Session FAQ

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Information for musicians

What is an Irish Traditional Music Session?

‘Irish traditional music’ is a term describing the traditional dance music of Ireland.  A session is a group of Irish musicians coming together to play tunes. There are often a small core of strong players that lead the session. They’re in charge, and often paid to be there by the pub. Everyone else is there to join in or listen.

Can anyone join in?

Most sessions are open to other players joining in, as long as they are playing traditional Irish music. This means that they will have learnt to play specific tunes from the Irish repertoire. They will also have to be able to play to the minimum standard that is required for that session. Although it can look like an open jam session to an outsider, the music is highly structured, and ‘jamming along’, trying to learn the tune on the fly or ‘noodling’ is unacceptable and destructive to the overall sound of the session (even in larger sessions). It is far better to ask the names of tunes you don’t know (or ask to record them), in order to learn these in your own time at home.

Irish music is very intricate and subtle, and one player who doesn’t understand the music can ruin it for everyone else. These rules apply equally to professional musicians, improvisors and classical musicians.

How can I learn Irish music?

It’s an aural tradition, so it’s about coming to the session to listen, and then practising at home. There’s thousands of different tunes, but every group will have their favourites, which will crop up more regularly. So find a session you like, and record some of the tunes on your phone. Work out how to play them at home, perhaps with the help of an app that slows the audio down, or maybe with a teacher. If you like the sound of a particular tune, you could also ask what it’s called and find recordings of it later, perhaps on youtube or spotify.

It’s a good idea to introduce yourself at a session and explain your situation – the players will become your guides.

What are the session rules?

All sessions are different, and have their own ability level and feel. Many sessions are for intermediate/advanced players only and would not be suitable for beginners. Some sessions are happy to have a mix of abilities, and some are ‘slow sessions’ just for beginners. Each session also has its own unwritten rules. For example, many sessions don’t appreciate more than one backing instrument (guitar, bouzouki etc.) playing at the same time, but some may allow this. It is far easier to accommodate extra melody players in a session than multiple backing & percussion instruments (eg. bones, bodhrán etc.). In any case, it is always best to ask before stepping on anyone’s toes.

Where do I start?

To assess what sort of session it is, take a seat outside of the circle and just listen and observe. Talk to some of the players who seem to know what they’re doing. Established groups may be a bit cautious of new faces, because unfortunately some people do turn up and unwittingly ruin sessions. Show that you are considerate and respectful, and you will be welcomed. In most cases you will probably be asked at some point to play a set of tunes you know.

What instruments are suitable for Irish music?

Common session instruments include the fiddle (violin), wooden flute, tenor banjo, concertina, button or piano accordion, whistle, uilleann (pronounced ‘illin’) pipes, harp, bodhrán, guitar, bouzouki and piano.


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