involved in the preparation of absinthe for drinking, centered around diluting it with about five parts of water to one of absinthe liquor, while dripping the water over a sugar cube suspended on a perforated metal spoon. The active--and dangerous--ingredient was the chemical thujone, a component of the herb Grande Wormwood, which is both the main ingredient in absinthe (except, of course, for alcohol: absinthe is 136 proof!)--and is also one of the bitterest substances known to man.

You would think a drink made of the stuff would taste horrible...and yet people drank it in vast quantities. Vast. And addiction to it was supposed to be so commonplace that it had its own named disorder: absinthism, a permanent derangement of the mental facilities which was attributed to overindulgence in absinthe.

I was fascinated. Here was something that was once very commonplace, and which no one alive seemed to know much about. I discovered that there are some international brands of absinthe still made...and I read that they resemble real, historically-accurate absinthe about as much as petroluem jelly resembles jello.

Then the movie "Bram Stoker's Dracula" came out...which is on my list of the ten best horror flicks of all time...and it had a scene involving the drinking of absinthe, complete with ritual dilution. I was elated, and my curiosity was brought to a fever pitch.

But you can't stay curious forever, and as in the U.S. I was unable to buy absinthe, and what was available for purchase abroad had the reputation of illegitimacy, my readings and historical ponderings went in other directions. Years passed, and I pretty much forgot about the whole absinthe issue; it was filed away in the back of my mind along with other pieces of curios but essentially useless information.

Then something remarkable happened. An expert on historic absinthes sacrificed a small amount of very valuable pre-ban absinthe to a gas chromatograph. It contained no thujone. He repeated the test. It still didn't contain more than the slightest trace of thujone. He obtained the use of an actual antique absinthe distillery and tried to make his own using recipes he had ferreted out in his studies. And he analysed that. And it contained no measurable thujone.

So this fella, Ted Breaux by name, apparently went to the government and said something like, "Look, absinthe is illegal because it contains thujone, right?" And some government official nodded disinterestedly. "Ok, other than the thujone, there is no reason for absinthe to be illegal, right?" Again, the distracted nod of a public servant secretly wishing to get back to surfing the Web. "Ok, then let me sell absinthe, because historic absinthe contained no thujone, and absinthe made with historically-accurate techniques also contains no thujone, and I can prove it."

And so, starting in 2007, real absinthe is being made again, and is available for purchase in America. My wife bought me a bottle for our anniversary, and my years-long curiosity was finally satisfied.

It's good. It tastes almost nothing like I expected, but I do enjoy it. Not everyone will, so far most of my friends who have tried it haven't cared for it much.

Ok, in the title of this odd little bit of rambling, I promised you irony, so here you go.

Thujone, they say, is bad and dangerous, and in large enough quantities it can cause hallucinations, convulsions, and even death.

That everyone thought absinthe contained a significant amount of thujone was why it was banned for all of those years, right?

Ha ha ha hee hee ho ha ha...heh...hee...wheeze....gasp...ha get the idea

Know what has thujone in it? A hell of a LOT of thujone in it? Like it can be HALF thujone and still be legal?

Sage. You know, sage. As in dressing for turkey, and Thanksgiving, and all of that.

There's your irony.

One final question: when you are in the Thanksgiving post-feast stupor, is it REALLY the triptophan in the turkey that has you blissed out?

Food, as they say, for thought. ;-)


December 4, 2008

'Tis the season for raking leaves...we have leaves about six inches deep around our new house. I'm guessing it's going to take about 25 or so 30-gal trash sacks to bag 'em up. But we gotta get it done to use the fireplace safely. I've started; I'm about 1/8th done. It's gonna take days. Oh well.

Tonight we play Irish music at Something's Brewing in Conway...always one of our best sessions, lively and fun. Looking forward to that!

One other thing I'm looking forward to: I've had to take two weeks of sulfa drugs to clear up a persistent infection. Three more doses left. Looking forward to being done with that.