Introduction to playing Dance Music
(or Cheap & Sleazy Dance Music 101)

Well, the best advice I can give is to just start playing. :-) OK, I'll come up with more, but this is one of those things that you can only get better at.

Dance music is different from "performance" music in one major aspect. Few, if any, people are actually listening to you play. The dancers are listening for the beat and an approximation of the tune; the observers are watching the dancing. If you keep the beat, the dancers will probably never notice how badly you mangle the tune. This is both a blessing and a curse, you can mess up the tune yes, but mess up the rhythm and a room full of people immediately know. Always keep in mind that dance music without dance is just performance music, and dance without music is just dumb looking. :-)

I highly advise every dance musician to dance. It doesn't have to be your main focus, but there is no better way to get a feel for the music than to know both parts. The dancers will often describe their needs in terms of the dance ("Can you start again at the siding?") and it can save a lot of time if the musician has a clue what they mean. This does not mean you have to have every dance memorized, as you will learn, there are a limited number of forms with which we are dealing. Physical grace isn't required to dance (just look at most dancers), the thing is to get your body moving through the figures of the dance to the beat with however much grace (or lack thereof) is possible.

Please note, I'm not a "musician". I don't understand most musical terms and am easily confused. I learned how to play dance music and have achieved some skill in that. Enough people have asked for this class that I wrote this out. Any information presented herein is based on my opinion and experience (unless otherwise noted.)

Making music playable

Well, here we are at the "cheap and sleazy" part. Here are some rules to keep in mind.

1. Rhythm is more important than melody

2. You don't have to play all the notes

3. Play nice with others

We'll cover #1 in other areas, so this will be about #2.

In the Introduction to the Attaingnant Dance Prints (LPM AD), Bernard Thomas says

"In general performers should beware of too reverent an attitude towards the notation - the relative carelessness with which the Attaingnant books were produced would suggest that the written notes need not be taken too literally. The most obvious aspect of this is ornamentation: the Attaingnant books have very little in the way of melodic embellishment, and this is true of most sixteenth-century ensemble music. Occasionally examples of written-out ornamentation may be found. One such is the Pavane "Si je m'en vois" (third book, no1), which occurs in a manuscript source (British Library, Royal Appendix 74-6) with the title "Pavin of Albart" - a comparison of the middle section of each version is quite interesting:"

Start by just playing through the tune and getting a feel for the melody. Note which parts with which you're having trouble. Look at those parts again and try playing just the notes that fall on the beats. If it is still recognizable and danceable, then you are all set, if not, then some more notes need to be added. The goal should be to end up with something that you can play at tempo that will sound good when played with others (After all, there is little point to practicing hard, only to be unable to play with a group.)

When you are playing solo, without even a drum accompaniment, sometimes it is necessary to add notes (ornamentation notes, or just breaking a whole note into half or quarter notes) so that the dancers don't lose the beat.


Please note, the following is my opinion (actually the whole class is my opinion, but I've had an argument on the following.) Your mileage may vary, please use your brain, think before you actů

Most SCA people start with recorders. This is OK, but when you think of the number of people who played other instruments in band it is suprising. There are period examples of brass and reed instruments and I would encourage those with skills in these areas to keep going. The biggest difference between modern instruments and period instruments (to be very simplistic) is that modern instruments sound different, they can be played with more accuracy, range and volume than their period counterparts. I am very much in favor of authenticity, but instruments existed in period other than recorders. As brass and reed players desire more authenticity (and challenge) they should begin investigating period alternatives.

Guitars are period. Not the exact guitar that is in common use now, but again, getting a variety of instrumentation in use in the SCA can be thought of as more important than being "strictly" period. Most recorders used in the SCA are baroque-style and usually plastic. If they are acceptable as 'a reasonable attempt at period' (and Renaissance recorders are available) then surely we can be forgiving of people who have other modern instruments. Drums of many styles are period, including snare drums. Along with drums, triangle and zills are examples of easily found percussion that have forms similar in period.

The point of this whole section is to encourage you to try to work with any instrumentalist who comes up and wants to play. I would rather have a new member (or someone who never thought about playing in the SCA) play a modern flute than just sit in the crowd and think, "boy, I should learn to play the recorder." After you have a variety of people who playing together, that's the time to say, "hey, we should build a sackbut."

Please note, if you live in a densely populated area, with active musicians, standards are likely to be higher for acceptable instruments. If you insist on playing a synthesizer, you will irritate people anywhere in the SCA. Common sense.


Yes, I know I mentioned drums in the instruments section, but there is more to percussion than drums and more to percussionists than ... well, maybe we shouldn't go there.

A basic drumbeat is the most important accompaniment you can have (for most dances.)

A drumbeat from a drummer who doesn't have a clue is the worst accompaniment you can have.

