Found this interesting artice  at

The Irish “Session” (Part 2)
by Stewart Hendrickson

Irish Session - McGrory's

Last month I wrote about how the traditional Irish pub session is a recent phenomenon, which became popular only after the folk craze of the 1960s. Prior to that time Irish music was played mainly at céilí (social gatherings, dance & music) houses where people would gather around the kitchen fire to entertain themselves with music, dancing, singing and story-telling. Only after Irish musicians emigrated to America and England in the 20th century did they gather at the local pub to play their music. This new “tradition” only became popular in Ireland after the 1960s.

    So what is the nature of playing Irish music in pubs? What happens when Irish musicians get together and play? What are the preferred instruments? What is the proper session etiquette?

    If you happen upon a pub session you might find musicians gathered in a circle, sometimes around a table, engaged with each other in their music, almost oblivious to other bar patrons. The instruments might include fiddles, flutes, whistles, uilleann pipes, concertinas, accordions, mandolins, banjos, a guitar or bouzouki, and bodhran.

    The tunes played are mostly from a long tradition of Irish dance music in the form of jigs, reels, hornpipes, and polkas. Occasionally a slow air or waltz might be performed and someone might sing an unaccompanied song. Or someone might do a lively step dance to a fast jig or reel.

    If you happen to be a musician, it is important to know the proper etiquette before joining in. Most sessions are open to anyone who wants to join, provided they know how to play traditional Irish music. However sessions may vary from place to place and have different unwritten guidelines and styles. It is best to first observe the session and try to understand how it operates. Common sense and a sensitivity for the music and musicians is most important.

    If you would like to participate, you might ask the host or other musicians about joining with them. If you don’t know the tunes they are playing, just sit and listen, and only play the tunes that you do know. After all, you wouldn’t want to annoy both musicians and listeners by trying to play tunes that you don’t know. If you want to learn tunes played at a particular session, you could ask if it is okay to tape record the music for learning. That, and attentive listening, is the best way to learn.

    It is most important not to disturb the flow of music. The purpose of the session is to have fun; when this is not the case, musicians tend to leave. Guitar, bouzouki, and bodhran players should approach a session very cautiously. These are not traditional Irish instruments, and need to be played with great skill and understanding of the music. If not played properly, they tend to throw off the rhythm and melody of the other players. Only one bodhran or guitar (or bouzouki) will be tolerated at any time; two guitars or bodhrans in a session are too many! This is because different rhythms or chords are possible, but should not occur at the same time.

    As you observe the session it may not be obvious how tunes are started, and by whom. Some sessions operate by musicians taking turns around the circle to start tunes; in others, musicians seem to start tunes at random. In the latter case, a musician will start a new tune as he or she deems appropriate, but should not dominate the session. A good host will often encourage new players to lead a tune. A player who leads a tune may often follow it with another paired tune in the same key and form, or another player will follow with an appropriate paired tune.

    Often the pub owner will reward the session players with free beer or other drinks, up to a limit of course. It is best to ask the local custom, and in any case tip the bar person (it improves the service!).

    If you are not a musician but just a punter (non-musician listener), it is also important to know proper etiquette. If you provide a proper listening environment (talk quietly) the music will be heard and played better by the musicians. Don’t crowd the musicians, but give them ample room to play. If you want to be close to the music, try not to take up space that another musician might want to play in; ask a musician if it’s okay.

    When a song is called for, it is essential that everyone be absolutely quiet. Most singing is unaccompanied and solo. If everyone is quiet you will be delighted with the beautiful melodies and interesting stories that make Irish songs so great.

    If you want to photograph, video, or record a session, it is proper to first ask permission. Clapping or “whooping” is appropriate, but only at the end of a set of tunes. Musicians appreciate this because it means that you are listening and enjoying their music. But don’t clap or “whoop” during a tune as this may tend to throw them off or worse, scare them. Just enjoy the “craic” (general conversation and ambiance) and have a good time.

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; ).  Contact him at for questions, ideas or comments.


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It's pretty sound advice for people new to the scene and wanting to become part of it, I think. This advice allows the form and enjoyment of the sessiun to remain constant. It sounds a lot to have to succumb to but that really is how a sessiun goes. One can be assured of a lovely nights entertainment whether they are listening or joining in.

There is an unbelievable joy and sense of achievement when you get to the stage of knowing a good many of the tunes played in a local sessiun and that joy is magnified when you join in an 'away' sessiun and know a good majority of theirs too! Considering that there are hundreds of tunes out there it is quite common (if having travelled a long distance) to enter a sessiun and not know a single tune (except the ones that you've started yourself on request!)

