Sean-nós ( ; Irish for "old style") is a highly ornamented style of unaccompanied traditional Irish singing, and in the singing of Ireland's Gaeltacht.
Sean-nós singing styleSean-nós singing is a highly ornamented style of solo, unaccompanied singing defined by Tomás Ó Canainn as:
...a rather complex way of singing in Irish, 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...Ó Canainn also asserts that "...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".
Alternatively, it is simply "the old, traditional style of singing" and therefore is not always ornamented. It varies very much from one part of the country to another, as according to Hiúdaí Ó Duibheannaigh, who served on the Irish Folklore Commission from 1936 to 1939, "...people now, that word being used these last forty years, think it's a particular style of singing: it's not!"
Sean-nós songs can be relatively simple, though many are long, extremely stylised and melodically complex. A good performance classically involves substantial ornament and rhythmic variations from verse to verse.
Ó Canainn identifies most ornamentation as melismatic ornamentation. This is when a note is replaced or emphasised 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:
An example of the sean-nós singing style, sung by Bridget Fitzgerald, may be heard [https://www.pri.org/stories/2009-02-25/geo-answerglobal-hit here].
All these strategies serve an assortment of aesthetic purposes, such as:
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 performance of most songs is not restricted by gender, although the lyrics may imply a song is from a woman's or man's point of view. 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 lyricsMany 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 variationThere 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 (i.e. outside the Gaeltacht or Irish-speaking areas) 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 ease of travel and the influence of recording media, these distinctions have become less definite since at least the early twentieth century; singers sometimes adopt different styles from various parts of the country.
Donegal styleThe Donegal style has been heavily influenced by Scottish Gaelic singing. It is a relatively unadorned and nasal style. The melody is sometimes less ornamented. As a result, the Donegal style can stand out from other regional styles.
Connemara styleA more decorated style, with forms familiar to a traditional instrumentalist along with other more complex forms. (e.g. as performed by Bridget Fitzgerald)
West Munster styleAlso 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 styleThe 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 variationThe term "sean-nós" is popularly applied to songs in English and Irish, with the style of singing that is characteristic. 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. Some traditionalists nevertheless believe that songs must have some Irish lyrics to belong to the tradition.
To the first-time listener accustomed to Western music, sean-nós singing may sound "Arabic" or "Indian". Film-maker Bob Quinn, in his Atlantean series of films, suggests a north African cultural connection.
History of sean-nós song and modern developmentsThe 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 danceSean-nós song is a sean-nós activity, which also includes sean-nós dance. 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) has existed 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.