Modal tunes…

Modal tunes…

Hi everyone! I’m looking for some info on playing modal tunes (E myxolidian for example). I’ve been trying to figure it out and I asked my theory class yesterday but no one could really help me. I understand the modes etc. but I’m not clear on how they relate to the tunes. Thanks!

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Like to help but I’m not in the mode.
mairtin

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sorry, mood
mairtin

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Sarah, there’s a good explanation of modes here: http://www.richardmiddleton.com/insidemusic/modes1.html

For a simpler visual aide on the main modes of Irish music, go here: http://www.slowplayers.org/SCTLS/modes.htm

All tunes are ‘modal’ tunes, although many people use the term to mean tunes that sound ‘different’ somehow. What they mean is different than major (Ionian mode) or minor (Aeolian mode) tunes. In Irish and Scottish music, there are lots of Ionian and Dorian tunes, no shortage of Mixolydian tunes, and some Aeolian tunes. (There are other modes, but these rarely crop up in trad music.)

The short answer is that the mode a tune is in depends on the sequence of half and whole steps between notes in the tune’s scale.

As a fiddler, you don’t have to know one mode from the next to be a good player, but I find it helps understand the music, which makes it easier to help someone else (especially guitarists and bouzouki players, when they ask ‘what chord goes there?’). Sometimes understanding the mode helps me think ahead when I’m learning an unfamiliar tune.

As a player, there are lots of different ways to think about this. Here’s what’s typically going on in my head when modes come into play:

I listen to someone playing a tune I’d like to learn, and hear right away that both halves end on D. As I start to noodle along, a c natural in the third measure catches me off guard—isn’t this tune in the key of D? Shouldn’t that be a c sharp? No, it’s definitely a c natural, and it sounds good, so this tune is either in D Dorian (which features c nats and f nats) or D Mixolydian (f sharps, but c nats). Right away, I’m alert for any f notes—are they sharp or natural? (Remembering that some tunes don’t use all 7 notes of the diatonic scale.) Turns out there are a couple of f’s and they’re sharps, so now I know the notes I need to play this tune: D E F# G A B and Cnat. The tune is in D Mixolydian.

You might recognize those notes as the same as a G major scale—which is one way to think of fingering a D mix tune. In other words, you’re going to use G major scale fingerings to play a tune in D mixolydian.

Once you get used to it, it’s not as confusing as it seems. Of course, lots of trad tunes wander in and out of different modes. There are countless examples of "D" tunes, say, that feature both c sharps and c naturals. Because the variety of keys and modes in trad music is fairly limited (compared to jazz, say), you soon get used to recognizing the difference between a tune that resolves to E and features c sharps and f sharps (E Dorian, a very common mode in Irish music) versus one that features f sharps and c naturals (E minor or Aeolian, less common).

Probably 90 percent of the tunes in the trad repertoire fall into the following keys/modes:
G, D, and A major (Ionian)
A and E Dorian
A and D mixolydian
A, B, and E minor (Aeolian)
There are fewer tunes in C major, D Dorian, G mixolydian, and D minor. Scottish and Cape Breton music includes some tunes in E major.

Hope this helps more than it hurts—keep asking questions!

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If cows could sing would it be mood music?

Sarah, seriously now, do you play a fixed pitch instrument, eg flute/whistle? Or do you play fiddle?

One of the advantages of flute/whistle is that the intervals between the notes are fixed and cannot be compromised by the key you’re in. So you get your major scale when you go up from the bottom note, a scale common to most Western ears. But when you get to your next scale, starting one hole/note up things start to go different from what most people understand as a scale, and when you go to the one after that many people lose it.

I’ve tried to talk to many classically trained musicians and they always seem to want to sharpen or flatten this note or other. Good example is Jenny’s Chickens. I bet there are more people try to put in a G# than don’t. But it is without the G#!

I must close here unfortunately, but if you want to write and find out more, I’d love to help, just that I am literally on my way out.
I hope this has been of some help in your quest.

Good luck!

Brianx

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Generally, Mixolydian mode is whole step, whole step; half step, whole step, whole step; half step; whole step. If you want to play in E , I think it would be E, F sharp; G; A;B;C sharp; D sharp.

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E mix is E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D, E

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Um, in other words, it’s the A major scale, starting on the fifth.

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Sorry, my piano isn’t in the same room as the computer and I can’t figure it out without it—also I think that about 90 per cent of the time I play in this mode it seems to be in the key of D for some reason.

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Yep, I had to think it through from D mix (out of a G scale), extrapolate to E mix, and then double check myself on a mandolin (which is easier than a piano to keep near the computer).

