Sean-Nós songs and lyrics

Sean-nós singing is a highly-ornamented style of solo singing in the Irish language, confined mainly to some areas in t more...

Sean-nós singing is a highly-ornamented style of solo singing in the Irish language, 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. No aspect of Irish music can be fully understood without a deep appreciation of sean-nós singing. It is the key which opens every lock.

Sean-nós songs can be relatively simple, though many are long, extremely stylized and melodically complex. A good performance classically involves substantial ornament and rhythmic variations from verse to verse. Most ornamentation as melismatic ornamentation. This is when a note is replaced or emphasized 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 include

  • Highly ornamented 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
  • One syllable in a word can be sung 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
  • The ending of some songs by speaking the finishing line instead of singing it
  • Varying the melody in each verse

All these strategies serve an assortment of aesthetic purposes, such as

  • Connects the text to the interpretation of the melody
  • Enhancing a sense of continuity such as by filling the gap between phrases with a nasalized drone

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

Distinguishing Social Features

“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”.

The very interaction between the performer and audience is a crucial aspect of the sean-nós tradition.

  • 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, a position that has acoustic benefits and perhaps some ancient significance.
  • The audience is not expected to be silent throughout, and may participate in the performance through words of encouragement and commentary. Sometimes a member of the audience will even come and hold the performer’s hand in empathy with the song. Such interaction does not disturb the flow of music, and the performer will often respond to it musically.

The performance of most songs are not restricted by gender, although the lyrics may imply it is being sung from a woman’s or man’s point of view. On the other hand there are a few songs that men have a tendency not to sing. Women however do not seem to have the same hesitation.

Content of lyrics

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.

Comic songs are also part of the tradition (e.g., An Spailpin Fanach, Cunnla, Bean Pháidin), as are references to drink (An Bonnan Bui, Preab san Ol, Olaim Puins is Olaim Te).

Regional variation

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 and indeed from outside Ireland may blend them, depending on where they learned”. These differences in style generally correspond geographically to the various dialects of Irish.

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

Donegal style

The Donegal style has been heavily influenced by Scots Gaelic singing. It is a relatively unadorned and nasal style. The melody is sometimes less ornamented. As a result, to someone not familiar with Sean-nós, the Donegal style can stand out from other regional styles.

Connemara style

A more decorated style, with forms familiar to a traditional instrumentalist along with other more complex forms.

West Munster style

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

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

The term “sean-nós” is popularly applied to songs in English and Irish. 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.

Many would agree that it is more the style of singing that is distinctive, and not the lyrics or the language. In spite of this some traditionalist insist that songs exclusively in the English language cannot be regarded as belonging to the tradition.

To the first-time listener, accustomed to popular and classical singers, sean-nós singing may sound more “Arabic” or “Indian” than “Western”. Film-maker Bob Quinn, in his Atlantean series of films, suggests a north African cultural connection.

History of sean-nós song and modern developments

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.

Means of preserving Irish music and dance

Sean-nós song is a sean-nós activity, which also includes sean-nós dancing. 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) exists 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.

Other Celtic unaccompanied singing styles

In addition to the unaccompanied Irish traditional sean-nós singing, Irish lilting is usually performed without musical accompaniment. A similar tradition in Scotland is Puirt a beul (AKA Diddling) though there are various mouth music traditions around the world.


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