Stewart Hendrickson

Traditional slow airs were often derived from songs, and many songs are sung to the tunes of traditional airs.

Slow airs are considered the most beautiful music of the Irish tradition. Most have come to us through the tradition of sean nos or old style Irish singing. Others have come from ancient melodies about which we know very little. But a common characteristic of this type of music is a free rhythm or meter. The melodies occur in phrases which move in their own characteristic way with pauses separating the phrases.

Many slow airs are instrumental versions of songs. Sometimes they are highly embellished, but they still should be recognized as the songs from which they are derived along with the appropriate phrasing. The ornamentation should be a sort of lubrication between notes of the melody and should not be overdone and hide the original melody.

Other slow airs seem to have originated simply as melodies, and have later been used as the melodic basis of songs. Slow airs thus serve as a vast reservoir of melodies for song writers. They are often recycled into many different songs and the melodies are changed in the process.

Song writers would do well to immerse themselves in this traditional music as source material for their songs. The melody is just as important as the lyrics. It should convey the mood or feeling of the lyrics and be a recognizable part of the song.

A good source of traditional Irish slow airs is the book Traditional Slow Airs of Ireland by Tomás Ó Canainn (Ossian Publications, Cork, Ireland, 1995). It contains 118 airs and is accompanied by a double CD set in which each of the tunes is played on a variety of instruments.

Airs carried on air:
Melody that lingers
Unfold, decorate.
Breathing bellows an elbow
Continues to pump: swelling
Lung that forces a chanter
To speak.
(From ‘Melos’ by Tomás Ó Canainn)

In learning slow airs, some acquaintance with the song is very useful in order to understand the phrasing and emphasis of notes. Because of the free rhythm it is impossible to notate the tune as it is actually played, and different players will have different interpretations.

It is best to hear the song sung and/or hear a recording of someone playing the tune. But keep in mind that each player might have a different interpretation. The next best thing to hearing the song sung or the tune played is to try to sing the notes as if in a song. A good singer will have a sense of phrasing that should help. Then it is up to you to develop your own interpretation of the tune. Do not overdo the ornamentation, but let it simply enhance the melody.

Slow airs don’t have to be old and traditional. Some beautiful new tunes continue to be written in the tradition of slow airs. For example, Liz Carroll, a talented Irish fiddler from Chicago, has written and recorded some beautiful airs. A recent one of hers is “Lament of the First Generation,” which is on her web site.