How listeners lift and sustain Irish music

Betting on the Punters

How listeners lift and sustain Irish music
How listeners lift and sustain Irish music
Episode Trailer

Could traditional music sessions exist without listeners? Are the non-playing listeners in public spaces important for tune players? Here’s a brief podcast adaptation of a video response to this intriguing little question.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: The Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, John Sigler, Randall Semagin, Ron Kral, Isaiah Hall, David Vaughan, Susan Walsh, Matt Jensen, John Ploch, Tom Frederick, Paul DeCamp, Suezen Brown, Jonathan Duvick, Gerry Corr, Mike Voss, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, Bob Suchor, Finian McCluskey, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Ian Bittle, Chris Murphy, Sharon Murphy, and Kerryleegh Hildebrandt

Episode 75-Betting on the Punters
How listeners lift and sustain Irish music
This Irish Music Stories episode aired October 1, 2023

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Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 

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>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish  Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it. 

Like how talking about Irish music in a video seems to flow differently than speaking in a podcast. 

[ Music: “My Love is in America,” from dearga

Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

I’d posted this video on my YouTube channel in response to a question my friend Michael had asked: could sessions exist without listeners? Are the non-playing listeners important at all?

I thought my video response was chill. And I had the idea to share some of the audio in this podcast. But just like a session in a public space, with listeners sitting near the music vs. tunes with a few players in a home, context affects things. For better, and for annoying.

So here’s a brief podcast adaptation—informed, changed, and maybe intensified by putting a similar message in a different space. 

[ Music: “Chimes,” from Production Music made for Irish Music Stories

 Composer/Artist: Matt Heaton ]

So this question about the role of the listeners: it came up because Episode 74 of the Irish Music Stories podcast, and Episode 3, and other episodes talked a lot about sitting in the trad music circle. About how friends and neighbors can meet through music in public spaces. How that can grow into a supportive community.

So what about the non players that surround the music? 

When Irish musicians meet up for tunes, it’s for the enjoyment of the music. 

[ Music: “The Newtown Bridge,” from Larks and Thrushes

Artist: Laurel Martin ]

And the fun of playing and hanging out together. There’s no script. There’s no sheet music. Irish tunes are learned and played by heart. And in a session, players start their favorites.  You never know what music or conversations might come up.  So the chat between the tunes layers into the music. And that can spark memories and associations of other tunes. And that can color the music and the mood, which can further affect the social interactions, which can further affect the music.

So there are tunes. But it’s a social experience. And in a public session, say in. an Irish pub, the traditional music in the corner might be setting a mood. But so are the ‘punters’ in the bar. Whether they’re paying attention or not, they’re part of the whole thing, too.

There might be a group of ‘punters’ hanging out at the bar, joking around with the staff and with other people coming into the bar. Maybe they’re watching a sports match on the TV. And then the punters who are enjoying the tunes and want to be part of the atmosphere around the musicians might move closer to the music.

‘Punter’ can just mean ‘customer,’ like, people in pubs or sports matches. Punter was originally used as a betting term. in reference to the old Irish currency, the punt. You put a punt on a horse, play the ponies, this sort of thing.

Some people use the term punter more when describing the music fans in the pub who don’t play. Some of these guys—especially if they attend regularly—get brought into the chat between the tunes. In Episode 3-Every Tuesday at Nine, I spoke about Mike who’s been a tremendous part of our local sessions. He knows and loves the tunes, he encourages the players, he’s certainly a big part of the session. He helps lift it up. He’s part of the hang throughout the night. 

But so is everybody in the bar. Like, unless it’s a really huge corporate space, even the people paying no attention to the music can end up being part of the overall atmosphere and mood. Sometimes it’s jolly. Sometimes it’s just so, so loud, and hard to hear the music. But there’s texture and there’s humanity with all the random, various assortments of people in there. Because it’s a public space.

And without public places to play, there wouldn’t be places for newer players to get into it: to go to listen, to learn, to meet people, to sit in. Those of us who already play could meet up in houses. There’s no bar noise. It’s easy to get a seat. The bathrooms are usually cleaner. But that’s less about tapping into what tunes and what trends are on—ou’re just getting together with people you already know, probably playing tunes (for the most part) that you already know.  

Keeping the music private and invite only would definitely slow the spread of traditional music.  

[ Music: “The Priest and his Boots,” from Cover the Buckle

Artists: Seán Clohessy, Sean Mccomiskey, And Kieran Jordan ]

When Irish music is out in the public—in public sessions, in concerts in public spaces, in ceilis, in festivals—with people who play, and dance, and who don’t play… when Irish music is out there, it mutates. Tunes come in and out of fashion. New compositions catch on. Or someone starts playing an old tune in a new way (or an older way, and that catches on). More people start playing the pipes or the banjo, and the balance of instruments shifts a bit. And that can influence repertoire and rhythmic style for everybody. 

And then when listeners offer a bit of encouragement, it can make it more fun. It can drive the players a bit, stoke the egos just enough to play a little faster, to try a little harder, maybe?? And from there, players who have found a spark together in, say, a session… maybe just SLIGHTLY because of the vibe and fun of having other people there to witness the connections… well, they might start up bands. And then record. And then perform—in public spaces.

Without the public presence, Irish music would be less, well, public. It would be less communal. It wouldn’t be shared as widely. Without public places to play, and without other humans sharing that space with us (that public space), the scene wouldn’t grow and change as much. It wouldn’t ‘live’ the same way.

[ Music: “Barter’s Hill,” from Jolie

Artists: Nightingale ]

If I were a gambler, I’d wager that without public sessions, and without punters, enthusiasm for playing together might wane a bit. Because as great as it is to play tunes with friends, we are all busy. And a lot of us have families or crazy jobs, so sessions at the house can be tough on school and work nights. And even though the yelling man at the bar can be annoying when you’re trying to enjoy that wonderful Paddy Fahey tune with two fiddles, some of the regular listeners who turn up can add so much warmth and currency to a night of tunes.

Whether you’re playing tunes, or playing the ponies, making music in communal, shared, public places is probably a pretty safe investment.

This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you, Michael for the great question. And the opportunity to learn how different podcasting is from making videos! To send in your own questions, or to help support the show, please visit

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Shannon Heaton


World-reared, Boston-based flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music 

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