Where are all the B minor tunes?

Where are all the B minor tunes?

I’m surprised there are so few “core” tunes in B minor/B Aeolian. Compared to the number of tunes in D major or E dorian—which on fiddle at least use the same fingering—I would have expected there to be a lot more.

Of course there are loads of tunes in B minor but there are relatively few that have become session standards. Reels like The Musical Priest and the Otter’s Holt come to mind. And then there’s… Um… Maybe one of the Martin Wynne’s..? For jigs, I think of The Shores of Lough Gowna. And then there’s… Um… The B part of The Connaughtman’s Rambles..?

Any conjecture on why this particular mode/key never really caught on?

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Just the way it goes, I’d say. If you like B minor and also switching between tune types, Humours of Whiskey into Glass of Beer is fun.

On a related topic, I don’t know of any tunes in G Lydian. Last time I brought this up somebody said "G Lydian wouldn’t sound Irish," but that’s circular reasoning. It doesn’t sound Irish because Irish musicians don’t play tunes like that, not the other way around. Maybe your B minor question is like that. There just aren’t as many tunes in that key.

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For reels, next to musical priest and otter’s holt, Glass of beer, superfly and Maggie’s pancakes have filled my bmin gap.

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Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

The Man of Aran, Flooded Road to Glenties, the Curlew, Old Maids of Galway, Sweeney’s Buttermilk, one of Tommy Peoples’, and Custy’s jig all come up fairly frequently at my local session, along with Maggie’s Pancakes, the Otter’s Holt, and Glass of Beer. Slightly less common, but nice tunes: Arthur’s Seat and the Old Dudeen.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

That’s interesting Katie. Maybe it’s just my own experience and not a universal thing. B minor tunes are like hen’s teeth around here compared to other keys/modes. Interesting that many of these tunes (Man of Aran, Custy’s, Sweeney’s Buttermilk, Otter’s Holt, Maggie’s Pancakes) are of fairly recent composition.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Strictly minor tunes are not actually very common, so the lack of them in B shouldn’t be surprising. If you could add another sharp to get B Dorian, there would no doubt be a lot more tunes. Unfortunately, that is out of the scope of common Irish keys.

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Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Most of the above, plus Jenny’s Chickens, Dan Breen’s and Jimmy’s Return. And Trip to Pakistan. The last one gets played a lot in Em. I originally learned in Bm (actually pitch Cm on a Tannahill Weavers album), but had probably never played it in sessions until I was in Oulu, and a Russian lad suggested that key. Funny thing - a Swede and a Russian playing a Scottish tune in an Irish session in Finland.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

No doubt there are several very fine tunes that can be played in Bm. But as Aaron points out, it seems that strictly minor (aeolian) tunes are relatively rare in Irish music. You really don’t even get Em tunes that much, compared to E dorian. My question is ‘why?’ Is it because what seems like an obvious scale to me wasn’t so obvious to the ears of earlier Irish musicians? Were there formerly shedloads of Bm tunes that were forgotten or recast in other keys because of some influence or instrument limitation? Is it simply a statistical fluke that Bm just happens to be the least utilized of the most easily reached scales—another way of shrugging and saying it is what it is, somebody has to come in last?

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Tar Road to Sligo, which I play after Rambling Pitchfork.

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Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

You hit it, joe, with your observation that aeolian tunes are rare in Irish. Major/Ionian tunes are most common, followed by Dorian, and then Mixolydian and Aeolian. And you can’t easily finger B Dorian on a whistle, and Irish tunes tend to be easily whistled. Yes, Mason’s Apron, but for the most part no G sharps. Which means if you want B it will be Aeolian or Phrygian (!)

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Thanks for trying to contribute AB but I know how to use the search engine on this site. I’m not looking for a list of mostly B minor settings of tunes usually played in other keys. I was hoping that someone with a background in ethnomusicology or Irish music history could give an explanation of why the B minor scale is relatively rare in Irish music, especially when it’s so closely related to the ubiquitous D major scale with identical fingering. I’d even welcome a wild-eyed Grattan Flood conspiracy theory at this point.

