Dance has a strong presence in musical history, so for this week’s post, I’m comparing two genres of dance music separated in origin by both time and the Atlantic Ocean: the Irish reel and Brazilian choro.
Traditional Irish dance music has a long history, developing from the middle ages as tunes we hear today were spread around communities (White). Among traditional Irish music, the “vast bulk of instrumental music consists of fast dance music”: jigs, reels and hornpipes (White). Brazilian choro originated in Rio de Janeiro as dance music in the late 19th century (Béhague), the product of an “encounter between European and African cultural strands” (Gallaugher 189).
The first piece that I analyzed was The Traveler (Track 1), an Irish reel that likely originated in the 18th or 19th century, when “the bulk of the current repertory” was produced in Ireland and “the reel and the hornpipe were introduced” (White). In this piece, the accordion takes the melody, the mandolin plays the harmony, and the Irish bodhrán plays percussion. These instruments characterize the genre, the bodhrán being unique to Celtic tradition. Its circular wooden frame is covered on one side with animal skin and struck with a wooden ‘tipper’ (Figure 1) (O Súilleabháin).
My second piece was Noites Cariocas (Track 2), by choro composer Jacob do Bandolim. It features four typical choro instruments (Fairley 161): the bandolim, a variant of the mandolin, plays the melody, the cavaquinho, Brazilian lute with four strings (Figure 2), plays harmony, the classical guitar supplies a bass line and the maracas play percussion (Béhague).
Both pieces begin in the key of G major, before Noites Cariocas modulates to C major, and are written in 2/4 time. These basics are essential for the investigation of the musical links of melodic elements and rhythm.
LINK 1: MELODIC ELEMENTS
The Traveler and Noites Cariocas share similarities in melodic repetition, ornamentation, texture and contour. Irish reels generally “comprise three or four distinct motifs in a variety of contrasting and repeated patterns”, reusing melodic material (White). Similarly, choro usually features “a soloist playing a highly ornamented version of a familiar melody” (Garcia 60).
The Traveler has two primary melodic themes, A and B. Like other Irish dance pieces, theme A is the “tune”, and is lower in pitch than theme B, the “turn” (White). Sections of the song’s melody are repeated exactly, for example in measure 20. Although it lies in theme B, it is an exact repetition of measure 4 from theme A (Figure 3, Track 3).
The Traveler also contains melodic sequencing, where notes and intervals are raised or lowered in pitch, such as in measure 23. Here melodic material from measure 2 is sequenced up a perfect fifth, with a slight modification due to the triplet in measure 23, an embellishment common in Irish dance music (White). A in measure 2 corresponds to E in measure 23, and so on (Figure 4, Track 4).
Furthermore, the opening measure of theme A is inverted, essentially flipped, to become that of theme B, in measures 1 and 17, respectively. This is diatonic inversion, rather than strict, as in order to remain in the key of G major without accidentals, the intervals must be altered slightly as shown (Figure 5, Track 5).
In Noites Cariocas, simple melodies are likewise reused and modified, as the “originality” of choro “lies in the typical virtuoso improvisation of instrumental variations” (Béhague). The phrase in measures 1-2 is modified and repeated in 9-10 (Figure 6, Track 6). The melody is sequenced up a whole step, with D in measure 1 corresponding to E in measure 9, and so on. However, the last two notes are modified so that the final F# of measure 1 remains the same in measure 9.
In measure 24, beginning on the second note, three notes are sequenced up a diatonic second (Figure 7, Track 7). The B is raised a semitone to the C in the last set of three notes, and the C and D are both raised two semitones.
Similarly, in measures 26 and 28 the last five notes are sequenced down a whole step (Figure 8, Track 8). A is lowered to G, followed by G# to F#, and so on, as indicated.
Both pieces also use ornamentation, the addition of decorative notes, to vary their melodic material. The Traveler makes use of grace notes, such as the F# in measure 17 (Figure 5, Track 5). Noites Cariocas includes a trill on F# in measure 41, tied across to 42 (Figure 9, Track 9).
The Traveler has a homophonic texture with its single melodic line. Noites Cariocas also has a homophonic texture, with the bandolim melody. It should be noted, however, that the classical guitar takes on some melodies in the form of call and response with the bandolim. For example, in measures 10-12, the guitar plays a chromatic descending line while the bandolim rests (Figure 10, Track 10). While this goes beyond simply supporting the harmony, it is not frequent or consistent enough for the piece to be considered polyphonic.
Both melodies have relatively wise tessituras, the range of pitches, with The Traveler spanning from D4-B5 and Noites Cariocas from D4-C6. Both ranges of almost two octaves grant melodic space to roam, adding variety in pitch. The melody of The Traveler is extremely diatonic, with all of the notes contained in the key of G major. On the other hand, Noites Cariocas employs numerous accidentals and more frequent variation of intervals compared to the primarily triadic ones in The Traveler. Despite this difference between the two songs, they share similarities in overall melodic contour, as both pieces alternate between ascending and descending lines. Measures 1-2 of The Traveler are examples of this, as the symmetry of each measure indicates (Figure 11, Track 11). It is also worth noting that the melody alternates between scalar and non-scalar movement here, with thirds and fifths in measure 1 and steps in measure 2.
Noites Cariocas follows both of these patterns in measures 1-4. The melody first ascends into the first beat of measure 2 and then descends through measure 4 (Figure 12, Track 12).The first four notes proceed stepwise, followed by labelled intervals. For the descending line, movement is once again alternated with a step, two thirds, and two more steps. In both of these pieces, this variation of intervals allows the piece to keep interest while retaining familiarity and establishing patterns.
