Sean-nós song

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Sean-nós (/ˌʃæns/ SHAN-ohss; Irish for "old style") is a highly ornamented style of unaccompanied traditional Irish singing, and in the singing of Ireland's Gaeltacht.

Sean-nós singing style[edit]

Sean-nós singing is a highly ornamented style of solo, unaccompanied singing defined by Tomás Ó Canainn as:

...a rather complex way of singing in Irish, confined mainly to some areas in the west and south of the country. It is unaccompanied and has a highly ornamented melodic line....Not all areas have the same type of ornamentation—one finds a very florid line in Connacht, contrasting with a somewhat less decorated one in the south, and, by comparison, a stark simplicity in the northern songs...[1]

Ó Canainn also asserts that " aspect of Irish music can be fully understood without a deep appreciation of sean-nós singing. It is the key which opens every lock".[2]:49

Alternatively, it is simply "the old, traditional style of singing" and therefore is not always ornamented. It varies very much from one part of the country to another, as according to Hiúdaí Ó Duibheannaigh, who served on the Irish Folklore Commission from 1936 to 1939, "...people now, that word being used these last forty years, think it's a particular style of singing: it's not!"[3]

Sean-nós songs can be relatively simple, though many are long, extremely stylised and melodically complex. A good performance classically involves substantial ornament and rhythmic variations from verse to verse.[citation needed]

Ó Canainn identifies most ornamentation as melismatic ornamentation. This is when a note is replaced or emphasised by a group of adjoining notes, unlike intervallic ornamentation, in which additional notes are used to fill up an interval between two notes.

Decorative elements common in sean-nós singing fulfill aesthetic purposes to connect the text to the singer's interpretation of the melody and to enhance a sense of continuity by filling the gaps between phrases. These decorative elements, or ornamentations, include:[4]

  • Highly ornamented singing where the voice is placed near the top of the range
  • Nasalisation
  • A second form of nasalisation, used in the south, produces an "m", "n" or "ng" sound at the end of a phrase
  • Melisma (singing one syllable in a word to several notes)
  • Brief pauses initiated by glottal stops, "slides" or glissandi (predominantly when sung by women)
  • Very long extended phrases
  • A tendency to draw breath after a conjunction or linking words rather than at the end of a phrase[2]:74
  • Ending some songs by speaking the finishing line instead of singing it[2]:80
  • Varying the melody in each verse

An example of the sean-nós singing style, sung by Bridget Fitzgerald, may be heard here. Another example, sung by Tom Lenihan can be heard here

A number of songs are modal, as opposed to major, in melody.[5]

Distinguishing social features[edit]

"Songs were made to accompany the work inside and outside the home, to express the many emotions - love and sadness of daily existence, to record local and other historical events and to often mark the loss of family and friends whether by death or by emigration".[6]

The very interaction between the performer and audience is a crucial aspect of the sean-nós tradition.[2]:79[6]

  • The singer may require cajoling—this may be considered as part of the recital.
  • The singer may occasionally adopt a position facing the corner of the room and away from the audience, with eyes closed, a position that has acoustic benefits, aids concentration for performing long intricate songs from memory, and perhaps has some additional ancient significance.
  • The listeners are not expected to be silent throughout and may participate in the performance through words of encouragement and commentary. Sometimes a listener will hold the performer's hand, and together they will move or "wind" their linked hands in the rhythm of the song. Such interactions do not disturb the flow of music, and the performer will often respond musically. (The Irish Gaelic verb cas means to turn or wind, and an idiomatic expression for singing is to turn/wind a song: cas amhrán.)

The performance of most songs is not restricted by gender, although the lyrics may imply a song is from a woman's or man's point of view. There are a few songs that men have a tendency not to sing. Women, however, do not seem to have the same hesitation.[citation needed]

Content of lyrics[edit]

Many of the songs typically sung sean-nós could be seen as forms of love poetry, laments, or references to historical events such as political rebellions or times of famine, lullabies, nature poetry, devotional songs, or combinations of these.[citation needed]

Comic songs are also part of the tradition (e.g., An Spailpín Fánach, Cúnla, Bean Pháidín), as are references to drink (An Bonnan Buí, Preab san Ól, Ólaim Puins is Ólaim Tae).

Regional variation[edit]

There are four main styles of sean-nós, corresponding to the three areas where Irish is still spoken as a community language, the Gaeltachtaí of west Munster (parts of Kerry, and Cork), east Munster (Waterford), Connacht (Connemara and Meath); and to Ulster. "It would not be correct to say sean nós is not practised outside these areas, but only those four distinct styles can be recognised. Singers from the Galltacht (i.e. outside the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking areas) and indeed from outside Ireland may blend them, depending on where they learned".[6] These differences in style generally correspond geographically to the various dialects of Irish.

