Ah, the music section of the TCRG/TMRF/ADCRG exams. This is one that, in my experience, people either love it or hate it (and if they love it, they’ll often come to hate it by the time they’ve heard the same sets for the 40th time!). It may feel as though you’ve been listening to Irish set and ceili music since you were a beginner, but this exam section is a bit more complicated when you have to pick out all the nuances in the tunes.

I’ll be talking about both set music and specific ceili tunes here. But it’s important to note that for the section of the exam where you’re asked to identify the tunes, it will be set tunes and the five main types of dances (jig [light/heavy], hornpipe, reel, slip jig, single jig).

Read on for my top tips and tricks on how to study for (and pass!) the music section of the TCRG/TMRF/ADCRG exams.

*If you aren’t at the point of tackling this section yet, read this post on how to start on your exam prep!

Start by sorting out what you already know

After almost 16 years of competitive dance, I was surprised at how many set tunes I was already familiar with. While you may not know the entire tune, I’d almost guarantee that there will be a few traditional and contemporary sets that you do know. Think of how many sets (traditional and contemporary) you’ve done in competition, or learned in class. Those pieces of music should by now be fairly familiar to you; that’s one less piece of music you have to learn from scratch!

Put all of the sets and specific ceili tunes on your iPod or CD to listen to during your commute

For me, this meant burning a CD to put in my car, and covering the display so that I could listen and play “name that tune”. Even on the days when I wasn’t actively listening and trying to identify the tunes, I was still listening to the tunes and singing along in the hopes that I’d subconsciously retain some of the information! Surprisingly it worked, and even now I might find myself humming along to the tunes at a feis, even if I can’t immediately recall the name anymore.

Learn the bar count for steps and set

This one is important anyways as you’ll need to know them for the exam, but it can also help you keep track of each set. Learning to properly count hornpipe or treble jig music is essential here! If you really can’t identify some tunes, but you can count the bars of music, it’ll help you narrow down your choices to the tunes that have that bar count. Click here for a really interesting description of how music is divided and counted in Irish dancing. One trick I always use to figure out how to count music is by doing a step in my head along with it. If I can get through my lead and then another half of my treble jig, I know that the step has 12 bars of music and it’s a jig (6/8 time).

Find patterns, break them into groups for easier studying

This is a handy trick that we used for the written ceili section as well. Saying you have 30+ pieces of set music to learn is overwhelming, but by breaking them into groups based on bar count, length, type, etc, it becomes much more approachable. For example: group all the sets that have only 6 bars in the step (White Blanket, Youghal Harbour, Sprig of Shillelagh), find all the tunes that have the same bar count for step and set, pick out which ones have unreasonably long sets (looking at you, Kilkenny Races!), and so on. By dividing them by bar count, or even hornpipe/treble jig, you’re creating a system where your brain can narrow down the options to choose from when you have to identify a set tune.

Contrast and Compare tunes

Quite a few tunes are similar, or have similar pieces. Group the ones that remind you of the others and you’ll be able to learn two at once. I knew the music to Drunken Gauger really well (see point 1), and Blackthorn Stick sounds similar to me (and is the same length). So when I’d hear the tune that “sounds like Drunken Gauger but isn’t”, I knew it had to be Blackthorn!

Sing the choreography to the music

This one is especially important for the ceili tunes as you will have to be able to lilt the tune. While you can’t say the words of the steps when you’re teaching, learning the moves in tune to the music can help you remember the tune, and vice versa. A great example of this is how I was taught Sweets of May as a young dancer. The advance and retire in the body of the dance became “up in the middle and back again, and don’t go up the middle!” (sang to the tune of course). That way we’d always remember that after singing “up in the middle and back again” three times, the last group didn’t go in one last time!

This is also true for your contemporary and traditional sets. Oftentimes if I know a set to the music, I can sing the steps before I can even identify which set it is. But by knowing the words and the tune, I’ll be able to pick out which set it is. This brings us to the last point…

Pick out sets or ceili tunes that you really can’t identify and choreograph to it

When I was studying for my exam, for some reason I could *never* identify the music to the Piper. So what did we do? Learned a new set to that music! This was a win-win because we needed one last hornpipe set to complete the dance list for the solo dancing section of the exam; it also helped me identify the music when I heard it because I now knew choreography for it.

Don’t forget though: when you’re lilting in the exam as you teach, you can’t say the words, but for the music section of the exam when all you have to do is identify the tune, singing choreography in your head is a sure fire way to identify the tune!

There are plenty of tips and tricks that each dancer uses to learn the full list of sets and ceili tunes. Start singing tunes every chance you get, and don’t be afraid to ask other teachers (or members of this group) which tricks they found useful. Each person will come up with their own tricks, but this will hopefully get you started on the right track!

What tricks did you use when studying for your exam? Comment below, or on the Facebook page.

Keep following the Happy Dancer (this page specifically) for more tips and tricks on studying for your TCRG/TMRF/ADCRG exams.



  1. If you are a visual learner like myself, you may struggle with memorizing tunes. YouTube videos of sets became a great tool for me. In a lot of cases, I was able to connect a dancer to a tune!

    1. Great tip! I’m a visual learner too, so I can usually see the choreography in my head, I never thought to connect it to a specific YouTube video/dancer though. Thanks for adding that!


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