Good advice on the whole, but don't agree than the bodhran is not a traditional Irish instrument. Can see why he might lump it in with guitars etc., but I think bodhrans have been around for quite a while and longer than mechanical instruments like boxes or concertinas.

I copied this quote from a friend's Facebook status and have confirmed the source.


‎"We simply assume that the way we see things is the way they really are or the way they should be. And our attitudes and behaviors grow out of these assumptions." - Stephen R. Covey


When Professor Hendrickson makes statements such as "Only one bodhran or guitar (or bouzouki) will be tolerated at any time; two guitars or bodhrans in a session are too many," and "Most singing is unaccompanied and solo," this most likely is the way the sessions in his area operate. It is however, most definitely not the way our sessions operate. At many of our sessions there are more guitars than everything else included, and telling anyone they can't can't play will only get you nasty glares and quiet shushing. Regarding the unaccompanied singing, we do have some sean nos singers and they do indeed sing a capella and we encourage quiet listening, but most of the singing at our sessions is a solo voice accompanied by rhythm instruments in the verse with gang singing on the choruses and an instrumental interlude. 


That is the way our sessions run. I have explained this on other sites before only to be told (in a condescending manner), "Well, then you aren't really having an Irish session." If you agree with this, may I recommend that you listen to some of the sessions on which take place in Ireland. You will hear non traditional songs and see non traditional instruments, but just try to tell them that they are not Irish. ;-)


Also, Professor Hendrickson seems to contradict himself with these statements:


"Only after Irish musicians emigrated to America and England in the 20th century did they gather at the local pub to play their music. This new “tradition” only became popular in Ireland after the 1960s."


"These (Guitar, bouzouki, and bodhran) are not traditional Irish instruments..." 


If those instruments were introduced at the beginning of the session phenomenon, while not traditional to 19th century rural Ireland, they are indeed traditional to the session culture, and as such are every bit as valid as the whistle and fiddle. 


That is the way I see it. 

Cheers Bruce. I was wondering if anyone would pick up on the issue re one guitar or bodhran at a time, although I did see this mentioned before on another similar blog. Limiting to one instrument is not the practice over here either, although I would say that many players of these instruments would decline to join if they saw several guitars or bodhrans already playing.

Not a bad article, i think it outlines the basic guidelines for a session fairly well. Though as Bruce mentioned, I think the "only one guitar, bouzouki, or bodrhan" rule varies depending on where your location. I know here in Portland, OR we often have multiples of all three. And depending on the bar the listeners may be quiet and enjoy the music or just talk over you and not seem to care.

Same thing applies here, Anton. The only steadfast rule I can think of for all sessions everywhere is, for your first few visits listen and observe, then comply or move on.

Forgive me for saying but I prefer a bit more anarchy. It all sounds a tad clinical to me. I always feel slightly disconcerted if I start a set of tunes and all goes quiet! I would also venture to suggest that those that do need to learn session etiquette are the least likely to read this worthy advice!

Yea, I think the above article is a bit clinical and academic. Perhaps that is just how it is in the author's region. At sessions here folks just start tunes in whatever order, the crowd is generally not very quiet, and first timers will often wander in, sit down, and play, which can be good and bad.

I find sessions with to many rules can get stiff and i end up not having a good time. After its just music and having fun.

totally agree Anton, to me sessions are about playing the music we love and trying to bring up=and-coming players into the fold. To me, the most important piece of etiquette would be to give beginners a chance! a session is, after all, the best place to hear and learn tunes.

absoultely agree. the best session is one of utter madness.

And since a lot of us are disagreeing with various bits of this article, I'd like to take on the  "If you don’t know the tunes they are playing, just sit and listen, and only play the tunes that you do know."  statement.

If it's a tune you've never heard before, then don't play along, I completely agree.

But sometimes, if its a tune you've heard over and over again (and no one seems to remember the name, so you can't look it up when you get home...) you just gotta jump in and try it... QUIETLY PLEASE!  Most of us know how to play "under the sound" of the sessiun on our various instruments. 

I'm agreeing with Jenny! In most situations I'd rather others joined in to some degree rather than have stony silence to accompany a tune. We're talking folk music here, not high art-aren't we?  If a tune is so complicated and/or obscure that no one can take a stab at playing it or accompanying it, maybe it's best left at home.

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