24 Jul

Sean-nós (old style) is a form of traditional Irish song. Usually sung unaccompanied and in Irish, sean-nós songs are solo and intricate. Music is more important than lyric and singers elaborate on the songs in their own way, like jazz improvisation. Melody is not regular – it can vary from verse to verse and change every time it is performed.

Ornamentation is the most distinctive feature of sean-nós singing. Dynamics (where the song gets louder or quieter for effect) are not part of sean-nós – instead, the singer will vary the rhythm, change the speed, or add grace notes or melodic turns. Sean-nós is often thought to be Indian, North African, or Arabic music when those unfamiliar first hear it – there are theories that sean-nós was originally influenced by music traveling from those regions through Spain. The distinct features of sean-nós make it unpopular with some, but the style is highly detailed and difficult to do well.

There are three main styles of sean-nós in the three areas where the Irish language is still spoken to some extent. The Gaeltachtaí of Munster (mainly in Kerry, Cork, & Waterford), Connacht (mainly in Mayo & Connemara), & Ulster (in Donegal) have their own distinct styles.

Donegal sean-nós has clear Scottish influences and is less ornate than the other styles, as well as more nasal.

Connemara sean-nós is the most ornamented style and shares some forms with traditional instrumentation, with many grace notes.

Munster sean-nós is not quite as ornamented as the Connemara style and has longer gaps between notes. Vibrato is also more prominent.

Interest in sean-nós has grown recently. TG4 (the Irish language television channel) is doing a series on sean-nós singers: the trailer is below.


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