The melodies also share similarities in phrase use, illustrated by measures 25-28 of The Traveler. The first two measures represent an antecedent, question-like phrase and the latter two the consequent, answer-like phrase. Measure 26 feels especially unresolved because it ends on F#, the leading tone of G major, anticipating the G that follows it. This “diatonic major mode with major seventh” is a common feature of the reel (Travis 468). Meanwhile, measure 28 ends on D, the fifth scale degree, which is a much stabler note (Figure 13, Track 13).
Measures 1-4 from Noites Cariocas also illustrate the pattern from antecedent to consequent with an identical phrase length of two measures. Measure 2 also ends on F#, the leading tone, before in this case descending to E in measure 4, the sixth scale degree, which is comparatively stabler (Figure 12, Track 12).
LINK 2: RHYTHM
The second musical link between the two pieces was their use of rhythm, with regard to repetition and syncopation. Despite the differences in genre, both pieces use small subdivisions of sixteenth and eighth notes as well as improvised elements and variations that I have included in my transcriptions. In choro music, “rhythmic freedom” is a “principal characteristic”, and “it was expected that the players would maintain an improvisatory approach” (Garcia 60-1).
In The Traveler, most of the melody is rhythmically constant due to the lack of rests. This results in several bars with only sixteenth notes, accompanied by a few alternate patterns. One of these occurs in both measures 1 and 18 with one eighth note followed by six sixteenth notes (Figure 14, Track 14).
Additionally, the harmony plays a few different rhythmic ostinatos throughout the piece, starting with the repeated strumming pattern introduced in measures 17-18 (Figure 15, Track 15).
Noites Cariocas contains similar rhythmic repetition, notably in melodic theme A. In measures 1-4, the same rhythmic pattern is used for both the ascending and descending lines, starting with a sixteenth rest and an eighth note, followed by five sixteenth notes tied to the next measure (Figure 12, Track 12). Furthermore, some other rhythmic sections are modified and repeated, with patterns displaced. For example, in measures 5-6, there is first the same pattern from the first four measures, followed by a slight variation. In measure 6, rather than beginning with a sixteenth rest and eighth note, the rest is followed by a sixteenth note and the eighth note is moved to the end of the measure (Figure 16, Track 16). This creates an effect of familiarity while still making unexpected alterations to the rhythm.
In The Traveler, the main source of syncopation, emphasis of non-dominant beats, is the melody’s swung sixteenth groove. This is based on triplets and thus implies that each set of two sixteenth notes is a triplet (Figure 17).
In certain phrases this effect is emphasized, such as in measure 17 (Figure 18, Track 17). Here the repetition of the G with the swung groove makes these notes more prominent than the others in the measure, highlighting the “off-beat accentuations” characteristic of reels (Nathan 460).
Noites Cariocas contains a substantial amount of melodic syncopation as well, which is characteristic of choro music, such as in measures 27-28 (Garcia 61). Starting from beat 2 of measure 27, the downbeat is played with an eighth note tied to a sixteenth. Then, another sixteenth is tied across the measure to a sixteenth, followed by an eighth note. These last two fall on the upbeat, creating a syncopated rhythm against the more strict eighth note percussion line (Figure 19, Track 18).
Both pieces also feature syncopation in the percussion and harmony parts. In The Traveler, when the bodhrán enters in measure 33, it plays the same two measure long syncopated pattern for the rest of the song. It is first struck on the downbeat, then struck again on the fourth subdivision of that beat, followed by an eighth note on the upbeat of the second beat. In measure 34, the upbeat of the first beat is played and then two eighth notes are played for the second (Figure 20, Track 19).
In Noites Cariocas, two different percussive patterns are played, the second of which is syncopated, starting at measure 65. Here an eighth note is played on the first downbeat, followed by a sixteenth note on the fourth subdivision, like in The Traveler, and finally an eighth note and two sixteenths (Figure 21, Track 20). This pattern is repeated throughout section B of the piece.
The harmony line in measures 17-18 of The Traveler is syncopated, with notes played on the upbeat after the first eighth note (Figure 15, Track 15). Similarly, in Noites Cariocas when the harmony is introduced in measures 2-5, some chords are syncopated. This first occurs in measure 3, when G6/B is played on the downbeat, followed by a sixteenth note and another tied over to a final eighth note, emphasizing these upbeats. The same goes for measure 4, when the chord is introduced on the second subdivision of beat 1 as two tied sixteenth notes, followed by another sixteenth and two eighth notes (Figure 22, Track 21).
Until Next Time!
Thank you so much for taking this virtual journey with me! To sum this up, the Irish reel and Brazilian choro use techniques to add variety to their melodic material while maintaining familiarity, and share similarities in texture and melodic contour. They also both employ rhythmic repetition and syncopation to accommodate their function of dance in their respective cultures. This investigation has taught me not only about the similarities in the musical traditions of these two countries, but also the cultural implications and significance of dance music. Even when two genres like the reel and choro are so different, their overlapping features suggest that they share the goal of creating music for dance.
Keep the conversation going in the comments and don’t hesitate to ask questions! If you have any suggestions for future analysis, let me know, and make sure to check back for next week’s investigation. I hope that you enjoyed learning about these musical cultures as much as I did!
“Itchy Fingers LIVE – The Traveler, The Swallow’s Tail, The Silver Spear.” Performance by Erik De Jong, and Tijn Berends, YouTube, YouTube, 1 Nov. 2016, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v. Accessed 2 Sept. 2017.
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