Some General Notions About the Music

Tradition implies continuity, the creation of new music within an established framework. That framework is a musical language. In order to speak the language, one must know its grammar, its syntax and its way of saying things. This language is learned like other languages, by listening, by imitation, by engaging in a social discourse.

The language of traditional music is not the language of classical music. There may, however, be some parallels between traditional music and Baroque music. Consider the following quotations:

In those rare cases where a Baroque composer wrote a melodic line that he did not wish anybody to ornament or elaborate, he usually wrote a cautionary note, such as come sta (as is or play as written). But where the melodic line is spare, simple and carries no cautionary notice, almost invariably the performer was expected to elaborate it. The composer in effect set up a very sketchy outline - a roadmap, shall we say, showing points from A to B; the musical traveller was expected to pick his own route. In a single measure, it is the music equivalent of saying to a friend, 'I don't care what you do at the Place de la Concorde, but meet me on the third level of the Eiffel Tower at 4 p.m.'. In an entire composition, it is like journeying from Los Angeles to San Francisco: the twentieth-century musician-motorist takes the highway as being the shortest distance between two given points; the true Baroque musician would take the scenic route, putting in all manner of little side trips along the way. The variations would be endless. It would then be possible to go from New York to San Francisco a thousand times over, never covering exactly the same ground twice, and discovering fresh delights each time.
Victor Rangel-Ribeiro Baroque Music
I shall . . . state here, as a result of my own experience as a collector of our melodies, that I rarely, if ever, obtained two settings of an unpublished air that were strictly the same; though in some instances, I have gotten as many as fifty notations of the one melody. In many instances, indeed, I have found the difference between one version and another to have been so great, that it was only by a careful analysis of their structure, aided perhaps by a knowledge of their history and the progress of their mutations, that they could be recognised as being essentially the same air.
George Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland
Variation, then, is a principle of traditional music. The same tune is never the same tune twice. A traditional tune printed in a book is not thetune; it is a description of one of its many possible shapes.
The same tune played by the same musician on different occasions will not be the same tune.
The same tune may have many different names.
The tune all depends.
The sound of the atmosphere, the weather, changed my style. But I could hear, since me being an air-music man. The air came in different, with a different sound of music. Well, the atmosphere, when the wind blowing carries music along. I don't know if it affects you or not, but it's a sounding that's in the air, you see? And I don't know where it comes from - it could come from the airplanes, or the moaning of automobiles, but anyway it leaves an air current in the air, you see. That gets in the wind, makes a sounding, you know? All that sound gets worked up to a blues.
Robert Pete Williams, blues guitarist
The tune depends on what happens. You can see this in the names of some tunes. These names are labels, gestures, chance encounters between music and an off-hand comment. An incident might recall a tune; a snippet of talk might become a formal title, for want of a better name: 'When You're Sick, Is It Tae You Want'; 'The Trip to the Jacks'; 'Don't Bother Me'; 'How Much Have You Got'; 'The Day We Paid the Rent'; 'You're a Long Time Courting'; 'The Fiddler is Drunk'; 'One Before We Go'; 'Hush the Cat from under the Table'.
All this is a roundabout way to talking about what actually happens. The music is concerned with conversation, crack, diversion, passing the time. It is about being in one place at one time, and remembering all the other times. Maybe traditional music is contemporary music.
When we separate music from life what we get is art (a compendium of masterpieces). With contemporary music, when it is actually contemporary , we have time to make that separation (which protects us from living) and so contemporary music is not so much art as it is life and anyone making it no sooner finishes one of it than he begins making another just as people keep on washing dishes, brushing their teeth, getting sleepy, and so on.
John Cage
Because of this it is difficult to say if a traditional musician has a repertoire. The tunes he plays are the tunes he plays at any given time. He will learn new tunes and forget others. He might find himself liking what he thinks is a new tune which the other musician learned from him years ago. In that time maybe it has become a new tune: the same tune is never the same tune twice. He might only play certain tunes with certain people. The music is a language: sometimes a private language, though others can read their own meaning into it.

Because of this it is difficult to say if traditional music has performances, if by performance we mean a concert programme. Since the music can happen anywhere, or at any time, it often does. It can happen in a sheugh, behind a haystack, in an alleyway, in a bungalow, in a parish hall, in a pub, on a street corner. There is no definite beginning, and no definite end. This is not to say that there are no rules. The rules are just different. They are a bit like the rules of conversation. The programme, what is talked about, will change according to who is there, and where they are, and whoever might be listening.

At the same time every individual tune - reel, jig, hornpipe, whatever - has a very definite beginning and end. The musician does what he is doing within sixteen bars, and then he does it again, only differently. There are very definite unspoken rules. How does one learn them?

There is only one way of becoming a traditional player or singer, and that is by listening to genuine material performed in a traditional manner.
Breandán Breathnach, Folk Music and Dances in Ireland
This should be obvious, but you would be surprised at the number of non-traditional musicians who try to learn traditional music from a book.

The language of traditional music is not the language of classical music. Since no Received Pronunciation exists in traditional music, it is difficult to generalise about its various accents. But the following generalisations are true of most traditional musicians:

It is also generally true that the concepts of crescendo and diminuendo are utterly foreign to traditional music.
I have heard classically-minded musicians and listeners complain that traditional musicians do not exploit the full potential of their instrument. This is a misapprehension. The instrument is only a means towards an end. One might as well complain that the sonnet form in poetry is limited because it has only fourteen lines. Conversely, the classical musician, especially when he attempts to play traditional music, can sound exaggerated, histrionic and vulgar to the traditional musician. Ciaran Carson - from Pocket Guide to Irish Traditional Music - Appletree Press