Sean-nós singing is a highly-ornamented style of solo, unaccompanied singing defined by tomas O’Canainn as:
...a rather complex way of singing in Gaelic, confined mainly to some areas in the west and south of the country. It is unaccompanied and has a highly ornamented melodic line....Not all areas have the same type of ornamentation--one finds a very florid line in Connacht, contrasting with a somewhat less decorated one in the south, and, by comparison, a stark simplicity in the northern songs.. Ó'Canainn also asserts that, '...no aspect of Irish music can be fully understood without a deep appreciation of sean-nós singing. It is the key which opens every lock'.
Sean-nós songs can be relatively simple, though many are long, extremely stylized and melodically complex. A good performance classically involves substantial ornament and a rhythmic variation from verse to verse Ó Canainn identifies most ornamentation as melismatic ornamentation.
This is when a note is replaced or emphasized by a group of adjoining notes, unlike intervallic ornamentation, in which additional notes are used to fill up an interval between two notes .Decorative elements common in sean-nós singing include: Highly ornamented where the voice is placed near the top of the range, Nasalization, A second form of nasalization, used in the south, produces an "m", "n" or "ng" sound at the end of a phrase, One syllable in a word can be sung to several notes, Brief pauses initiated by glottal stops, "slides" or glissandi (predominantly when sung by women) ,very long extended phrases, A tendency to draw breath after a conjunction or linking words rather than at the end of a phrase ,The ending of some songs by speaking the finishing line instead of singing it, Varying the melody in each verse. All these strategies serve an assortment of aesthetic purposes, such as: Connects the text to the interpretation of the melody, Enhancing a sense of continuity such as by filling the gap between phrases with a nasalized drone, a number of songs, are modal, as opposed to major in melody.
Songs were made to accompany the work inside and outside the home, to express the many emotions-love and sadness of daily existence, to record local and other historical events and to often mark the loss of family and friends whether by death or by emigration” The very interaction between the performer and audience is a crucial aspect of the sean-nós tradition. The singer may require cajoling—this may be considered as part of the recital, The singer may occasionally adopt a position facing the corner of the room and away from the audience, a position that has acoustic benefits and perhaps some ancient significance, The audience is not expected to be silent throughout, and may participate in the performance through words of encouragement and commentary. Sometimes a member of the audience will even come and hold the performer's hand in empathy with the song. Such interaction does not disturb the flow of music, and the performer will often respond to it musically.
The performances of most songs are not restricted by gender, although the lyrics may imply it is being sung from a woman's or man's point of view. On the other hand there are a few songs that men have a tendency not to sing. Women however do not seem to have the same hesitation.Many of the songs typically sung sean-nós could be seen as forms of love poetry, laments, or references to historical events such as political rebellions or times of famine, lullabies, nature poetry, devotional songs, or combinations of these.Comic songs are also part of the tradition (e.g., An Spailpin Fanach, Cunnla, Bean Pháidin), as are references to drink (An Bonnan Bui, Preab san Ol, Olaim Puins is Olaim Te).
There are four main styles of sean nós, corresponding to the three areas where Irish is still spoken as a community language, the Gaeltachtaí of west Munster (parts of Kerry, and Cork), east Munster (Waterford), Connacht (Connemara and Meath); and to Ulster. “It would not be correct to say sean nós is not practised outside these areas, but only those four distinct styles can be recognised. Singers from the Galltacht and indeed from outside Ireland may blend them, depending on where they learned”.. These differences in style generally correspond geographically to the various dialects of Irish.While Sean-nós singing varies around Ireland, with the influence of recording media and ease of travel these distinctions have become less definite since at least the early twentieth century and singers sometimes adopt different styles from various parts of the country. The tradition of sean-nós song was exclusively oral, and remains customarily so. However a few songs were known to have been conveyed to script as early as the 16th century.
A songbook for Elizabeth 1 contained English interpretations of sean-nós songs. Songs started to be more extensively written down in the eighteenth century and distributed in print from then on.New composition is a controversial issue within sean-nós song circles. Some singers insist that the traditional should be supplemented with new material, arguing that since society has changed, then the content of the lyrics should reflect this. On the other hand, some singers say that only the older, "traditional" songs represent the essence of sean-nós song and therefore deserve a protected, preferential status.
My favourite quote concerning this style of traditional Irish music is from Liam O Maonla who was once the front man for the famous Irish group The Hot house Flowers and is also very fitting for this amazing Irish tradtional art form.
"I believe the style known as séan nos, carries a sense of the soul of the land and the people who are awake in that land. I feel, when in the company of other cultures, the singing of this style opens a window into what it is that connects us. Every country has its own séan nos.' 'words particularly English words are not enough. They have been used to lie on a grand scale. They continue to be used to manipulate and confuse. Music has a purpose that remains to be seen. The potential is beyond imagination”.