What is English Music?

“It should be clear from all of this that English Country Music is functional dance music and that this explains the firm rhythm and lack of ornamentation which are intended to help the dancers.” – Roger Digby of Flowers And Frolics.

Once, some years ago, I was in an impromptu pub session at a festival with some really excellent musicians. The music was superb. After a while a woman from a nearby table leaned over and said it was great and where did it come from. “England”, we said. She looked puzzled, then said, “Oh, you’re joking. Where does it really come from?”. “England”, we said. She subsided and we played for a while, then she piped up, “No, it’s Irish, isn’t it?”. “No, English”, we said. But we could see we hadn’t really convinced her.

It’s amazing how little the English know about their own music and dance. We have a rich tradition of music and song that’s the equal of anywhere else in Europe, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the English media! Catch the Irish or the Scots doing that!

OK, Uncle Chris, tell us about English music. Well, first and foremost English music is dance music. Many of the musicians who play in sessions play for dance in some way or another – whether for Morris sides or in dance bands or whatever – and as a result the style of playing rarely gets far from what dancers would like. What else? Well, of course there are various regional styles of music (East Anglia, Northumberland, Yorkshire, the West Country and so on) but for me the defining characteristics of English music are:

  1. A cheerful character. English music is mostly in the major keys of D and G and usually seems to me to have a smile on its face.
  2. Strong and direct tunes with very definite, simple rhythms.
  3. Speed is moderate rather than the hell-for-leather gallop of some Irish sessions.
  4. Relatively light on ornamentation, certainly far less so than Irish music.

It’s a joyful, infectious music that’s great fun to play.

Confusingly, in a typical English music session it is not at all uncommon to hear tunes from France, Sweden, the US or even Ireland. For English musicians, if the tune sounds good and fits into the general feel of the session then it’s worth playing and will be well received. But the bulk of the music played will be English.