I’m no tune monger, but after playing for more than a decade I know several hundred tunes, probably less than a thousand, but only a small fraction of those are in B minor. I know more tunes in D dorian or F. I think tdrury is on to something with the limitations of some instruments like whistle. But surely that’s not the whole reason?

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If a pipes or whistle player wanted to write, or import into the tradition, a dorian mode tune with the ‘home note’ near the middle of the range of the instrument why use B dorian when A dorian is next door ?

Isn’t it a bit like asking why there are not many tunes in A?

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

There are a ton of tunes in A, typically from Donegal. That entire regional style was famously described as "playing very fast in A." Again, by B minor I’m referring to B aeolian, the relative minor to D — not B dorian.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Yes, but isn’t A a ‘fiddler’s key’? I wonder if any of the musicologists have looked at the relationship between key choices (and note usage) and dominant instrument across different traditions.

I have always assumed, perhaps naively, that major key Irish tunes were in D or G depending on where in the range of pipes and whistle that the home note was, and that the same applied to E dorian and A dorian. As has been pointed about above, there are relatively few E aeolian tunes (which isn’t a problem on wind instruments) so why should there be many in B aeolian?

Learning tunes from other traditions on flute has made me think there is a tendency for tunes for fit what lies comfortably on prominant instruments. Most English tunes in G have slightly fiddly passages using C natural of a sort that rarely come up in Irish tunes and I keep being relieved to find that many tunes in A only use the second octave G#, which works quite well on most whistles and flutes.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Part of the issue is that there aren’t that many B Aeolian (B Minor) tunes, and part of it is that B minor utilizes the same key signature as D major and may be mis-reported by less-savvy submitters as D major tunes.

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I don’t think it’s because anyone is mistaking Bm tunes as D major tunes. I’m not relying on a mindless search of this database—I’m talking about tunes I’ve experienced in sessions and on recordings.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

The thing is, there are a some great warhorse tunes in B minor. Shores of Lough Gowna, Tar Road to Sligo, The Musical Priest, The Glass of Beer—they’re all crackers. I’m just wondering why there aren’t tons more. B minor is eminently suited to Irish music, aurally.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

I went on a real Bmin kick about a year ago and added quite a few of them to my collection. I guess it’s also worth noting that I play in very fiddle-dominated sessions, and we do tend to like our minor tunes and more contemporary compositions, so I probably do have a slightly skewed repertoire. We’re hardly pure drop.

When I frequented the beginner session, however, most of the minor tunes that cropped up tended to be in Eminor, with only the occasional Musical Priest or Otter’s Holt, now that I think about it.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

The relative minor to D major is Bm. But the Bm scale is not fully encompassed by 2 sharps.
A lot of these tunes are not in B minor but are played with 2 sharps. They are in D major.

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Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

In many of our session there comes a time when we play a "normal" reel set which suddenly is followed by something in Bm, and then we’re stuck with that key until we’re out of tunes (haha!). Most have been mentioned in this discussion. Some change to D in the B part (and if there’s a C part, it’s often back to Bm). I really like the key, it’s not just that it’s funnier to play a step higher than Am/Ador (which I didn’t care much about for many years), it’s the actual sound of those tunes.

A great tune I’ve played since the day I heard it (but only ONCE in a session), is Paddy Mac’s - https://thesession.org/tunes/5655

Of course it was brought up in a session in Donegal. I was the only other musician who knew it. :D

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

By "Jenny’s Chickens" do you mean this tune?

https://thesession.org/tunes/756

It’s neither in B minor nor in B Major because the tune has no D, no 3rd degree.

You could back up the tune using B Major chords just as well, from the tune’s standpoint.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

"I don’t know of any tunes in G Lydian"

There are loads of them in Highland pipe music, strathspeys and reels and pretty much everything.

There are many old traditional tunes in that key, and new tunes are still being composed.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

"But the Bm scale is not fully encompassed by 2 sharps."

What am I missing here? Are you talking about something besides pure aeolian?

