Session Etiquette

Irish traditional music sessions – one of the main reasons people start to learn this
music of ours. They are fun, relaxed, social events and somedays you just can’t
beat a good session with friends!
There is a way, however to behave in sessions that is generally unspoken; it’s just
meant to be ‘picked up’ or understood automatically and subconsciously. And it’s
not always easy to ‘pick up’ on these unspoken rules. Not everyone realises this,
especially if you’re new to Irish music as an adult. So here are some guidelines.

Joining the session:
If you’re new to a session, it’s nice to ask one of the musicians first if it’s okay to join
in. Don’t worry, you won’t be refused (unless it’s a performance and not an informal
When you’re ready to join, it’d be respectful to sit on the outskirts of the session
first, until you know somebody and are invited to sit in closer or within the circle. It
wouldn’t be good to pull up your stool and sit in the middle of the session. On this
note, try not to sit with your back to any musician, if possible.

In the session:
Starting a tune:
At first, as a beginner/learner, you’ll be conscious of the standard of the musicians
in the session before joining. If a learner joins a session that has advanced players

in it, it’s nice if the advanced musicians play one or two sets that the learner can ei-
ther start or join in on (tunes that he/she will know), but the session should be al-
lowed to continue at it’s regular pace otherwise.

Saying this, you may not be invited to start a tune the first couple of times you’re at
a session. Many will be too shy to put themselves forward anyway, so it can be the
responsibility of the more experienced players within the session to encourage new
players to start a tune or a set of tunes. This will build confidence amongst the new

It’s good manners if everyone in the session gets to start a tune at some point during the session.

It wouldn’t be considered good etiquette if the same person was starting all the tunes in the session.

Changing tunes:
How to know when to change into the next tune? Usually whoever started the first
tune of the set would go into a second tune after it, but not always. So once the tune has been played

3 or 4 times (depending on the length of the tune, it could be
played twice, or it could be repeated 5 or 6 times even), this person will signal that
they have a tune in mind to go into. If they don’t have a next tune ready, they might
signal for someone else in the session to go into the next tune… in which case, that
person has to think fast! You can sit back and observe this happening in a circle of
players in a session to see how it works.

Try to compliment the regular session players by playing at the same speed they
play at. It’s absolutely fine if you can’t play as fast as them, but don’t try to play at a
speed much faster or much slower than is usually played in that session. Some
sessions are played at a lovely, relaxed pace and others are fast and lively, at
dance speed.

Take it easy!
In Ireland, sessions are as much about the chat and the craic and meeting up with
friends as they are about the music. Leave some time between sets to have a chat,
take a drink, go to the bar, etc. A few minutes is sufficient rest time before you start
again. The hands and arms sometimes need a break too.

Sessions in Ireland are mostly for the musicians’ own enjoyment. People come into
the pub to sit and listen and applaud. The musicians aren’t really there to entertain,
unless they’re being paid by the establishment.

Don’t clap along with the music.

As a general rule, in my opinion there generally should be more melody players
than accompaniment players in a session (guitars, pianos, bodhráns, bouzoukis,

How loud is your instrument?
As a concertina player, I’m aware that the people sitting either side of me can hear
me better than I can hear myself. Be conscious that you’re not playing too loud, in
order to hear yourself. I notice that when I leave the session and step outside for a
moment, it’s usually the concertina that I can hear above all other instruments. The
sound is high, so just be aware of this and don’t play too loudly. The aim is for there
to be a nice blend of all the instruments in the session.
If you start a tune and nobody joins in, it’s probably because they don’t know the tune. Don’t worry. Try another tune, or better again, check first with the person sitting next to you; ‘do you play this one?’, unless of course you want to play a solo…which isn’t really advised in a session environment.

Depending on the session, there should be a mix of reels, jigs, slip jigs, barn
dances and hornpipes. You might get the occasional hop jig, march or waltz. In
some sessions, it’ll be nearly all reels.

These are social occasions. Have fun!


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