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Ulster Scots, Scots Irish Music for Lambeg and Fife

sheet music book

Please expore our catalogue of Ulster Scots and Scots Irish music available in MIDI format, accompanied by a fingering chart for fife, and the actual music notation. To hear how the tune sounds listen to the MIDI files and MP3 files. If you have a sequencer or similar MIDI playback software, you can slow down / speed up playback and watch the notes as they are played. The music link for each tune contains a fingering chart for the fife for every note.

Fifing Advice

We play a couple of different types of fife. The first one is factory made and pitched in Bb. These tend to be a little easier to play in the beginning and sound a little more mellow (which can be good for lower volume practicing). The Bb fife sounds and plays like a Bb marching flute (with no keys). As the bore of the fife is larger than a D traditional fife, you might find it will take slightly more of a blow to fill. The benefit of the Bb fife is it can naturally be played with other Bb instruments (like a Miller Browne Bb Marching Flute). We also play traditional fifes in the key of D (really more like C#, but the explanation is not important). For all purposes we assume we are playing an instrument in the key of D.

Fifes can be purchased through the club. In England you will undoubtedly have trouble sourcing authentic fifes. These are still made in Ulster (as a cottage industry), with some well known makers including Willy Nichol (Cullybackey) and Wilby Wilson (Larne).

As a beginner you will have the added bonus that a traditional fife takes approximately 6 months of playing to 'blow in'. Learning in the first month or two can be a little frustrating as technique problems overlap with 'running in' the instrument.

An important ritual is to keep the fife oiled. There are many concoctions suggested, but consensus has it that almond oil (applied internally and externally) is best. Oil the fife when it begins to dry out (at least once per month). Some people advocate steeping the fife in water (or even poteen), but this could lead to splitting and is generally not advised. Keep the fife in a plastic bag when not in use to prevent moisture loss. Store in a cool place (away from excess heat or cold). When you get the first fife 'blown in', usual practice is to purchase a spare and get it 'half-blown in'. This means any mishaps don't put you back 6 months.

In terms of playing, the high notes will be hard to hit and control. This takes practice and development of technique and embouchure. 

Traditional fifing tunes are actually hornpipes played in a modified time to fit the distinctive rhythm of the Lambeg drums. These originate both in Scotland and Ireland. A lot of the well known tunes include "A Hundred Pipers", "The Boys of Belfast" and "Maguire's Hornpipe". Fifing tunes have a fairly straightforward structure of 32 bars (played in 4/4 time - usually in the key of D or G). The first 16 bars are commonly referred to as 'the low half' and the second 16 bars 'the high half'. The low half is essentially bars 1 to 8 played twice, and the high half is bars 17 to 24 played twice. The tune in theory ends after 32 bars, but it's not uncommon to repeat over and over.

Recommended Reading

A really good overview of the traditions and customs of the Lambeg drum in Ulster:

"With Fife and Drum": Music Memories and Customs of an Irish Tradition - Gary Hastings [Blackstaff Press Ltd May 2003] Available from Amazon

Rev Canon Gary Hastings was born in Belfast and is now the Church of Ireland Rector of Westport, Co Mayo. He holds a BA in Irish Studies, an MA in Adult and Continuing Education, and a Theology degree. Gary is a traditional musician and researched Lambeg and fifing traditions in Ulster for this excellent book. The subject is further explored in the article The Orange Tradition (BBC Website).

Recommended Listening

Thoroughly recommended would be any of the CD's by the Ulster Scots Folk Orchestra.

Galgorm Parks CD Party at the Parks and Distant Drums are very well worth the investment, and let's you hear 'how it's done'. These are available at a range of outlets, include the online shop of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland.

Know How to Whistle?

We would advise learning tunes (as a beginner) on a tin whistle. You can get these from any music shop for approximately £3.50. Buy one in the key of Bb and one in D. The Bb is good for practicing at lower volume. A D tin whistle played in the 3rd octave is very shrill, so watch the neighbours! Playing a fife in D and a tin whistle in D (or Bb) is pretty much the same fingering. You will be able to learn the fingering of the tune without getting bogged down in technique problems on the fife.

Music Theory

It is well worth understanding the theory of music and music notation in as much detail as possible. As we mostly play in the key of D or G it is worth getting to know some of the basics.

The Chromatic Scale

The chromatic (or coloured) scale contains 12 notes. As an example if you started with a 6 string guitar playing string 1 or 6 (which is tuned to E), the open string would play E, F would play on fret 1, F# on fret 2 and so forth down the fret board. The interval between any adjacent note in the chromatic scale is a semitone. So E to F or G to G# is an interval of half a tone. To go from C to D you need to go via C#, so the interval between C and D is a whole tone (i.e. 2 half tones - or semitones).

On a piano the 7 white notes and 5 black notes (12 notes) give you the same range to play the chromatic scale. 

[E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#]

A major scale contains 7 notes and is 'defined' by the intervals that exist between notes. For example the scale of C Major is [C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C]. On piano this uses all white notes. The starting C and the ending C in the major scale are one octave apart. In any major scale the intervals between notes follow this pattern [T, T, S, T, T, T, S] - where T is a tone and S is a semitone. 

So for this to follow (referring to C Major scale), C to D is an interval of one tone, D to E is a tone, E to F is a semitone, F to G is a tone, G to A is a tone, A to B is a tone and B to C is a semitone. If you refer back to the chromatic scale above - you will see that these intervals are correct. 