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Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Richard D Cook, probably ninety-five percent of what I play on fiddle is Irish in origin and/or character. Are most of the tunes in G Lydian you’re talking about Scottish? Would you mind suggesting a few of your favorites? This is a thing that’s bugged me for awhile. Sorry if I’m hijacking your thread joe.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Cross post with Aaron -

Aaron, there is not strictly such a thing as one B minor scale. In tonal theory there are three minor scales - natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor. In modal theory (which is closer to what ITM is) there isn’t strictly any such thing as minor, though musicians use the term often for tunes in the Dorian or Aeolian mode.

For example - B natural minor = B C# D E F# G A B
B harmonic minor = B C# D E F# G A# B
B melodic minor = B C# D E F# G# A# B A G F# E D C# B.
(For that one you have to go up and down.)

B Dorian = B C# D E F# G# A B
B Aeolian = B C# D E F# G A B

"Minor" is a term and concept perfected by the Western tonal composers and theorists (Bach and Beethoven and the like) and in tonal music you rely on the leading tone, one half step below the tonic. This note (A# in B minor) does not turn up in the modes that sound like minor which gives them a color distinctly different from tonal music minor.

TL;DR "B minor is not fully encompassed by ‘2 sharps’"

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

I play Jenny’s chickens with D’s at the end of the B part and all throughout the C part. Lots of folks do.

Flatted 3rd, 6th, and 7th. (Or implied flatted third in other versions) If it looks, smells, and tastes minor, it probably is minor.

@tdrury, minor in Irish music = aeolian. We (mostly)all know this. Bringing up the term ‘minor’ from other contexts and trying to apply it to Irish scales is muddying things up. My thanks to Johannes and Ludwig for stopping by, but I’m afraid their services will be needed elsewhere.

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Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Errm, Johann.

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Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

I think the original question is an interesting one. Dorian mode is so common, but the minor (aeolian) mode is not so common. And you get some almost minor tunes that seem to lack conviction, and will waver between minor and dorian. To "Western" ears, Myxolidian is kind of a strange way to put together a melody, yet it is more commonly used than straight Minor.

I don’t have enough historical musicology knowledge, but I suspect it has something to do with what modes The Tradition (lost in time) simply feels are appropriate for musical expression. This doesn’t seem like a stretch; think of what is considered to be appropriate melodies and harmonies in the blues tradition (or traditions).

Jack Campin’s treatise makes an attempt at surveying http://www.campin.me.uk/Music/Modes/ "Scales and Modes in Scottish Music". I found it pretty interesting and it made me aware of how common "gapped scales" are, i.e. tunes in a scale that is missing or mostly missing one note, which makes identifying a single mode somewhat ambiguous. Like "Farewell to Whalley Range" which is hexatonic F#minor, but perfectly playable on a D-whistle.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Here is an argument for an answer. I have no way to verify it:

The range of notes available on traditional instruments is about two octaves, running from D through b, which includes the whistle, flute and top three strings of the fiddle without going into second position. The human voice covers about one octave, also in that general range depending on range (Bass, tenor, baritone/alto, soprano).

Generally speaking, it seems that traditional tunes "like" to have a tonal center near the bottom of the range.

B-minor tunes would place the tonal center in the middle of the range for typical instruments.

Given the voicing and fingering of most traditional instruments, it is reasonable that most tunes are in the D, E-dorian, G, and A-dorian modes. (Fiddlers are happy in A, C and Bb and their relatives, but less so for flutes, pipes and whistles.)

In terms of fingering on these instruments, E-minor and B-minor don’t offer any challenges.

By this logic, are E-minor tunes more common than B-minor ones?

Or, does this suggest that E-dorian (key-signature of D) should be the most common "minor-ish" mode. I’m not sure that is true, as there are plenty of A-dorian tunes.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Try this one:-
http://www.rudemex.co.uk/Tune%20library/RM%20compositions/Another%20mountain.pdf

It’s probably not strictly correct to say it’s my tune: I found a hornpipe called ‘The Mountain Top’ written in B-flat. I just changed the two flats for two sharps and it came out like this, sort of B-minorish. The accompanying line is mine, for what it’s worth.

