In the tabs below I start with an overview of New England country dance music. That's followed by a little bit on how the tunes are presented and an outline of the category system I use to organize the tunes.
After that I describe each of the categories as well as I can, including presenting some of the topics and issues that arise with the various types of tunes.
Tunes played for contradancing and for most New England square dancing have a number of things in common. Tunes generally have two parts known as the A part and the B part. Each part is 8 measures long, and each part is repeated, giving the structure AABB. Tunes are usually 32 measures in length, as are most of the dances done to the tunes. Callers and dancers are likely to talk about beats, where each measure has two beats. A beat corresponds to a step while dancing.
Some tunes have different structures. For example some tunes have a third part and follow the form AABC; but they are still 32-measure tunes. Thee are a few tunes of different lengths. For example Mother's Reel has the structure AABBCC, but the C part is half length so it's a 40 bar tune. There are a few tunes with three full-length parts that are 48 measures long. And there are a few tunes with two half-length parts that are repeated or full-length parts that aren't repeated, for a total of 16 measures.
Because New England dancing is done to the phrasing of the music our tunes are generally straight - all measures are complete and total length is in multiples of 8 measures. The dancing in Québec and in the South is often done to the beat but not to the phrasing, and tunes can be less regular. Measures can have extra beats or dropped beats, and some tunes have entire extra or dropped measures. Those tunes are generally referred to as crooked tunes.
The tunes in this collection are available as abc notation and as downloadable PDFs in standard notation. There is also a chord book available as a PDF to download.
If you're not familiar with it, abc notation is a way of writing out music as text - letters, numbers and punctuation - that can be displayed as standard notation, printed, and even played back for you to listen. Click on the link to go to an Introduction to abc Notation. From there you can go to a page that discusses it in more detail which you may find useful.
The Tunes & a Timing Note
Most of the tunes on this website are tunes you might hear at a contradance or at a New England style square dance, including tunes for chestnut contras and singing squares. The tunes tend to represent a somewhat older repertoire; there are a smaller number of more modern tunes.
There are a number of tunes from the Downeast traditions of Maine and maritime Canada, as well as tunes from both French and English Canadian traditions of Québec, Ontario, Manitoba and a few from elsewhere. There are tunes of England, Ireland and Scotland. Many of those tunes have become part of the New England tradition and are largely treated that way. There are also tunes of Sweden, Norway, the Faroe Islands and even Greenland.
A Note on Time Signatures.For the tunes in duple meter there are three basic choices of time signatures: 4/4, 2/4 and Cut Time. Often it's not clear which is correct, and I certainly don't claim to be an expert in the matter. I tend to rule out 2/4 because it's visually quite busy and it doesn't play back well in most abc software. I tried to listen for whether there were two pronounced beats per measure or whether, if counting to 4 in each measure, the first beat was considerably stronger than the third beat. The latter generally led me to a 4/4 time signature, the former to a cut time signature.
The Classification System
The tune categories are pretty much the ones in common use to describe New England country dance tunes. Some categories are further divided. Within each category tunes are arranged alphabetically. Here is a list of the categories I use.
Tunes Used Mostly for Set Dances
Tunes Used Mostly for Couples Dances
Here we look at each tune category in more detail.
Reels are probably the most commonly played tunes at most New England contradances. In New England tunes are classified by their musical style more than by the associated dance. A reel is generally a lively tune in duple meter. If written out in 4/4 time reels are predominantly composed of eighth notes, with some quarter notes especially at the beginning of phrases. They are generally even in rhythm as opposed to hornpipes which tend to have a dotted rhythm. In reality most good fiddlers tend to play reels with greater emphasis on the first and third beat of the measure, and often emphasize the first note of an eighth-note pair playing it slightly longer than the second.
In other traditions a reel might refer to the dance done to a tune: e.g. the Virginia Reel, where the figure "reel the set" refers to alternating elbow turns with one's partner and with others in the line. A reel is often used as a description of the music for a dance containing that figure, even if the tune is in 6/8 time.
Some of the tunes included here could have been classified as polkas, marches or hornpipes. I include them here because they are likely to be played as if they were reels, and used as reels would be used for dancing.
In New England we generally refer to tunes in 6/8 time as jigs. Jigs are generally appropriate to play for contradances and square dances. The first and fourth beat of the measure are generally given emphasis, and within each three-beat group the third is generally given more emphasis than the second beat.
It's worth being aware that while we refer to jigs in terms of timing, in many places a jig refers to the dance done to a tune rather than the tune itself. Often it refers to a solo dance. As such it may be in 6/8 time but it may be in 2/4 or 4/4 time as well. For example the English Morris dance tradition includes solo dances such as the Nutting Girl that are referred to as jigs.
Some bands and callers seem not to play/ask for many jigs these days. I believe this is because jigs are often played very fast. That works in the Irish tradition where jigs are often played for listening in a bar or a concert, or perhaps for step dancing. But to play for New England dancing a tempo of about 108–120 beats/minute works best; much faster and the music no longer fits the dance. Unless played very well, fast jigs also tend to lose the emphasis described earlier and are played with all notes being fairly uniform. As a result they become uninteresting and even difficult to dance to.
Different traditions use both march and two-step to mean different things. In the Scottish and Cape Breton traditions marches are often played at a slower tempo than in the New England tradition. There are two-steps in many traditions (e.g. Cajun and Texas fiddling), and they are often quite different from the Canadian two-step.
