Hits: 9992

Many trends in Western music have Celtic roots.

Music for step dancing is a ready example. Who isn't absolutely enchanted by the riveting music that sustains Riverdance? The music as well as its dance tradition derive directly from Celtic roots.

Let's look at an historic example. P.W. Joyce (1873) presented a “reel dance” called The Flannel Jacket (p. 6). He says that reel dances were very popular around the middle of the 19th century.

The Flannel Jacket

Music sheet

The word “reel” probably derives from the turning movements. From a distance, one notes that there is no touching between performers. Traditionally, the arms were held close to the body, and the action was directed at the footwork – which can be exceptionally fast and complex. Holding arms close to the body provides more flexibility “while reeling around” and it enforces an upright position during the jumps – otherwise you might fall.

Illustration 1: Modern Reel Dance. YouTube "The Academy Irish Dance Company - Dublin Irish Festival 2016"

HavinModernReel.jpgg said that, modern step dancing has evolved in the last 30 years. Riverdance has introduced some arm and head movements and a few very tender – touches between key performers. This has generalized to Irish step dancing. It's now common to see hands held to the midriff or outstretched. However to preserve balance, both arms perform the same action.

The music in reel music is notated in simple meters, either as 2/2 or 4/4. As usual in dance, a few simple musical themes are used over and over again. That's what dancers like – a firm and repeating pattern. As usual in Celtic music, there is a good use of pentatonic tone patterns.


Riverdance.jpgLet's watch the most famous of all Riverdance sequences, “Reel around the Sun”. The composer of the original piece is Bill Whelan, but many derivative versions have been composed that use various instruments and embellishments. In the video please note all the elements contributing to this incredible performance: the amazing stage sets, the careful use of lighting (yes, lots of Irish green), the delightful dresses, the incredible precision of the foot work, the speed and of course, the riveting music.

The original score has a lengthy introduction (2 minutes) and then employs five main Irish-styled themes, presented as 8- or 4-bar sequences to make a total of 6 minutes. The instrumentation evolves from a few instruments centred on the accordion and the drums to wider groups with violins, violas and synthesizers.

You can find several versions of Reel around the Sun on YouTube. My favourite rendition is this:

2009 sequence, viewed over 16 million times in 2017:

You might also enjoy this, penguins step-dancing:

Other illustrative sites are here:


Modern step dancing festival:

The musical themes used in Riverdance:


Music sheet:

Can I do that? “Build my own Wheel”?

Q_wheel.jpgWith Riverdance and the like, we have arrived at an incredible level of sophistication. What remains in that for an aspiring composer? Could I ever write music for a worthwhile reel dance?

The bar is set very high. But just for a lark, let's see what might be involved.

Scale. We'll start with 4/4 (four quarter notes per bar), and we'll use A-major, a happy and provocative scale. This is what they used in “Reel around the Sun”.

Chords. We need some happy and upbeat chords and we want to avoid minor or diminished chords, except for special effects (transitions, etc.). What are some “happy” chords?

Others have done the work for us. In simplified form, here are various harmonic chords, as they are applied to A-major. Out of all these chords, we'll want to use the notes in bold face. When one plays them together or in sequence, they sound harmonic and joyful. The first major chord is the most common, so we'll be sure to include it.




Note 1

Note 2

Note 3


1 - 3 - 5






2 - 4 - 6






3 - 5 - 7






4 - 6 - 1






5 - 7 - 2






6 - 1 - 3






7 - 2 - 4






Rhythm. But before we start, we'll also need the rhythm. We'll get it right from the reel dancers. I'll use a rhythm used by Shannon O'Sullivan in her introductory reel dance demonstration: She shows (in the second run):

1. point, in back - point, in back: NotesBuild1.jpg

2. (to the) knee, two, three, four, five, six, seven: NotesBuild2.jpg

3. point, in back - point in back:  NotesBuild1.jpg

4. knee, step in - point half step: NotesBuild1.jpg


So in music, we should see:


Melody. Now all we have to do is move the notes up and down to get a melody. Many people use the piano, some compose directly into a program like MuseScore2.

After a few minutes of pushing notes around, we get something like this:


We've taken the liberty to convert the last two quarter notes into a half note which sounds much better in music.

Already, we have a nice Celtic feel. For the most part the melody uses notes from the A-major chords. It's still miles removed from Whelan's Reel around the Sun, but everyone's got to start somewhere. Also, there is only so much one can do with half- and quarter notes and a regular beat on the first note of a bar.

Accompaniment. To improve, let's add a bass accompaniment. The bass melody should support the tonal development of the main melody, and it should also rely heavily on A-major chords. The primary melody goes from low to high to low, then it moves to an ending on A. We could write an accompaniment that follows a similar or an opposite pattern. We'll do a bit of both.


The bass accompaniment gives it a much fuller tone.

Repeats and expansions. Finally let's make this into music that one might actually enjoy listening to – in other word, music that won't annoy the dancers when they hear it again and again while practising!

A complete piece of music for folk dancing is typically about three to five minutes long. Step dancing is particularly demanding, so the piece is often broken down into several subcomponents. In the 2009 Riverdance sequence, the initial step-dance component is about 1 minute long.

Let's do that, let's stretch-and-transform our 10 second melody into 60 seconds. We can do that with repeats and by changing some tonal patterns. Also, we need an introduction. This is important in dance, to let the instructor start the recording and then get to the head of the group. With two repeats and an introduction, the recording has now grown into 60 seconds.

We've also changed the instruments. For some Celtic flavour we chose an oboe for the primary melody line. True Irish Uillean bagpipes would have been better, but they are currently impossible to find in a general midi sound font. For an accompaniment we have an accordion. The drum set provides a nice, predictable rhythm.

Music sheet


The whole pizazz

After a short while, the above tune gets tiresome to listen to, so let's put some pizazz (some more oomph and magic) into this simple melody.

In the introduction, we build listener expectations with some beats and a snare drum that becomes more complex before the onset of the melody. Within the tune, we let the drums do various patterns and even skip a bar where the tonal development becomes more important.

We add forte modulations throughout the piece and we've speeded up the piece from 110 bpm to 115 bpm.

Then we added an acoustic guitar to give us much more grounding in the second half of each repeat.

And now, do we have the music for a Celtic reel dance? You'll be the judge.


Audio for listening (115 bpm)

Audio for step dance learning (100 bpm) and audio with triple repeat (115 bpm, 3:30 minutes): as a zip file

Music sheets



P.W. Joyce. 1873. Ancient Irish Music: One Hundred Airs Hitherto Unpublished, Many of the Old Popular Songs, and Several New Songs. Edited and collected. Dublin. McGlashan and Gill.