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Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Sure Richard, I mean the same version of Jenny’s Chickens. Whether the tune has a d or not depends on the version - some transcriptions have it (and it makes sense), and I’ve always interpreted it as a Bm tune (gapped or not!), just as I supposed that the vast majority would say that Mist Covered Mountain is a minorish tune although some versions don’t have a third.

The tune Jenny’s Chickens looks, smells, and tastes minor, as Aaron said.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

I think it was clear from the OP that ‘minor’ meant Aeolian in the context of the discussion. So what tdrury needed to set out for us was a red herring.

I have an Eb key on my flute. I don’t recall having used it for Irish tunes (maybe Carolan tunes though, I am not sure). I bought it for Scottish, Welsh and English tunes in E minor (or, as a cop out, playing D minor tunes from those traditions in E minor). I suspect that most of those tunes are borrowings from, or influenced by ‘western art music’ .

So, from my exposure to it, Irish traditional music doesn’t have many non-Aeolian (or Dorian) minor tunes. If that is true why is that, when adjacent traditions do have a few? Is it relevant to the discussion even if tonal music ‘minor’ is a red herring?

Whenever I read up about the medieval modes I come across the authentic (‘final’ as the lowest note of the scale) and ‘plagal’ (‘final’ a fourth above the lowest note of the scale) modes. That sounds like Irish tune in D Ionian and G Ionian respectively to me. Or E Dorian and A Dorian.

I may be getting the wrong end of the stick on that but I think it may be related to what Tom Stermitz says about the range of the tunes. Singers are not bothered about restrictions on available notes the way instrumentalists are. How often do Aeolian tunes appear in songs and where, in range in use, is the ‘home note’?

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Not wishing to upset joe fidkid but we play The Musical Priest in Eminor. 8))

Here’s a cracker of a Bminor tune: https://thesession.org/tunes/4335
but we often play it in Aminor.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

But read the notes for The Beech Tree.

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And look at the range.

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Not to worry, David T — I’m not upset. Honest! 🙂 I’m guilty too — I sometimes play The Otter’s Holt in Em the way Junior Crehan composed it. And I’d forgotten about The Beech Tree. It always felt to me like Sharpley should have spent a little more time on the A part, it’s rather awkward. The B part is exquisite though. Never tried it in Am.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Ok, none of these are Irish, the majority coming from GHB sources, but we play the following Bm tunes:
MacLeod of Mull
The Ale is Dear
Kelsae Brig
Extra Bar in Paddyland
John MacColl’s Farewell (correct title: Second Regiment Scottish Horse)
The Smirnoff Gigolo
Ievan’s Polka
Zeeto the Bubbleman (C & D parts)
Last Tango in Harris
La Gueussinette

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

That’s about 3% of what we commonly play, so it’s not a lot.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

TBH, I’ve always loved that tune, The Beech Tree. Maybe it could have been improved - but it is what it is, that’s all there is to it. Few enough people know it without ‘improving’ it at this late stage. Changing the key doesn’t count. 8))

Anyway, I came back here to say I’d be playing Otter’s Holt in Eminor from now on. Thanks joe fidkid.

Apologies David50, I don’t understand your comments, sorry. Can you explain what you mean more?

Regards
David

p.s. nothing to do with Bminor: Gerry Harrington plays Paddy Fahy’s (https://thesession.org/tunes/1402) in low G. Excellent! This one would be good in low G too: https://thesession.org/tunes/10068

