If you are new to strathspeys and find them difficult to understand, you are not alone. Here is a bit about what they are and why they can be more difficult to play than other tune types.
What is it?
A strathspey is a type of dance tune in 4/4. In Cape Breton, solo step dancers will usually dance a strathspey or two followed by a few reels. Cape Breton medleys usually feature strathspeys followed by reels – sometimes preceded by a march and/or a slow air. In addition to dance strathspeys, which are played at a clippy pace, there are ‘listening’ strathspeys played a bit slower that aren’t normally used for step dancing.
Why do they seem more difficult than than other tune types like jigs and reels?
Rhythmically, strathspeys are comprised mostly of dotted eighth notes followed by sixteenth notes or vice versa. If you are new to playing and listening to strathspeys it can be tricky to remember exactly how the rhythms go. Does the dotted eighth go first or the sixteenth? It is tricky because you may hear the same strathspey played more than one way, rhythmically. In the Cape Breton repertoire, there are particular phrases that are standardized, rhythmically. Everyone plays these particular phrases the same way. Within these phrases, if the rhythms were reversed, it would sound ‘wrong’. However, there are other phrases within tunes that can vary rhythmically from player to player. This discrepancy, between standardized and personalized, can seem difficult when learning a strathspey. Because Cape Breton fiddlers know the repertoire and the other musicians inside and out, they understand which phrases they can vary and which ones are standard. So again, listening over and over is key. It might help to learn the tune from one source first, and then compare that version to others in order to see which phrases vary and which ones don’t. Going to a book source can also be helpful, but again, many players deviate both rhythmically and melodically from written sources.
How are strathspeys different from marches? Don’t they have dotted rhythms too?
Yes, marches have dotted rhythms too, but it is the time signature and pulse that makes them feel different. Marches are usually written in 2/4 or 6/8. In either case, there are two strong pulses per bar. In the case of the 6/8 for example, you don’t feel or tap out 6 beats, you feel strong beats on the 1 and 4. That is the pulse. In a strathspey, each of the four beats in a measure is strong. If you watch Cape Breton fiddlers, you will see them tap out each of the four beats of strathspeys with their foot. So it is the pulse that makes strathspeys feel different than marches.
Hope this info helps you to understand strathspeys a bit more! Please share any other questions or comments you have on this topic.