Types of tunes

Scottish music and how it fits the dance

Scottish Dancing mainly uses three musical rhythms - Jigs, Reels and Strathspeys, with Jigs and Reels being faster in pace than Strathspeys. 

Nearly all traditional music is written in 8 bar phrases and Scottish music is no exception. By far the majority of Scottish dances are danced using 32 bars for one turn through the dance; hence, with four couples in a typical set and each couple dancing a dance twice before they get to the bottom of the set means that the most common dance structure for SCD is eight times through each 32 bar turn, hence you will see the terminology 8 x 32 bars for a dance.

However, sometimes dance sequences call for longer than 32 bars, and the most common you will find are 40 bars, 48 bars and 96 bars.

Getting started

Just as a dancer or dance teacher will talk about sequences of bars (for example, bars 1 - 2 or bars 17 - 32), musicians mostly talk about music, and tunes in particular, in terms of their structure and you will often hear them talking about the ‘A’ music or the ‘B' music.

Sometimes A and B is replaced by 1st and 2nd and the word ‘measure’ is used.

Tunes have a structure to them and when talked about they are referred to in terms of the above.

To get a better sense of structure and the different 'A' and 'B' music we invite you to listen to some examples below.

The tune Lowland Lads (48 Jig) played by Neil Barron for A, B, A, B, A, B.
Audio file

The tune Far Frae Hame played by Susan MacFadyen for A, A, B, B, A, B.
Audio file

The tune Scottish Horse played by Neil Copeland for A, A, B, B.
Audio file

Strathspeys are usually 16 bars long, and to get the following sequences would be played:

  • 32 bars: A, B, A, B
  • 40 bars: A, B, A, B, B
  • 48 bars: A, B, A, B, A, B
Tune types

There are three principle rhythm types used in Scottish Country dancing; the Reel, Jig and Strathspey, although it is not uncommon to find a Waltz or a March thrown in for good measure.

These can be further subdivided into types or styles:

  • Single Reels, Double Reels, Hornpipes, Pipe Jigs
  • Single Jigs, Double Jigs, Pipe Jigs, Two-Steps
  • Traditional Strathspey, Song Strathspey, Slow-air Strathspey

There are also other tune types that are used within the context of dance and in particular music used within the context of a dance class.

Read up on each type of tune below!

A quick, lively dance with a 6/8 time signature. It is in compound time – it has two beats in the bar where each beat is divided into groups of three.

The Reel dance is fairly fast in tempo and is in simple time. The melody is usually smooth and each beat is equally divided into groups of two or four.

In simple time, has four beats in the bar and is at a slower pace than Jigs and Reels and can feature the ‘Scotch Snap’.

A dance with three beats in the bar and in simple time. The Waltz has a fairly slow tempo.

Marches were originally composed for marching to and associated with the military. They have two or four beats to the bar and a strong steady pulse. 

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