Jig vs. Reel

What's the Difference?

Jig and Reel are both traditional Irish dances that are performed to lively music. However, there are some key differences between the two. A jig is a fast-paced dance that is characterized by quick footwork and intricate movements. It is typically danced by one or two people and is known for its energetic and lively nature. On the other hand, a reel is a more structured dance that is performed in groups. It involves precise footwork and coordinated movements, often performed in a line or circle formation. Reels are usually danced at a slightly slower tempo than jigs, but still maintain a lively and rhythmic quality. Overall, both jig and reel are important components of Irish dance, showcasing the rich cultural heritage and vibrant spirit of the Irish people.


Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
Dance TypeSocial danceSocial dance
RhythmTriple meterQuadruple meter
MusicTraditional Irish musicTraditional Irish music
StepsQuick, intricate footworkQuick, intricate footwork
StyleUpbeat, livelyUpbeat, lively
InstrumentsFiddle, flute, accordionFiddle, flute, accordion
CostumeTraditional Irish attireTraditional Irish attire
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Further Detail


Irish traditional music is known for its lively and energetic tunes, often played in social gatherings and dance events. Two popular types of tunes in this genre are jigs and reels. While both jigs and reels are played in a lively and upbeat manner, they have distinct attributes that set them apart. In this article, we will explore the characteristics of jigs and reels, highlighting their differences and similarities.

Origin and History

Jigs and reels both have deep roots in Irish traditional music, but they originated in different time periods and regions. Jigs are believed to have originated in the 16th century in England and Scotland before making their way to Ireland. They were initially danced to in a 6/8 time signature, but later evolved into the more common 9/8 time signature. Reels, on the other hand, have a more recent origin, emerging in the 18th century in Scotland and Ireland. They are typically played in a 4/4 time signature, giving them a distinct rhythmic feel.

Rhythm and Tempo

One of the key differences between jigs and reels lies in their rhythm and tempo. Jigs are characterized by a lively and bouncy rhythm, often played with a triplet feel. The 9/8 time signature of jigs gives them a distinctive lilt and syncopation, making them highly suitable for dancing. Reels, on the other hand, have a faster tempo and a driving rhythm. Played in a 4/4 time signature, reels are known for their energetic and relentless pace, creating a sense of excitement and urgency.

Melody and Structure

While both jigs and reels are instrumental tunes, they differ in their melodic structure. Jigs typically consist of two eight-bar parts, each played twice, resulting in a AABB structure. The melodies of jigs are often characterized by catchy and repetitive phrases, making them easy to remember and play along with. Reels, on the other hand, have a more straightforward structure, usually consisting of two eight-bar parts played in an ABAB pattern. The melodies of reels often feature longer phrases and more intricate ornamentation, showcasing the technical prowess of the musicians.


Another aspect where jigs and reels differ is in their instrumentation. While both tunes can be played on a variety of instruments, certain instruments are more commonly associated with each. Jigs are often played on instruments like the fiddle, flute, tin whistle, and accordion. These instruments excel at capturing the lively and rhythmic nature of jigs, allowing for intricate ornamentation and improvisation. Reels, on the other hand, are frequently played on instruments such as the fiddle, uilleann pipes, guitar, and bodhrán. The driving rhythm and fast pace of reels make them well-suited for instruments that can provide a strong and steady beat.

Dance Style

Jigs and reels are closely tied to traditional Irish dancing, and each tune has its associated dance style. Jigs are traditionally danced in a lively and energetic manner, with dancers performing intricate footwork and quick movements. The 9/8 time signature of jigs allows for a light and bouncy dance style, with dancers often performing steps like the "light jig" or the "single jig." Reels, on the other hand, are danced in a more fast-paced and exuberant style. The driving rhythm and relentless tempo of reels make them perfect for energetic dances like the "Irish reel" or the "sean-nós reel."

Emotional Tone

While both jigs and reels are played with a sense of joy and celebration, they can evoke different emotional tones. Jigs often have a playful and cheerful character, with their lively melodies and bouncy rhythms creating a sense of happiness and merriment. They are frequently played at social gatherings and are known for their ability to uplift the spirits of both musicians and listeners. Reels, on the other hand, can have a more intense and exhilarating emotional tone. The fast tempo and driving rhythm of reels can create a sense of urgency and excitement, making them perfect for lively dance events and energetic performances.


In conclusion, jigs and reels are two distinct types of tunes in Irish traditional music, each with its own set of attributes. Jigs are characterized by their lively rhythm, 9/8 time signature, and catchy melodies, making them highly suitable for dancing and creating a joyful atmosphere. Reels, on the other hand, have a faster tempo, 4/4 time signature, and driving rhythm, creating a sense of excitement and urgency. Both tunes have deep roots in Irish music and are integral to the traditional music scene. Whether you prefer the bouncy lilt of a jig or the relentless pace of a reel, there is no denying the infectious energy and timeless appeal of these iconic tunes.

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