Musical Traditions
Irish Slow Airs into Song
By Stewart Hendrickson

            When I’ve had too much of fast jigs and reels and need some soothing contemplative music I turn to slow airs. Many times we need to slow down in our musical lives. With its haunting and lyrical character, this music is ideally suited for that.

            With fast jigs and reels my fiddle playing often seems to loose intonation and my tone begins to suffer. Playing slow airs will improve both, so that when I go back to the fast stuff I am more calm and precise in my playing and can more easily navigate the many embellishments that are distinctive in Irish music. It is amazing what this will do.

            Slow airs are considered the most beautiful music of the Irish tradition. Most have come to us through the tradition of sean nos or old style Irish singing. Others have come from ancient melodies about which we know very little. But a common characteristic of this type of music is a free rhythm or meter. The melodies occur in phrases which move in their own characteristic way with pauses separating the phrases.

            Many slow airs are instrumental versions of songs. Sometimes they are highly embellished, but they still should be recognized as the songs from which they are derived along with the appropriate phrasing. The ornamentation should be a sort of lubrication between notes of the melody and should not be overdone such that they hide the original melody.

            Other slow airs seem to have originated simply as melodies, and have later been used as the melodic basis of songs. Slow airs thus serve as a vast reservoir of melodies for song writers. They are often recycled into many different songs and the melodies are subtly changed in the process.

            Song writers would do well to immerse themselves in this traditional music as source material for their songs. The melody is just as important as the lyrics. It should convey the mood or feeling of the lyrics and be a recognizable part of the song.

            A good source of traditional Irish slow airs is the book “Traditional Slow Airs of Ireland” by Tomás Ó Canainn (Ossian Publications, Cork, Ireland, 1995). It contains 118 airs and is accompanied by a double CD set in which each of the tunes is played on a variety of instruments.

Airs carried on air:
Melody that lingers
Unfold, decorate.
Breathing bellows an elbow
Continues to pump: swelling
Lung that forces a chanter
To speak.
(From ‘Melos’ by Tomás Ó Canainn)

            In learning slow airs, some acquaintance with the song is very useful in order to understand the phrasing and emphasis of notes. Because of the free rhythm it is impossible to notate the tune as it is actually played, and different players will have different interpretations.

            It is best to hear the song sung and/or hear a recording of someone playing the tune. But keep in mind that each player might have a different interpretation. The next best thing to hearing the song sung or the tune played is to try to sing the notes as if in a song. A good singer will have a sense of phrasing that should help. Then it is up to you to develop your own interpretation of the tune. Do not overdo the ornamentation, but let it simply enhance the melody.

          Slow airs don’t have to be old and traditional. Some beautiful new tunes continue to be written in the tradition of slow airs. For example, Liz Carroll, a talented Irish fiddler from Chicago, has written and recorded some beautiful airs. A nice one of hers is “Lament of the First Generation,” which is on her web site:

            The title of this column is the title of a workshop I am proposing for Northwest Folklife Festival this May (I hope they will buy into this). With my friend and traditional Irish singer, Paddy Graber from Vancouver, B. C. we plan to explore the transition from slow airs to songs. I will play the airs on my fiddle, and then Paddy or I will sing one or more songs associated with the tune. We hope that both singers and instrumentalists will take part in this workshop to become acquainted with and learn these beautiful tunes and songs.

            In preparing for this workshop I have become acquainted with many beautiful songs that I otherwise would not have known. I have also realized the origins of melodies for songs that I already know. “Irish Slow Airs into Song” describes this process.


Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus – University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar;