When learning how to play music, or even if you want to actively listen to music, you will find that it comes with its own language. When playing or writing a song musicians use a set of words or signifiers to describe the tune and help give it life. The great thing about music language is that it crosses every genre and style, and once you learn a few key words found commonly in playing and writing you can begin to see how it all fits together!

Below is an introduction to some of the terms you may see and hear in Scottish Country Dance music, which are also found in many other genres. This page will be evolving over time with new terms added to help you understand a bit more of what you are hearing.

If you have any suggestions please get in touch with the Music Director via the RSCDS office.

Term Description
Genre A style or category of music.
Jig A lively dance/tune in 6/8 time.
Reel A lively Scottish, English or Irish folk dance/tune.
Strathspey A slow stately dance/tune specific to Scotland.
March A style of tune usually written in 2/4 time and used principally for marching to.
Waltz A dance in triple time.
Tempo The speed of the music.
Simple time Musical rhythm or metre in which each beat in a bar may be subdivided simply into halves or quarters.

Compound time

Musical rhythm or metre in which each beat in a bar is subdivided into three smaller units.
Scotch Snap A rhythmic feature in which a dotted note is preceded by a stressed shorter note, characteristic of strathspeys.
Measure Another word for describing a bar or a segment of time corresponding to a specific number of beats. It is most commonly used in American English.
Scotch Measure Closely related to a reel, but a little closer to a march. It is traditionally played slightly slower than a reel and has more crotchets than quavers if written in 4/4.
Semi-breve A note having the time value of two minims or four crotchets, represented by a ring with no stem. It is the longest note now in common use. In American English referred to as a whole note.
Minim A note having the time value of two crotchets or half a semibreve, represented by a ring with a stem. In American English is usually referred to as a half-note.
Crotchet A note having the time value of a quarter of a semibreve or half a minim, represented by a large solid dot with a plain stem. In American English referred to as a quarter note.
Quaver A note having the time value of an eighth of a semibreve or half a crotchet, represented by a large dot with a hooked stem. In American English referred to as an eighth note.
Semi-quaver A note having the time value of a sixteenth of a semibreve or half a quaver, represented by a large dot with a two-hooked stem. In American English referred to as a sixteenth note.

A 16-bar tune usually has the structure A, B, which is played A, B, A, B to get 32 bars; or A, B, A, B, B to get 40 bars and so forth.

A 32-bar tune will often have the structure A, A, B, B, with each section being 8 bars. Some tunes will have longer A or B sections, which then become 16 bars long. So it could be A, A, B.

Often 40 bar sequences are formed by playing A,B,A,B,B but occasionally can sometimes be played A,B,B (where the B music is 16 bars long - a well-known example would be Ladies of Dunse). Alternatively 40 bars can be played A, A, B, B, B depending on the tune structure. (for example listen to Spring Fling Reel found in Book 50).

A 48-bar tune will sometimes be played A, B, A, B, A, B if the tune has a 16 bar structure, or A, A, B, B, A, B if the structure is equal or even A, A, B, B if the ‘B’ music is 16 bars in length.

Sign up for the RSCDS eNewsletter

Sign up to:

  • Keep up to date with RSCDS events 
  • Join a worldwide community of Scottish country dance and music

Join an RSCDS Branch & receive member benefits

There are 159 RSCDS Branches and over 300 Affiliated Groups in more than 50 countries around the world, located on all continents (except Antarctica).

They organise and run classes, dances and other social events in their own areas and are committed to helping develop Scottish Dance and Music for future generations.

We encourage you to try Scottish Country Dancing for yourself to see just how much fun it can be, so please come along and learn how to 'Dance Scottish'. 

Wherever you are in the world there is most likely Scottish Country Dancing.

Find my nearest branch

  • © 2024 The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society
  • Registered Charity No. SC 016085
  • Company No. SC 480530
  • 12 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh, EH3 7AF