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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Oh!  But Dueling banjos is such a fundamental piece of celtic musical heritage, how could you deny Cormac or the rest of us.  With out that, all we have is Danny Boy and When Irish Eyes are smiling!  :-)</sarcasm>

heehee. on monday we (meaning I) managed to incorporate the final countdown and the A team theme into a session so i guess we should be more open minded and stop pushing these people off stools

I agree wholeheartedly with you on this Jenni as this was how I learnt the majority of my tunes as an early teen. I was embarrassed by the limit of my knowledge so I used to hold up my flute and pretend I was playing.

To my amazement I became aware of how I could learn a tune quickly by listening the first time and trying it the second time around!(It was a weekly session of at least twenty musicians usually) This was not very obtrusive as there was such a lot of volume from the others - it is not as easy with only a few players. (Just as an aside and to explain how I found it easy - my flute teacher reckoned I had nearly-perfect pitch, so I could hear what notes the others were playing and could determine what key the tune was in - roughly!)

I find nowadays that if I listen to the full tune maybe twice through I can quietly try it the third time BUT even if there are five others playing, someone might be heard struggling so I try to be sensitive to the situation. If there is a lot of background noise in the pub it is usually ok to try a new tune.

Also, remember that if there are a lot of people trying to pick up a tune during a session it may be difficult to hear the actual tune clearly - now with the availability of youtube it is easy to listen to -and play along with a tune at home - as long as it has a name!!

There is a lot of sense and experience in what you say John! I like your description "It's a fluid, changeable, transitional space, where anything can happen." Very true!

If a tune is brilliant I'll hup it, even while they are playing - shock horror! 

I reckon its easy enough - if you are new to the session, don't just barge in. The article makes it seem like rocket science when it just isn't. Having said that - I won't sit in on a brilliant session where I don't know anyone, I'd always want to know someone there, likewise - if the session is brilliant and way out of my league -then I am happy enough to sit back, have a drink and a listen. I remember this one brilliant session at miltown with siobhan peoples and murty ryan - wowsers, wouldn't even bother trying to join in on that - not like I can add anything to it if you know what I mean. 

agree with u Brid, its all about knowing when u fit in and sometimes its nice to listen and learn and whats the point of joining in with a half known tune and upsetting the sound of the session when u can ask the name of the tune or tape it and go home and learn it properly for next time.   

As an adult learner I have had to learn where I fit in and also where I don't fit in and I also shudder to think of myself at the beginning chancing my arm and probably ruining the flow of the music for others!  I also like to know someone else in the session and most times I will be asked to start a set or play a tune and I am happy to do that.   cheers

I would just like to clarify my earlier comment with the fact that when I was an early teen sitting in on big sessions and trying to learn the tunes, that was nearly thirty years ago.. :( now, I am aware of how much easier it is to find a tune on the net and often learn it that way and am very careful not to upset anyone sitting beside me or indeed the session in general. Having said that, it doesn't stop me trying a tune when I feel it is appropriate (it is possible to play very quietly on a flute) and won't injure the session.

But doesn't all this discussion show that maybe the original article was an important piece - maybe not entirely correct - because people have certain feelings about sessions in general? I mean - everybody wants people to enjoy themselves, nobody wants people feeling intimidated, no good musician wants to spend an evening being musically disappointed, everybody should encourage new players.... where does one stop??

It has been said a few times already in different forms - try to be sensitive to the particular session you attend - they are all different - thankfully!

Ps I love most sessions! To me - a session is as good and as different as the people within it. I know that whenever I joined in a session which contained my good friend Tom Carey (RIP) - a fine concertina-player from Clare - it usually turned out well, because Tom welcomed everybody with such respect and was so modest himself that he made everybody feel like mighty musicians! He would find something good to say about their playing or maybe their choice of tune and always tried to encourage them to play on their own at least once - he would even call the pub to order and to have respect for them while they played! But then again, if there were a lot of players you might not always have that great feeling of satisfaction that you might have after another session....But - I will never forget - and always aspire to having his warmth towards anyone remotely musical!! To me - he was a true musician and always a gentleman.

Anyway, play lots, join sessions, learn what you can and ...enjoy yourself!!

I always remember the late Vincent Tighe making a comment about a Bodhran player, "Why dont you try playing it with a penknife" the tune being played at that time was   "The Yellow Tinker"  a favorite of Vincents ,

I think after this weekends sessions Id like to add two rules. Dont be rude to other players about their playing and be aware of what company youre keeping before making biggoted remarks about ethnic groupings.

Very sound advice! I actually read something very similar to this a few years back when I started attending sessions. It is exactly how I approach any gathering of traditional music sessions whether it be Folk, Bluegrass, Irish, etc. It's just good "common sense/common courtesy" advice.

Thanks for posting this Tony! Especially in light of some of the negative discussions I've read recently on this very topic!

:::---( o )

Amen Ken!

Music is truly a universal language, and the day artists become closed-minded, dis-respectful, and not embrace diversity whether it be via music interpretation, cultural influence, ethnicity, etc. then that will be the day musical and artistic expression stagnates and ceases to grow.

Thanks for posting that! 

:::---( o )

If I was a beginner, I would have thought this to be actual advice. Your sarcasm is a little too dry in written form with nothing to break it up. That is probably the issue people are having, because it is hard to catch the context.

Were we sitting in a bar and you were saying these things aloud, with both verbal and visual cues it would be a much different story. Inferences can be difficult to catch in written form, especially if one does not actually know the writer.

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