There is some commonality between the marches, Canadian two-steps and polkas played in the New England tradition. Generally marches and two-steps are played for contras and square dances. Although many polkas work just fine for contras and squares, they are intended for the couples dance of the same name so are placed in a different category.
Marches and two-steps tend to have longer phrases than reels or jigs which is great for dances with figures like down the center and back or right and left over and back. They may or may not work as well with dances with many short figures.
Sadly, with the fast pace of modern contradancing, marches have fallen into disfavor; many dance musicians don't even play any marches. That's too bad, as there's something special about dancing a dance like Queen Victoria to marches, and there are lots of excellent marches. Some tunes are hard to categorize, and I've included some tunes under this category that could be thought of as marchy reels. Some tunes don't fit neatly into a category, and may fit as well here as anywhere else.
Two-steps have longer phrases as well. It's hard to describe in words how the two categories differ. Two-steps may stay on the same chord for longer than marches, but both include longer phrases on the same chord as well as more rapid chord changes. Two-steps are more likely to have both phrases with longer notes and phrases with shorter notes. The difference is best understood through listening.
This is a diverse set of tunes. What they have in common is that each one goes with a particular dance. It's generally only played for that dance, and often is the only tune used for the dance.
The best known tunes that go with specific contras are the tunes for the chestnut contras (e.g. Chorus Jig, Hull's Victory, Money Musk). These are old dances, many going back to the early 1800s and some being related to English country dances that go back at least to the 1600s. But there are also some more recent contras and longways dances written for specific tunes (both new and old; e.g. the Whistling Thief and the Sweets of May).
Squares written for specific tunes are likely to be singing squares: square dances that have specific singing calls (e.g. Crooked Stovepipe, Just Because). Many but not all singing squares were written for fairly recent popular tunes; some were written for older tunes. Most of the dances are from after the introduction of sound amplification at dances. I included a few tunes in this section that are associated with square dancing but not with a particular square.
There are many dances in other formations with their own tunes. There are circle dances like La Bastringue. Then there are dances in unusual formations such as the Levi Jackson Rag (a five-couple dance) and Walpole Cottage (three facing three in a circle around the room), both dances composed by Pat Shaw.
There's something particularly enjoyable about dancing a dance that's designed to fit a particular tune so nicely.
There are enough tunes for couples dances that they are split between two pages. Polkas and Schottisches are on one page; Waltzes and a few other dances are on the other.
The polka is one of the best-known dances, and probably most people know a few polka tunes. There's a style of polka probably best suited for brass bands (e.g. Beer Barrel Polka, Clarinet Polka). Most of the polkas represented here are more suited for bands with melody instruments like fiddle, accordion and flute.
Many polkas are similar to marches and two-steps in terms of their overall sound. Because they are used for a couples dance I have put them in this section. Although the dance is best danced to a real polka tune, some marches and two-steps and even some reels can be played in a style that works well for polkas as well.
The schottische is a fun dance, especially if the music isn't played too fast. There is a large body of tunes specifically written for schottisches. They vary in style; some have a dotted rhythm whereas some are more even rhythmically. But they are played at a considerably slower tempo than reels and polkas. Although many hornpipes are played as if they were reels (e.g. Fisher's Hornpipe), some are played more slowly, usually with a dotted rhythm. These are often used for schottisches as well, and I include some here. They often don't work as well as a real schottische, but if played in the right style they can work well. Sadly, many bands that play for contradances don't play any schottisches and have to play hornpipes instead.
Waltzes are tunes in 3/4 for dancing the dance of the same name. We'll see in the Scandinavian section that there are a variety of tunes in 3/4 that most definitely are not waltzes.
Many people play waltzes to make them sound pretty and graceful. There's nothing wrong with that, especially when playing for listening. But when playing for dancing it's important to make the tune danceable. Even with a waltz that means it should be rhythmic, have good emphasis, and be at an appropriate tempo.
Waltzes are played at a range of tempos. Some waltzes seem to have a naturally faster or slower tempo. When playing for dancers it's important to play them at a danceable tempo. Some waltzes sound best and are most satisfying to play at very slow tempos, but that could render them undanceable even for the last waltz which is typically played slower than other waltzes.
Until fairly recently a variety of additional couples dances were done at a typical New England country dance: the Foxtrot, Varsouvienne, Gay Gordons, Seven-Step Schottische, Road to the Isles, and many others. I include a few tunes for such dances and hope to add more eventually.
Although it might seem that Scandinavian tunes aren't a part of the New England fiddling tradition, there was a large enough Scandinavian population to support regular dancing for many years at Scandia Hall in Concord NH, and there is still a Finnish dance in Monson Maine. There are quite a few Swedish fiddlers in New England, some of whom learned to play as part of a family tradition.
The Scandinavian tunes on this website are mostly Swedish, but several are from other Scandinavian countries, including the Faroe Islands. Many are in 3/4 time, but the Scandinavian musicians have an amazing variety of 3/4 tunes with different types of emphasis and even some with beats of uneven duration. By the way schottische is schottis in Sweden and reinlender in Norway. If you aren't already familiar with the music it would be best to do a goodly amount of listening before getting too far with playing.
The Scandinavian page ends with a couple tunes that just didn't fit into any other category of tune.