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Another quick and easy way to see mixolydian: it’s a major scale (Ionian) with the 7th lowed a half step.

Another quick and easy way to see Dorian: it’s a natural minor scale (Aeolian) with the 6th raised a half step.

The other modes (Phrygian, lydian, and locrian) are either not used from what I’ve seen or very rare. I’ve occasionally heard some older recroders with players who alter major to have an occasional raised 4th (lydian), but it was very rare.

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D major looks like A mixo. It depends on the key note of the tune or phrase.
As footnote, the Scottish pipe scale is A mixo, that is A major with a flattened 7th (G natural). Scottish pipe music scores usually don’t have key signatures, and Scottish pipers usually refer to their C# as "C", even though nowadays many use an alternate fingering to get C nat in tunes like "Brenda Stubbert’s". Some of them call that C flat (?).

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Some people play Brenda Stubbert’s with a C#, which I quite like, although I wouldn’t start it that way myself.

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Key signatures in Irish traditional music are sometimes problematical.Certain tunes manage to be in two keys at the same time(eg; the first part of the Blarney Pilgrim).Keys are not same as modes.I’ve heard Celtic music described as "modal" music but that isn’t strictly true.Someone asked for an explanation of the modes.A full description would take too long,so I’ll try to be concise.If you go to a keyboard and(in all these examples,use only the white notes) start with a C and then play a scale up to the next C,that is the Ionian mode,the western major scale.Then start on a D and play a scale,using only the white keys,to the next highest D.This is the Dorian mode,very common in European folk music.(The Drunken Sailor).E to E on the white keys is the Phygrian mode,common in Flamenco ,North African and Middle Eastern music.I only know of one Celtic tune in this mode,a Scottish jig called The Dhu Hill.F to F is the Lydian mode,I can’t bring to mind an Irish tune in this mode,but it is found in Northumbrian music(The Peacock Followed the Hen).G to G is the Mixolydian mode,the major scale with a flat seventh,very common in Irish and Scottish music.A to A is the Aeolian mode,very similar to the Dorian,but most Irish"minor" tunes are in the Dorian mode.B to B is the Phygrian mode.I’ve never heard a tune in this mode.I’ts a weird sounding scale.John Kirkpatrick wrote a song in the Phygrian mode called Ashes To Ashes.The Phygrian mode sounds like it has no tonic,it does’t matter which note of the scale you stop on,it always sounds like you need another note to finish the tune. David Meredith

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David, that piano trick is great for hearing the different modes played as scales, with one example of each (and it’s included in the Richard Middleton link above). But it doesn’t do much to explain the modes in other keys or in terms of the chords used to back the tunes (or the notes to anticipate as a melody player). That said, if everyone had a year of piano, we’d rarely see music theory questions here—it’s all there on the keyboard, in black and white.

Agreed wholeheartedly though that key signatures are at best ‘suggestive’ when it comes to many Irish trad tunes.

It’d be nice to hear back from Sarah to see if any of this has helped, or if she’s drowning in info now, or if she could narrow her question down a bit more.

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Here’s another explanation. Most tunes use scales that the instruments are best suited to: typically scales that have at most one flat (B) or at most three sharps (F, D, and G). Those are the major scales of:
F (one flat: B)
C (no flats: no sharps)
G (one sharp, F)
D (two sharps: F and C)
A (three sharps: F, C, and G).
The first two are most common in Clare, presumably because of the popularity of the concertina. The last is most common in Scotland, and I’ve read the theory that old "Irish" tunes in A are most likely originally Scottish. So the vast majority of Irish tunes use the same scale as G or D major.

The modes, as has been explained earlier, are obtained from the major scale by shifting the tonic (the note that the tune resolves to as the home tone, usually the last note, unless there’s a pickup that leads back into the repeat, or it’s a strange tune that doesn’t resolve as you’d expect).

Consider what you get if you shift upwards by fifths (or equivalently downward by fourths). Starting with G Major, you get scales with F# starting on G, D, A, E, etc. Once you reach E, you have an E Minor scale. The steps along this passage from Major to Minor are called Mixolydian and Dorian. G Maj -> D Mix -> A Dor -> E Min . Each one sounds progressively less major and more minor. All are in common use in Irish tunes.

Similarly, starting with D Major, you get scales with F# and C# starting on D, A, E, B, etc. Once you reach B, you have a B Minor scale. The steps along this passage from Major to Minor are again Mixolydian and Dorian. D Maj -> A Mix -> E Dor -> B Min . Each one sounds progressively less major and more minor. All are in common use in Irish tunes.

