More Airs–What About O’Carolan?



In Music

a. A melody or tune, especially in the soprano or tenor range.
b. A solo with or without accompaniment.

(Disclaimer–there are many opinions on the definition of the meaning of “air.” Please take the following as the ramblings of a moderately intelligent monkey.)

In my limited understanding of the Irish musical tradition so far, airs are most often sean nós songs stripped of their words and played solo on a melody instrument, slowly and with no set rhythm. There are also jigs and reels and that sort of thing that were originally songs, were stripped of their lyrics, and turned into fine dance tunes. Sean nós airs, by contrast, owe no allegiance to meter or tempo, as even these are flexible and used as part of the expressive potential of the song or tune. This lack of rhythmic structure carries over to the instrumental playing of airs as well.

It came up in the last LVISS session that O’Carolan’s tunes might be considered airs. Well, I think they are, but most of the musicians I know that play this music call airs airs, and O’Carolon tunes O’Carolan tunes. You can tell the difference between them right away–they just have such a different feel from each other.There are a couple of important ways in which they differ. (Be sure to see the link below for an interesting discussion of what an air is and isn’t.)

For one thing, O’Carolan composed his tunes first, and added words later. Other airs are derived from a song that would have been composed with words and melody at the same time. Here I quote

His practice was to compose the tune first and then write the words. This was opposite of the traditional Irish practice. Although music was always important, prior to Carolan, poetry always took precedence.

Secondly, all the O’Carolan tunes I have heard have a definite rhythm. Sean nós songs are not traditionally sung with a set rhythm, nor are airs derived from them played that way, though they can be. Usually the rhythm is slow, not regular, and very flexible.

Sung solo, with little rhythm, sounds like this:

With a bit more rhythm next. This is probably because to get everyone playing together you need at least a bit of predictability!

This one has ALL the rhythm:

O’Carolan’s tunes are played the way most other session tunes are–all together as a group. Everyone in unison. Sean nós airs are played solo at sessions, if at all, and as I said in my last post, I have now heard that done exactly once! I am in the States, though.

Finally, O’Carolan’s tunes were influenced by and incorporated other European music styles of his time, notably the Baroque style. Not that Irish sean nós wasn’t influenced by the “outside world” throughout its history, but the influences really stand out, and are in fact highlighted in O’Carolan’s work. Again, from

There were three musical traditions in Ireland, art music, folk music and the harper tradition. The harper tradition served as a bridge between art and folk music and was the primary conduit for the oral tradition. Carolan created a unique style by not only combining the two art forms but by adding elements then-contemporary composers, including Vivaldi and Corelli. He greatly admired Geminiani, whom he probably met in Dublin.

Obviously O’Carolan would have been influenced by the sean nós traditions of his time, but it may be that his primary concern was making a living, and he was offering what would best serve that mission. His wealthy patrons would probably have been looking for something they felt was slightly different from the folk music of the time, so O’Carolan’s Baroque infused compositions would have suited their tastes well. But that’s just me speculating.

In any case, he managed to fuse the two traditions of Irish and classical music very effectively, creating something entirely unique from the traditions of the time. As unique as the sean nós tradition? Hmmm….

Carolan “bridge [sic] the gap between continental art music on the one hand, and the Gaelic harp and folk music on the other.” “At his best he wrote music that is distinctively Irish, yet has an international flavor as well. It is this achievement that suggests that Turlough Carolan does indeed deserve the title of Ireland’s “National Composer”

Look, I’m not an expert, so let me know if you think I’ve mucked something up here. What do you think? Leave a comment below!

For more on O’Carolan see Wikipedia. Also see THIS page.

For more on the sean nós style of singing, see Wikipedia.

Discussion about airs, on


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