The Buttercross Belles

Music Formula

In some scores a formula is given to indicate the order in which the tunes should be played. Each part of each tune is assigned a different letter.

The symbols used are as follows:

* (asterisk)

Repeat the following part(s) as many times as required.

_ (underscore)

Stop and wait before the ‘dance off’.

( and )

Enclose two or more parts which are played sequentially, observing any repeat marks.

. (stop)

No significance - used to make the formula readable by indicating when one tune changes to another.

A or B or C etc.

Denotes a part of the tune - usually a 4, 8 or 16 bar phrase.

1 or 2 or 3 etc.

The number of times to repeat the following part(s).

Some examples:


Play A part once


Play B part 3 times


Play C part followed by D part twice


Play E part 4 times followed by F part once


Play A part followed by B part and repeat until ready (or finished)


Dancers stop after D part, then dance off to B part which is repeated as required.

The Tunes

The tunes are a mixture of common and not so common 6/8, 2/4 and 4/4 time single and double jigs, measures, polkas and marches. Most are two or three part tunes of 4, 8 or 16 bars per part. There are some instances where tunes have been adapted or extended to produce music with the correct number of bars to fit the dance; one recent dance has required the use of a tune with 2, 4 and 6 bar parts.

Points to note when selecting tunes:

  • Key: Tunes in different keys give different ‘mood’ to the dance.
  • Changing key can be used to 'lift' the dance.
  • Time signature: In general the time signature depends upon the stepping type:
  • Single Step: triple time tunes (6/8)
  • Polka Step: duple time tunes (2/4 or 4/4)
  • Bars: The tune length (number of bars in each part) and number of parts (one, two, three or four) is chosen to fit each figure or chorus. Shorter tunes are more flexible in that they can be repeated to make up the correct length, but may become repetitious. Longer tunes may have an all too fleeting appearance.
  • Simply watching the dance can give a good indication of the nature of the tunes chosen. Dances with lots of movement may benefit from tunes with rapid changes in pitch. Slower dances will benefit from more sedate music.

The Arrangement

In order to integrate the dance and music the music played for the Buttercross Belles' dances' is chosen and arranged with the greatest care. In most cases each dance has at least two tunes, the chorus (distinctive figure which appears between dance figure) has its own tune, or part of a tune. The length of the music played for the figures is adjusted so that a clear and distinct change can be heard when changing from one figure or chorus to the next. Being able to associate a particular tune with a particular part of the dance helps both dancers and musicians to know where they are without having to ‘count’.

Points to note when arranging the music:

  • If the chorus is 16 bars long then use both parts of a single tune for it throughout the dance.
  • If the chorus uses a single tune then each figure will need its own tune; identical and similar figures can share some tunes.
  • When using a single tune for a figure don't repeat the same part of the tune - play the parts sequentially i.e. for a 24 bar figure using a 2 part tune play ABABAB rather than AABBAA. This avoids the problem of having to remember where you are when playing the tune. However if there is some repetition within the figure it may be better to play the parts to fit the pattern. e.g. if the same 24 bar figure starts and ends with the same 8 bar pattern with a central 16 bar pattern a better sequence would be ABAABA.
  • If the chorus is 8 bars long (as most are) then use the first part of a tune for the chorus and the second part for the figure which follows, repeating the second part of the tune as many times as is necessary for the length of the figure.
  • If two figures follow each other without an intervening chorus change from one tune to another when the second figure starts. Better would be to choose a 3 part tune so the first part can be used for the chorus, the second part for the first figure and the third part for the second figure, returning to the first part for the chorus which follows.

The Performance

As is usual with dance music the tunes are played in a Staccatissimo style with a ‘swing’. A single instrument plays the ‘intro’ to set the pace after which any other musicians and percussion players join in. When ready the dancers start to the call of ‘This Time’. At the end of the dance the music stops dead after the dancers have been given sufficient music if they are ‘dancing off’. If the dance comes to an end with the dancers ‘in position’ the call is again ‘This Time’. The music stops dead with the dancers, who will ‘dance off’ when the music starts again after a short pause and introduction.

Points to note when playing for the dance:

  • Allow a single instrument to set the tempo and ensure everyone starts at the same time (after the introduction).
  • Continue to play the ’intro‘ music until the dancers are ready, then change to the first tune when ’This Time‘ is called.
  • Keep to a strict tempo when playing for North-West Morris dances (and most others).
  • Follow the drum - this is the instrument everyone can hear and everyone should follow.
  • Add emphasis at appropriate times, e.g. when the dancers kick or raise their arms.
  • Watch the dance at all times because:
  • The dance gives the clue as to when to change from one tune to another.
  • The dance gives the clue as to when to add emphasis to the music.
  • Small alterations to the tempo may need to be made if the dancers are getting into difficulties, e.g. due to a bad choice of tempo, difficult terrain, slippery conditions etc.
  • If the dance starts to go wrong the music will probably need re-arranging ‘on the fly’.
  • At the end of the dance the music stops dead, i.e. no drawn out notes.

Information provided by: Bob Wilkinson

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