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Posted this as a comment on the tune the beech tree, ha ha, I’ll see if I can remove it from there.
Funny when I first clicked on the video of Iona, in the sidebar there was a video, asking ‘what key fits your personality’, nothing to do with musical key’s, but had pictures of 6 locksmith keys.
But musical keys or which key a tune is played in, is often reflective I think of personality traits.
No ethnomusicologist or speller here.
A frequent poster here at the session is always looking for the most deepest darkest tune’s ha ha, and there is often debate over whether Dm or Gm is the darkest key.
Anecdotally, and this might not hold up to serious inquiry, after the universal major key of D ? Donegal, might favor A for reels and such, and the south of the country might be more G ?
While its related to dance, but in the south west, polka’s and slides give people the skip and in other parts its more reels, is it because people are tuned differently by there geography or something else.
Someone once remarked poets, dreamers and thinkers come out of the sea, and lofty peaks, and people who live with less topographical features are more inward, utilitarian.
Outside of literally the major keys, and whichever ones call to your heartsong, minor keys are like chocolate cake, spice. To much of a good thing, and you get very ill, there to add subtly and flavor.
Doing the fancy search on tines, Am, 64 pages, Bm, 69, Dm 29, and Em 102
So Bm stacks up pretty well. If you delve into it, you can argue the toss on, some tunes are settings and not traditionally played in that key, or new compositions, but there’s probably one tune per page, ‘from the tradition’ in that key.
There might be a few more Scottish Bagpipe Tunes, for Bm than in other keys.
I don’t think its limits of any particular instrument if there is paucity of Bm more the sound of it, people like the sound of other keys more.
It does surprize me that in an area, where 1 row boxes were popular, SW Ireland, that there aren’t more tunes composed in Bm. You could check out Brosnans Reel.
Just a few thoughts to stuff in the pipe.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

@DavidT. The Beech Tree is a modern tune, first recorded by an English-Scottish band based in Leeds. It’s not really relevant to question posed in the OP.

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Ah, you mean ‘session standards’ and ‘core tunes’ David50? Apologies. I only mentioned it because it’s a Bminor tune I happen to like a lot, that’s all; I wish it were played more and maybe by highlighting it, it might be.

Regards
David

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Not that it has a lot to do with my OP, but The Beech Tree is a fun tune, I’ll admit. I have to get back to playing it. To call the A part "awkward" wasn’t quite fair. I think it’s more often idiosyncrasies we find endearing, not perfection.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

More tunes that I have always played in B min (or whatever mode you want to call it!)
Paddy’s Leather Britches
The Sleeping Tune
Brian Boru’s March
Easy enough on a B/C buttonbox
Have always played Trip to Pakistan in Emin btw (see Jeff 3 days ago)

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

There are sixty-nine pages of "Bm" tunes if you search the tune portion of this site. A lot of them are Bm versions of other tunes, but I’d think that would be a great place to start if you are looking for Bm tunes and not just mourning the dearth of such tunes.

Mike Keyes

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Mike, I appreciate your post. I also happen to agree it’s a great place to start. Cheers.

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<face palm> I’m not mourning anything. I’m genuinely curious about why there is a relative rarity of common session tunes that use a B aeolian scale, especially when that scale is so closely related to the most common one of D, using identical fingering. I’m NOT looking for a list of tunes, thanks.

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Sorry, Joe, I’m not doubting your curiosity.

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Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

It’s possibly a question of flute/whistle range - D, G, and Edor/Em are based in the first octave, Am/Ador less so (but low enough), and Bm usually gets very high.

Maybe someone has an idea how many Bm tunes started out as flute/whistle/pipe tunes, compared to fiddle?

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

Well, don’t know how Irish it is, but ‘The Wren’ is usually played in B minor. I learned it on 5-string banjo in Em for one Contra Band, then grumbled because it was in Bm for a recent dance. But when I saw that it was basically the same notes as D major, it turned out not that bad (to play … cannot speak for the dancers/listeners).

Re: Where are all the B minor tunes?

"It’s possibly a question of flute/whistle range… … and Bm usually gets very high." Or fiddler’s not wanting to move out of first postion?

That’s what I was getting at above. If it went more than an octave above B you would play it in Em. If that was too low you are stuck with Am - but F natural is a fairly familiar note.

Isn’t it similar to fitting song tunes to a whistle? Someone said above that the range of the human voice is about an octave. Actually, it’s slightly more than that otherwise we would not be able to sing in unison, since people’s ranges are different. So you grab a whistle that has the required range and mode. If there is no singer but you want to play the tune then you chose the key where it will fit best on the whistle.

Is it that there are not many Aeolian tunes or that there are plenty but they fit whistle and 1st position fiddle better in a key other than Bm?