Playing for Contras

Contra dance music is a very diverse style. There is a wide range of music that will work for contra dancing. Numerous musicians and bands, including amateurs and professionals, and people of all ages, are inventing new sounds and exploring old forms all the time. You can spend a lifetime learning about this music; it is also possible to get started as a contra dance musician very easily. Here are some basics to get you started. 

Get Started

Before you go any further, read about basic contra dance form.

In order to contra dance you need music with a steady beat (generally at a tempo of 108 to 130 beats per minute) in a 32 bar form (with two beats per bar). Within those parameters almost anything will work, but the most common types of music are traditional fiddle tunes from New England, Ireland, Quebec, Scotland, England, or Appalachia. Reels and jigs are the most common types of tunes; reels are in 2/4 or 4/4, and jigs are in 6/8 time. Marches or polkas (like reels with fewer notes) are also quite effective. Some bands play jazz and swing tunes, Balkan tunes, Klezmer tunes, pop songs, improvised riffs or rhythmic motifs, or other material. Some people even dance contras to recorded techno or dance club music. We suggest developing a solid foundation in traditional repertoire before branching out to these other forms.

Most contra tunes are in the AABB form. It is also fine to play tunes with three or four parts, as long as the total overall length of the tune is still 32 bars. For example, you could play a tune that went AABC (such as Galopede) or ABCB (such as Chorus Jig) or even ABCD. You wouldn't want to go ABC (24 bars) unless the caller specifically requests a tune of an unusual length for a particular dance. Most contra dance musicians create medleys of tunes, putting two, three, or more tunes together into a set that they play together. This can help alleviate boredom when the dance runs on and on, and create a sense of musical development through the course of a dance, but it isn't required.

We suggest a couple of common tune books and CDs as a starting point for developing repertoire. There are a million tunes in the world. You can learn them from recordings, from other musicians, from tune books, on the internet, or write them yourself. As you learn to play more and more tunes, you'll discover ways that they differ from each other, and start to figure out how specific tunes fit or don't fit with specific dances. You'll learn how to create sets of tunes that go well together. You'll figure out how to really support the dancers with your music, and how to shape your sound to create really exciting dance moments. There are countless skills of playing for dancing, so consider attending a workshop, a camp course, or observing experienced musicians at work whenever you go to a dance.

Good luck!

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