That accounts for 8 of the 10 key/mode combinations that Will said were common. The four common modes for the C scale are C Maj, G Mix, D Dor, and A Min, which give the 9th common combination and 3 of the four less common ones that Will listed.

The four common modes for the F scale are F Maj, C Mix, G Dor, and D Min. I’ve seen a bunch of popular East Clare tunes in G Dor and D Min, and a few modern tunes in F (I just learned a new one from Josephine Marsh, and I know one that Jennifer Wrigley wrote).

And of course the A scale gives the 10th member of Will’s list without getting into the other modes.

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And while I was typing that, Will mentioned the problem of figuring out from the key/mode what the scale is.

For Dorian, use the major scale that’s one note down:
D Dor uses the C Major scale
E Dor uses the D Major scale
G Dor uses the F Major scale
A Dor uses the G Major scale

For Mixolydian, use the minor scale that’s one note up (or the major scale that’s a fourth above, same thing:
G Mix uses the A Minor=C Major scale
A Mix uses the B Minor=D Major scale
D Mix uses the E Minor=G Major scale

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Good on you, Gary. Somehow I forgot all those Gdor tunes—some of my favorites, too. And I like your chart for figuring out what scale goes with the various dorian and mixolydian modes—that’s how I usually think of it when reconnoitering an unfamiliar tune.

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For All You Experts a la Mode,
Just supposing, hypothetically, you came across a piece of music, say an Irish Reel, 4/4 time, that didn’t have a key signature or sharps/flats indicated

Would you be able
from starting note, finishing note, or note sequences
to say
which key
or mode
it was in.
Go raibh maith agaibh.
mairtin

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maitin, even with the key signature and accidentals marked, it’s often a judgment call as to what mode(s) a tune is in. But, sure—I do it all the time. Even here in the tune archives, you’ll find reels posted as in G major that are actually in D mix or A Dorian. That sort of confusion is common. And I’ve seen abc notation for a tune with no key signature given, and no indication of which notes "should" be sharp, natural, or flat, and they’re usually not that hard to figure out.

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As Will said. I just found two errors in the archives. Rolling in the Barrel is given as ADor, when it should be EDor. In The Tap Room is given as EMin when it should be EDor. The tonic in both cases is clearly E. The only common E modes in Irish music are Dorian and Minor. In E Minor all (or most) of the Cs would be natural, which would sound strange. So they must be E Dorian.

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Go raibh maith agaibh, Will and Gary,
I’m out of my depth here. Usually the C note on the whistle helps me distinguish between the G and D scales, but that’s my limit. If you check my new bio page, you will see that my question wasn’t really hypothetical. Slan.

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Mairtin, often when I transcribe a tune from a recording, I just start putting the dots on paper without worrying about the key signature at all, then go back and decide what key and mode it fits best in. This frees me up to really hear what notes the musician is actually playing, rather than having some preconception about what notes they "should" be. Trad music works better that way, rather than from the key signature forward the way classical music does. In other words, in a trad tune, the notes are what they are, and assigning a key and mode to them is a somewhat unrelated exercise, like slipping a five-fingered glove over a six-fingered hand.

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Will,
In light of what you say in your last sentence, would you leave out the key sign entirely if you were publishing new tunes (or same thing, old ones that hadn’t been recorded yet)? I would imagine that only hardcore men like yourself would be receptive. The newly baptized and born again would probably be looking for a little more help.
I agree with the gist of what you are saying. Trad music is an aural tradition. The twentieth century has corralled it on paper in lines, staves and bars. A hostile environment, but it has made the music more accessible. Slan.
mairtin

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Heh, I’ve put together a three volume set of tune books (over 1,000 tunes) for my local session, and every tune has a key signature. For Irish trad music, the key signature makes complete sense for a majoirty of the tunes, as long as you keep the various modes in mind. And for the tunes that wander between modes or even keys , the key signature still serves as a useful reference point for the accidentals.

But I try to keep an open mind when I’m reading someone else’s transcription, especially if I haven’t heard the tune before. And I trust my ear, ,which has been heavily influenced by at least 30 years of listening closely to the music. Finally, it’s also a matter of realizing that there are no hard and fast rules here. I like to use Blackhaired Lass as an example—play it with c sharps, and it’s a cranking major-sounding reel. But drop down to c nats instead, and now you’ve got a cranking minorish-sounding reel. I’ve heard big trad players do it both ways, so neither one is ‘wrong.’ Most tunes are open to this sort of morphing.

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