An Irish traditional music session is a gathering of musicians--most often in a pub--playing traditional tunes and singing traditional songs. The session can been rightly understood as one manifestation of the music's social element: while many Irish musicians obviously play concerts and record CD's, the session is, and has always been, the place where people come together to share tunes, tell stories and enjoy one another's company.
"Which instruments are played in a session?"
An Irish traditional music session can consist of any combination of musicians playing traditional instruments, such as: fiddle, flute, accordion, concertina, whistle, pipes, guitar, bodhran, bozouki, mandola.
"How does a session work? Are the musicians just improvising?"
There is, indeed, a structure to an Irish traditional music session. In fact, there is very little improvisation involved. Typically there is a lead musician in every session, and she/he will often start off most of the tune sets. Tunes, whether they be reels (in 4/4 time), jigs (6/8 time), hornpipes or marches, are strung together--usually in groups of three or four. If other musicians sitting at the session know the tunes, they play along. The guitar, bozouki or mandola will usually play the chord structure of the tune, while melody instruments will play the tune melody itself. There are an estimated 20,000 Irish traditional tunes, and new ones are being composed all the time, so any given session truly has infinite musical possibilities! Occasionally there will be a break in the tune sets for a song or a limerick to be performed.
"Does dancing ever accompany sessions?"
Irish traditional music has always been a dance music. Different tune types, such as the reel and the jig, have their respective dance steps. Furthermore, just as the music is diverse from county to county within Ireland, so are the dance steps. A crucial event in the history of Irish traditional music was the Public Dance Halls Act of 1934. The Irish National Government, working hand in hand with the Catholic Church, decided that public house dances in rural Ireland--filled as they were with laughing, socializing and physical contact between men and women--were sites of misconduct and immorality, and banned all forms of public dancing. Traditional music had been dealt a severe blow, and it then declined for a number of years until Sean O'Riada emerged in the 1950's to revive the tradition. The late fiddler Junior Crehan describes the feeling people experienced after the Dance Halls Act:
"It was this loneliness that I felt most of all; there was no one to swap tunes with, very few to talk about music, and the flag floors were silent. In corners, in attics, and on shelves, fiddles and flutes lay gathering spiders and cobwebs. There was no heart to play and I remember finding it a struggle to take down the fiddle and play a few tunes to oblige a neighbour. There seemed to be no point in it; the music was slipping away in spite of us."
Fortunately, the music did revive, and today Irish traditional music enjoys tremendous popularity around the world. There continue to be many dance competitions and festivals, and the dance tradition has been given a big boost by the success of shows such as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Most often, dance only accompanies session music if someone spontaneously decides to perform a step upon the floor, but the Irish dancing, instrumental music and song tradition have thrived in their own ways within the past several years. In fact, whether you find yourself in rural County Clare, San Francisco, Barcelona or Cape Town, chances are you will find a session on at least one night a week in the local Irish pub!