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What is the Hornpipe?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 23, 2024
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The hornpipe can refer to the dance music or the instrument used to play it. The musical instrument called the hornpipe dates back to at least the 1500s and has a cylindrical middle section with holes for finger placement. The hornpipe is a single reed instrument like the clarinet or saxophone, but has more of a droning sound similar to a bag pipe. The end opposite the mouthpiece has a cone-shaped bell that is traditionally made from animal horn — hence the name hornpipe.

The hornpipe dance is historically linked to British sailors who performed the active, high-spirited dance as a way of staying fit and upbeat on the ship. Shuffling, backward hops and round steps are just a few of the dance moves that are a part of the hornpipe. The hornpipe is very close to the Irish jig, with the only major difference being that it tends to include more flat-footed types of stomping, or clogging.

The Scottish made the Sailor's Hornpipe into a caricature type of highland dance. The dance may be performed by males or females and a nautical costume is worn. Movements such as rope pulling with the hands, climbing rigs with the legs and holding the hand above the eyes as if to look out at the sea are incorporated into the Sailor's Hornpipe. This hornpipe caricature dance is usually included in the Highland Games. The Highland Games are festivals of highland dancing, piping and drumming and may include sports as well.

The Sailor's Hornpipe song is also known as the College Hornpipe. The hornpipe is danced as a single or in doubles. The double version has more difficult footwork. American versions of British, Irish and Scottish hornpipe dancing tend to be more like a reel. A reel, hornpipe and jig often appear similar to the inexperienced eye, but the timing and beat can differ widely between these three types of folk dancing.

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Discussion Comments
By anon39919 — On Aug 05, 2009

I think you will find that the Hornpipe was not historically associated with sailors. It did not become linked to them until the 19th century, before that it was associated with shepherds and peasants.

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