There is a book called Playing Medieval Percussion Instruments, one of the first things it mentions is that the ability to withstand boredom is a key talent. The music we are playing has very simple rhythmic patterns, but a drummer who doesn't understand those patterns can bring the entire dance to a halt. I have personally ripped bodhrans and dumbecks out of drummers' hands during dances and told them to stop playing. There are pieces of music that can take ornamentation in the percussion, especially if the melody is being played by musicians who won't/can't ornament, but it takes experience in playing accompaniment and a very good ear to be able to do this.

A common fallacy is that any idiot can hit a drum. This is untrue; it takes special idiots to hit drums, those with a sense of rhythm, and the ability to learn the types of music. People who have never drummed before, or are just starting, tend to take their tempo from the lead instrumentalist. When the dance starts, this is fine and perhaps proper. When done as the dance progresses this leads to disaster. If the percussionist is waiting to hear the beat before hitting the beat, the struck beat is behind. The instrumentalists therefore slow down, on the assumption that they sped up (they were ahead of the struck beat). The percussionist waits to hear the beat again and the struck beat is behind... well, eventually the dance grinds to a halt. The percussionist must stick to the beat, any slowing down or speeding up should be done as mutual agreement between the percussion and melody instruments (and maybe the dancers.)

Some dance forms have specific rhythms that go with them, such as Pavans and Galliards. Other dances benefit from starting with simple drumbeats and adding only if sure that the extra beats will not detract from the dance.

Rhythm and Tempo

Well, since I've mentioned it so much, here are some tips on how to practice rhythm.

For just practicing playing with a steady beat a metronome is the best doohickey you can have. I don't have one, so it's not necessary. Playing along with tapes is an acceptable alternative, but you do have to get used to being in a different key than the tape.

For checking how well you are learning to keep a steady beat. Find something to keep tempo, a tape playing a tune (that you can play) is ideal. A metronome will work, but it's harder to be sure you are keeping the beat (trust me.) Start the tape playing in one place, start playing with it. As you play, wander away to where you can't hear the tape and keep playing (choose music you know, or have copies around to keep playing while you move) After a short while, move back to where the tape is. If you are on, or very near the taped music, CONGRATULATIONS! If you are very behind, or ahead, well, you need to work on that.:-)

Tempo changes do happen in music, but not simply slowing down for the "hard parts" and speeding up for the "easy parts"

Dances go at different speeds in different parts of the country. In most cases you'll be matching the tempo on the tape the group has. As a general rule of thumb, bransles and English Country dances will go at around a "quick march" (listen in your head to "The Stars and Stripes Forever")

Practice music

There are many SCA arrangements (which means they may be copyable within the SCA) available online. A good starting point is:

For Branles and Pavans (as well as some other forms) London Pro Musica (among others) has published the Attaingnant books. LPM is a good source because they tell you what they corrected in the music. London Pro Musica: Attaingnant Dance Prints: LPM AD 1-7. London Pro Musica also has a series of Early Dance Music (LPM DM), any of which would be worth borrowing for practice.

LPM also has books of Italian Dances in their Early Dance Music series.

Joy and Jealousy by Rosina del Bosco Chiaro (Vivian Stephens) and Ellisif Flakkari (Monica Cellio.) has arrangements (by Ellisif) of the music for all the dances in the book.

The English Dancing Master by John Playford (1651) is the primary source for English Country Dances. There are 105 dances in the first edition. Melody only.

The Complete Country Dance Tunes from Playford's Dancing Master (1651-ca.1728) edited by Jeremy Barlow contains every tune that appeared in every edition of the English Dancing Master. Melody only.

Basically if you play through 35 different bransles (not necessarily the SCA versions, which are not all bransle music) you get the hang of bransles. By the time you work through 1st edition Playford, you will be able to handle most English Country Dances. I've not included music with this class, just because the SCA uses so little of the available dance music that I'd have to copy copyrighted work. Go to a library and see what they have, or interlibrary loan in music to practice. Any period music is worth practicing on, but by practicing with a variety of tunes within specific forms of dance, you will develop a feel for the rhythms of those forms. And be able to play darn near any piece of dance music that is put in front of you.

What I haven't covered

The primary thing I haven't covered is dance forms that require improvisation, such as basse dances. I don't know how to play them, and so can't pass on any tips. All I can suggest is to hook up with musicians who have a clue and learn from them. Also listening to tapes of professional musicians (who are paid to have a clue)

Play nice with others

Few of us are at the level of professional musicians. I have never considered my playing to be above competent (and many have agreed with me.) I would not be playing dance music if better and more experienced musicians had not encouraged me and allowed me to play with them to the best of my ability. This class is to pass on some of my observations and opinions on playing dance music in the SCA. I don't expect to change anyone's opinions, just to offer some of the tips I've learned through the years and to offer my views on things.