A Pedagogical Approach to Rhythm in Irish Uilleann Piping


  • Eliot Grasso


The bulk of repertoire traditionally played on the Irish uilleann bagpipes is dance music. For dance music to be considered danceable, the listener must at least be able to tell where to tap his or her foot in rhythm with the tune. Performers who communicate danceable rhythms usually do so by generating a consistent, underlying motor rhythm by using large muscle groups in the process of music making. By motor rhythm, I refer to a constant, predictable series of accentuated notes—a rhythmic point of reference—that communicates the dance genre to the listener. In this article, I will explain the challenges of this process for the uilleann piper and propose a method to help uilleann pipers gain better control over rhythm.

In my experience, I have found that many students of the uilleann pipes are challenged with finding methods that help them execute danceable rhythm when they play dance music. While playing Irish traditional music with excellent dance rhythm can be challenging on any instrument, it is especially so for the uilleann pipes because there are no large muscle groups directly engaged in projecting dance rhythm on the instrument. For example, flute players engage the diaphragm, a large muscle in the thorax, to play danceable music. The flute player can blow hard into the instrument to communicate downbeats and upbeats to dancers. Fiddlers use large muscle groups in the arms to emphasize rhythmic patterns, and press harder on the bow on downbeats. While the uilleann piper engages large muscle groups in the arms, shoulders, and back to operate the instrument, none of these muscle groups are directly related to producing rhythm in the playing of the tune.

Author Biography

Eliot Grasso

Performer-scholar, Dr. Eliot Grasso, has taught, performed, and recorded throughout North America and Europe for over two decades. His articles pertaining to traditional performance practice for uilleann pipes, socio-historical context for Irish traditional music, and compositional process in Irish traditional music are published in the Encyclopaedia of Music in IrelandAn PíobaireIris na bPíobairí, and World Music: A Global Journey. Dr. Grasso is especially interested in the cultural and cognitive processes of melodic variation in Irish music.He serves on the faculty of the University of Oregon, New Hope Christian College, and Gutenberg College.