While sean-nós singing varies around Ireland, with ease of travel and the influence of recording media, these distinctions have become less definite since at least the early twentieth century; singers sometimes adopt different styles from various parts of the country.[7]

Donegal style[edit]

The Donegal style has been heavily influenced by Scottish Gaelic singing.[8] It is a relatively unadorned and nasal style. The melody is sometimes less ornamented. As a result, the Donegal style can stand out from other regional styles.

Connemara style[edit]

A more decorated style, with forms familiar to a traditional instrumentalist along with other more complex forms. (e.g. as performed by Bridget Fitzgerald) ......

West Munster style[edit]

Also a highly ornamented style. The notes to be ornamented can be adjacent to each other like in Connemara, but at other times the gap between them can be wide.

East Munster style[edit]

The Waterford Gaeltacht of An Rinn also has a distinct style, despite the small size of its population, which can be heard in the singing of Nioclás Tóibín.

Language variation[edit]

The term "sean-nós" is popularly applied to songs in English and Irish, with the style of singing that is characteristic. A number of sean-nós songs are macaronic, combining two or more languages. Normally they combine Irish and English, but occasionally Irish and French or other European languages, including Latin. Some traditionalists nevertheless believe that songs must have some Irish lyrics to belong to the tradition.[citation needed]

Some first-time listeners accustomed to Western music, sean-nós singing may sound as exotic as "Arabic" or "Indian". Similarities can be heard with the sacred music of the Orthodox Churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Film-maker Bob Quinn, in his Atlantean series of films, suggests a north African cultural connection.

History of sean-nós song and modern developments[edit]

The tradition of sean-nós song was exclusively oral, and remains customarily so. However a few songs were known to have been conveyed to script as early as the 16th century. A songbook for Elizabeth I contained English interpretations of sean-nós songs. Songs started to be more extensively written down in the eighteenth century and distributed in print from then on.

New composition is a controversial issue within sean-nós song circles. Some singers insist that the traditional should be supplemented with new material, arguing that since society has changed, then the content of the lyrics should reflect this. On the other hand, some singers say that only the older, "traditional" songs represent the essence of sean-nós song and therefore deserve a protected, preferential status.[citation needed]

Means of preserving Irish music and dance[edit]

Sean-nós song is a sean-nós activity, which also includes sean-nós dance. These forms of Irish dance and song have been documented by scholars of ethnomusicology, musicology, linguistics and other fields, such as Hugh Shields, Tom Munnelly, Fintan Vallely, and Lillis Ó Laoire.

The practice of sean-nós dance, sean-nós song, lilting (also known as "mouth music"), and "the bones" (a simple percussion instrument convenient to carry in a pocket) has existed for centuries. It might be interpreted as a minimalist means that helped preserve a musical and dance heritage at a time when musical instruments were too expensive for most peasants.[9]

Other Celtic unaccompanied singing styles[edit]

Irish lilting is usually performed without musical accompaniment. Scottish Gaelic songs were also typically sung unadorned.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tomas Ó'Canainn, Traditional Music in Ireland (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), pp. 49, 71
  2. ^ a b c d Ó Canainn, Tomas (1993). Traditional Music in Ireland. Cork, Ireland: Ossian Publications Ltd. ISBN 0-946005-73-7.
  3. ^ "Sean Nós article first appeared in Ulster Folklife No 37 (1991): pp 97-105".
  4. ^ Williams, Sean and Lillis O Laoire (2011). Bright Star of the West: Joe Heaney, Irish Song-man. Oxford University Press. pp. 27–35. ISBN 978-0195321180.
  5. ^ Scanlan, Margaret, 1944- (2006). Culture and customs of Ireland. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-33162-6. OCLC 62281693.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. ^ a b c Amhranaíocht ar an Sean-nós, Tomás Ó Maoldomhnaigh, Treoir, Volume 36 Number 1, Spring 2004
  7. ^ "Comhaltas: Amhranaiocht ar an Sean-nos". Retrieved 18 January 2021.
  8. ^ Sean-nós in Donegal, Julie Henigan
  9. ^ Irish Step Dancing – A Brief History, Don Haurin & Ann Richens
  10. ^ Newton, Michael (15 September 2013). "The Fallacies of "Celtic Music"". The Virtual Gael. Retrieved 7 April 2017.


  • Dorothea E. Hast and Stanley Scott, Music in Ireland: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 84–136.

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