Cape Breton Music

The Music and Dance of Cape Breton Island

Cape Breton Island is a magical world filled with traditional music. The astounding number and quality of musicians is matched by the knowledgeable enthusiasm of their audiences. In Cape Breton the locals not only know a vast repertoire themselves, they know the differences in how various musicians have played each of these tunes, going back 30 or more years!

Cape Breton music is compelling dance music, and Cape Bretoners sure can dance up a storm. They have a low-to-the-floor, intricate style of step-dancing, a style that disappeared from Scotland decades ago. Cape Bretoners from ages 10 to 80 without hesitation will gather friends and drive for hours if necessary to one of the intimate parish halls, such as those at Glencoe Mills, West Mabou, Southwest Margaree. For next 4-5 hours, these little halls shake with the percussive steps of entire villages in lengthy sets that test the endurance of even the most fit dancers, and demand of the fiddlers repertoires of hundreds of tunes. After the dance (or on the few dance-less nights), folks may gather in a neighbour's kitchen because the music is loose on the land and will not be contained.

Music is the glue that holds the Cape Bretoners together as communities, and is central to their identities as Cape Bretoners. To experience this music, particularly live, and especially in Cape Breton, is to enter a exciting, passionate and wonderfully rewarding world.

What Is Cape Breton Music?

Cape Breton music is often described as traditional Scottish music. However, it is Scottish music and dance as it was played in the late 1700s and early 1800s when the forefathers of Cape Bretoners emigrated from Scotland. The most common tune types heard in Cape Breton are strathspeys, reels, jigs, with a lesser number of airs, marches, and clogs. Cape Breton playing is highly accented, characterized by driven up-bowing. The tunes of other music origins (Irish, French-Canadian, etc.) sound quite different when performed by Cape Breton players. The strong downbeat pulse is driven by the fiddler's heel into the floor. The pattern and force of the of fiddler's toe tapping is an integral part of the tune. Typically the tunes are played in medleys; with each tune being played twice. Each medley tends to centre around a single key or tonal area while spanning a variety of tempos, for instance a strathspey accelerating into a reel for a solo step-dance exhibition. Commonly a medley , or “set” will begin with a slow air followed by a slow strathspey, a fast strathspey, a march and will end with a string of very fast reels.

How Does Cape Breton Music Differ from Scottish Music?

Because of Cape Breton's historic isolation, and the rigor of life in early Cape Breton, the music and the Gaelic language from which it derives so much of its flavour survived in a far purer and more vigorous form in Cape Breton than in Scotland. Today, Scottish musicians are flocking to the island to relearn music and dance steps long forgotten in Scotland .

Cape Breton music is very fundamentally dance music. Even when no dancers are on the floor, they will be listening and the sound of an entire audience all stamping their feet in time to the music is common in Cape Breton. This contrasts with the pub or concert music seen in Scotland, Ireland, or in most Celtic music concerts in North America. Cape Breton audiences do not clap in time to the music, they are more likely to be tapping their feet vigorously. Where other fiddle traditions may focus on just playing fast, Cape Bretoners are very focused on having a very energized but steady rhythm to the tune. "He or she's good to dance to" is the standard measure of praise. This focus on the rhythm gives the playing more drive and kick than simply playing fast. The best players achieve such a tremendous 'lift' in their playing that makes it almost impossible not to dance. Whether it is played in people's kitchens or at the local parish hall, the sign of a good player is folks on the floor dancing up a storm.

Cape Breton Stepdancing

Liz Doherty, an Irish fiddler and scholar of Cape Breton music, described Cape Breton fiddling well when she said " Cape Breton fiddling functions primarily as dance music, with dancing being popular both on a social level and as a solo art form."  The solo step-dance tradition is described by Cape Bretoners themselves as being 'close to the floor'; in that all the movement comes from the knees down and a minimum of floor space is used. The style is subtle, the movements small. Cape Breton stepdancers do not use ‘taps' or ‘clickers' on their shoes, nor do they kick their legs high or wave their arms around. There is nothing to distract the viewer's attention away from the dancer's feet.

Instruments in Cape Breton Music

The fiddle is at the forefront of Cape Breton music. The common and prominent use of the piano is one of the easiest ways to distinguish Cape Breton music from other Celtic music. Hamish Moore, the Scottish pipemaker and piper was written "Another factor...which makes Cape Breton music so distinctive today is the unique piano style. Before pianos were introduced to Cape Breton the accompaniment to the music was the rhythm of the stepping feet. The Cape Breton style of piano playing has developed directly from the rhythm of the steps and has evolved into a sophisticated chordal and rhythmic accompaniment. A typical dance in Cape Breton will have one fiddler and one pianist providing the music."

Less visible, but no less interesting is the amazing bagpipe music and singing on the island. Although Cape Breton pipers generally play the same highland bagpipes as their Scottish counterparts, their style is very different. In Cape Breton, solo pipers played for dances, particularly before the advent of electronic amplification, and the flavour is very dance-oriented in sharp contrast to the military band marches and pìobaireachd found in Scottish piping. The dancers danced to the pipers and the pipers played for the dancers. This interaction allowed the perpetuation of a unique high energy dance music style of piping.

Harmonies and Modalities

Here is where Cape Breton traditional music is really unique. Cape Breton musicians don't stick to just the regular major and minor keys, many tunes are played in either mixolydian or dorian mode, which use a lowered seventh scale-degree.

This gives the music a distinctive sound and character. Those unfamiliar with the music may wrongly assume that the player just played a note too flat, but this flatness is intended, emulating a Gaelic sensibility to the tones. In fact both the sound and the rhythm of Cape Breton music are strongly connected to the Gaelic language. In addition, before amplification bagpipers often played for dances where volume was needed. The unique scale of the bagpipes and the use of grace notes by pipers heavily influenced the fiddlers who picked up these sounds. Cape Breton fiddle tunes are often played with a “drone”, the sounding of a string other than the one playing the note, making a fiddle sound very much like a bagpipe. This effect is one of the most noticeable differences between Cape Breton and Scottish fiddlers.