In Western music the 12 notes of the chromatic scale are the complete range of notes played. This is largely thanks to Bach and 'The Well Tempered Clavier'. For the anoraks, there is a concept known as 'enharmonic equivalence' where in chromatic scale we assume A# and Bb are the same note. These are actually not the same, but are different by 1/9th of a tone (perfect pitch and a classically trained violin player could hear and play the variance), but for mere mortals we assume they are the same note.

Diationic Scale

When notes are described as 'diatonic' this means they are within the scale associated with they key of the music. For example in the key of C Major (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C), any note from that list would be diatonic. If the piece contained a G# or a Bb note that note would be referred to as chromatic.

Traditional music is often played in the key of D Major or G Major. If we take a look at D Major:

Scale of D Major

First, let's define this. We know the intervals in the major scale will be T, T, S, T, T, T, S and referring back to the chromatic scale we can work out that D Major scale will be [D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D]. The important thing to spot here is F# and C#, and when you see a key signature with two sharps you should identify this as the key of D Major. Without going into a lot of detail the key of B Minor also shares this key signature. Fifing tunes aren't played in B Minor, and if you look to the end of the score, often (99.9%) the last note of the music will be the tonic note of the key. In the key of D, D is referred to as 'the tonic'. If you see two sharps in the key signature and the last note in the music is a D, then you're playing a tune in D Major.

Scale of G Major

Again, we know the chromatic scale and the intervals of a major scale and therefore that G Major will be [G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G]. You should note here that G Major contains one F#, and its key signature will therefore have one sharp. Again this could indicate the key of E Minor, but fifing tunes aren't played in E Minor, and look to the end of the score to see the end note. If it's a G and your key signature is one sharp - then you're in G Major.

For more on key signatures in different keys, further reading on 'The Circle of Fifths' or the 'Circle of Fourths' would be the place to begin.

Time Signatures

The time signature will be indicated in the stave at the beginning of the piece. In our world, time signature will not change in the tune, although this is possible. The hornpipes are played in 4/4 time. This tells us that there are 4 beats in a bar, and each beat is a quarter note. This is also known as Common Time, and can be indicated in music notation using a C (where C means common). A C with a vertical line running through it means 'cut time' which is 2/2. As 4/4 is the most common time signature (and the basis for much of popular music) it is easily understood.

Ulster Scots / Scots Irish Fifing Tunes

The tunes below are a collection of Irish and Scottish jigs and reels (mostly) but played in 4/4 time as hornpipes. Many are recognisable as modifications of traditional Irish tunes, but the rhythm in the fifing is modified from the time of jig or reel to fit the distinctive lambeg rhythms (known as time drumming). It often surprises people to learn that the music is of traditional Irish descent, but fifing and lambeg drumming is one of the definitive Ulster Scots / Scots Irish traditions of Northern Ireland. Many of the tunes below date from the late 1800s, some have historical names and titles, and a few have an obvious connection with the Napoleonic period. Unfortunately as the teaching of the fife tended to be an 'aural' tradition, the exact history of many tunes is unknown. Fifing tunes (as with lambeg drumming times) tend to be regional, and where many tunes are played (as a common repertoire) certain areas (and townlands) would have a separate repertoire with less well known music.



  Learning Order    

Apples in Winter

2 Ballymena True Blues / Davey Brown's Farewell     MUSIC  
3 Banks of Kellswater MIDI 5th MUSIC  
4 Battle of Garvagh / Lass of Gowry     MUSIC  
5 Blanches Hornpipe     MUSIC  
6 Blue Bonnets over the Border     MUSIC  
7 Bonnety Blues MIDI - MUSIC  
8 Bonnie's Retreat   - MUSIC  
9 Boyne Water     MUSIC  
10 Boys of Belfast   4th MUSIC MP3
11 Boys of Sandy Row   - MUSIC  
12 Bugle Hornpipe MIDI - MUSIC MP3
13 Culbert Lodge   - MUSIC  
14 Father O'Flynn MIDI - MUSIC MP3
15 Gold in Every Pocket / Go to the devil and shake yoursel MIDI 6th MUSIC MP3
16 Harvest Home MIDI - MUSIC  
17 Heights of Alma   - MUSIC MP3
18 Hundred Pipers   1st MUSIC MP3
19 I Lost My Love     MUSIC  
20 Jackson's Return   3rd MUSIC  
21 King Edward VII     MUSIC  
22 Leaving the Battlefield     MUSIC  
23 London Hornpipe   - MUSIC  
24 Maids on the Green   - MUSIC  
25 Maguire's Hornpipe   - MUSIC MP3
26 Nellie Grey MIDI - MUSIC  
27 Number 5     MUSIC  
28 One Bottle More     MUSIC  
29 Open the Door   8th MUSIC  
30 Paddy O'Carroll MIDI 7th MUSIC MP3
31 Saddle the Pony MIDI - MUSIC MP3
32 Sweep's Hornpipe / The Irishman's Hornpipe MIDI - MUSIC  
33 Ten Penny Bit MIDI - MUSIC  
34 The Blackthorn Stick MIDI - MUSIC MP3
35 The Blaeberry (Blueberry) Blossom   - MUSIC MP3
36 The Grand (or Great) Spy MIDI - MUSIC  
37 The Morning Star Reel MIDI - MUSIC  
38 The Pansy Blossom   - MUSIC  
39 The Purple Rocket   - MUSIC  
40 The Russian Retreat     MUSIC  
41 Young Men in their Bloom MIDI 2nd MUSIC  


Ulster Scots / Irish Fifing Music Links

  1. The Session (Traditional Irish and Scottish Music)
  2. Fifing Music (at Wikipedia)
  3. Music - A Shared Tradition? (BBC Website)

Luton and Bedford Lambeg Drumming Club

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