Ornamentation for the Irish Button Box.

by Han Speek
(Copyright © 1996)

(This article is based on an earlier version - in Dutch - which was published in the Dutch squeezebox quarterly "Diatonisch Nieuwsblad" Dec. 1992/Feb. 1993)

[Note: Most examples in the text are based on the C#/D system, since this is the system played by the author. The ornaments apply to the B/C system as well, though the actual notes involved in the ornaments are, of course, different.]


Everyone can play a tune on the box. But to make a tune sound like Irish traditional dance music involves a lot more then just playing the notes off a sheet of music. Rhythm has a lot to do with it, and so has style. You have to "enhance" the music to make it sound "right", authentic and danceable. To get the proper rhythm, the best thing to do is to listen to Irish music as much as you can. To learn about the style, and the ornamentation that makes up a big part of it, read this article.

The "cut" or "grace note".

The simplest form of ornamentation in Irish music is the "grace note". This is a short note, of undefined duration (i.e. there is no time allotted to it, but it's there anyway), that is pre-pended to a note that is part of the actual melody. The two main uses of this are to accentuate a note (usually at the beginning of a phrase), or to separate two notes in the melody, typically two consecutive notes of the same pitch.
Though this last use (separating notes) is not technically necessary on a button box (the instrument has the capability to cut short a note - by releasing the button - and immediately playing the same note again), many instruments that are native to the music (flute, fiddle, pipes) lack this capability, so grace notes are used to achieve the same effect. Since this has become a distinct feature of the music, it has been adopted by the box players also.


This ornament is performed mostly by pressing and quickly releasing the next-higher button in the same row on the instrument, in the same direction of the bellows, before playing the actual note. So a D would be cut with an F#, and an E with a G, etc. Sometimes a grace note lower than the note being ornamented is used, and in this case, typically the note a half-step lower is used, creating the impression of "sliding onto" the actual note. This note lies directly beside the note to be ornamented, but on the outside row. It can be played simply by sliding off this lower note onto the note you wanted to play, using the same finger, or with 2 fingers, using the index for the ornament note and the middle for the actual note. These lower-pitched grace notes are sometimes referred to as "dip".

The "short roll" or "double grace note".

The "short roll" looks a lot like 2 eighth note being separated by a "cut", but the timing is different. The first eighth note is shortened, and the "cutting" note is stretched, so that they are now equally long, but clearly shorter than the final eighth note, which is the note being ornamented. The whole pattern still fits in the time of a crotchet.

Short Roll

Usually this is performed using the obvious cutting note, being the next-higher button on the same row and bellows direction as the note being ornamented. The only exception to this (mind you, we're talking C#/D system here) is that when playing in the key of G I sometimes perform a "short roll" on B using the C of the outside row, since this results in a more pleasing sound (to MY ears).
"Short rolls" employing a lower note are possible, but don't seem to be used very often. But don't let me stop you from trying.

The "roll" or "long roll".

The most complex ornament used on the box is the so-called "roll" or "long roll", that is typical for Irish music music, and is borrowed from instruments like flute and fiddle.

Long Roll

It's a 5-note structure, of which the 2nd and 4th note are so short that their pitch becomes indefinite, more rhythmical than musical in function. The whole pattern takes the time of a dotted crotchet (or 3 eighth notes).

The exact action is (try to make it into one fluent motion):

So you have pressed the original button 3 times, and used 2 different notes to separate them. Throughout the whole action, the middle finger functions as a pivot around which the hand revolves. And it is a hand motion rather than the individual fingers.
Sharon Shannon is quite good at this, and on her small Castagnary box she can make it sound quite staccato. It helps to have a box with a fast action :-)

The "crann" or "stutter".

Naming this so will probably cause some frowning from the pipers and flute players, but I have no better name for it. Technically it is very different from what most other instruments do, since they have no way to perform a staccato triplet on a single note - and we have. And that's exactly what we do here. Normally, this pattern, like the "short roll", takes the time of a crotchet, and the 3 notes are spaced as evenly as possible (which usually means it's not even at all, but never mind - it will come with some practice).


There are several ways to do this trick on the box. The most common (and convenient, I think) is to sort of "roll off" the 3 strongest fingers on the same button. First ring finger, then middle, then index finger hit the same button. This is what Sharon Shannon uses quite frequently. Other players, such as Mairtin O'Connor, use a variation on this, where only index and middle finger hit the same button alternately. This can be used to produce longer patterns than just the triplet. But this is not very traditional.

Note doubling.

A last form of embellishment I want to discuss here, and that can sometimes be used very effectively in slower pieces, is note doubling. This comes mostly in the form of playing a note together with it's lower (or higher, but this tends to get pretty shrill) octave. [Mind you, the rapid alternating of a note and it's octave that is commonly heard in Cajun or Quebecois box playing is not normally used in Irish music !] Octave notes are also commonly used as variation in the melody - play the octave instead of the written note. Other note doublings, or even combining more than 2 notes into chords, is also done, but is not common (maybe because it rather technically challenging :-)).

Relevant literature:

The Box,
(A Beginners Guide to the Irish Traditional Button Accordion)
by David C. Hanrahan, published by Ossian Publications, Cork, Ireland, 1989

Folk Music & Dances of Ireland,
by Breandan Breathnach, published by Mercier Press, Cork/Dublin, Ireland, 1971

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