Theory in Irish Music

Theory in Irish Music

Hello! I have been studying music theory quite intensely this summer, and I’ve learned a lot about chords and modes and progressions. It leaves me with some questions why don’t Irish tune writers use Phrygian? Has anyone tried anything different than just using minor and major triads like 7 chords, or suspended chords or diminished triads? If so could you point me in that direction lol? Sorry if this isn’t specific enough I know what I want to say, but I’m having a hard time expressing it.


Re: Theory in Irish Music

Email sent….

Re: Theory in Irish Music

A 7 chord here, and a diminished chord there, and pretty soon you are playing jazz. It’s a slippery slope. 🙂

Re: Theory in Irish Music

Yes that is true Al, but if you’re careful and use substitutions sparingly, then you can really alter the sound without changing the genre.

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I’ve been learning accompaniment on piano, and I have to say that the music just begs to use open chords. Most of the time it seems as if full triads are simply too much, as if I’m forcing the music in a certain direction. Even when the chord is clear, it just seems as if root and 5th are way more fitting. I’d rather let the melody dictate the music and the accompaniment add flavor.

I am currently working on learning what Brid Cranitch is doing on the Blue Book CD, and discovered something interesting. She uses a lot of flavor chords and such, but the chords are all broken so that they don’t overpower anything. There is an A D# E bass walkup in Silver Spear, for example, and the use of a couple of 7 (or major 7?) chords.

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Re: Theory in Irish Music

Not much phrygian around here. Pretty much major, myxolidian, dorian and very occasionally minor.

On the other hand, we use a lot of gapped scales: hexatonic & pentatonic scales.

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<<Yes that is true Al, but if you’re careful and use substitutions sparingly, then you can really alter the sound without changing the genre.>>

Actually Kelly thats not the case. Traditional Irish music has no substitution, its part of the definition as I was taught.
Of course these days everyone and their mother substitutes chords and all sorts of thing from other genres creep in .
But if you want to play traditionally , and chords and accompaniment are indisputably part of the tradition and have been for hundreds of years.
then there is to be No substitution.
And just think of all those happy tune players you will meet delighted your not shoehorning some jazz concepts in after you’ve been backing trad for several weeks 😉

The secret is in the tunes. The chords are in the tune because the tune is chords spread out.
Most guitarists come to trad from other genres and bring their fancy ideas with them and superimpose these upon the tunes and the players.
It doesnt matter how many decades youve played jazz , when you play a trad tune, your a total beginner, so remember that and be appropriately humble and just listen to the music and play the chords that the tune player is playing…… or at the least , try ….

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Thanks Will! I’m not a jazz player though. I don’t even listen to it. I understand what you’re saying though

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> why don’t Irish tune writers use Phrygian?

The easiest way to answer this is to try writing a tune using it. As a starter for ten, it’s very hard to find a chord progression that "makes sense" to accompany a Phrygian tune…

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Re: Theory in Irish Music

"in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the two other sides"

Oh no, that was Pythagoras.


Re: Theory in Irish Music

I think I may have written a Phrygian tune or two over the years (at least a couple that start as Spanish Phrygian), but whatever my experiments, very few of these ever reach my active repertoire. Anything that sounds forced or shoehorned into a pattern rarely work. :D

This being said, there are a couple of trad tunes with, how should I put it, straightforward scales but unexpected turns. That’s usually enough for a backer to get lost. If you want challenge, you can always find tunes that are already in the tradition.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

Irish traditional music is… traditional. Even modern writers of tunes will tend to conform to the traditions of the music. They will have internalised how the music should sound and be played through listening over the years.

If you move too much away from the traditional structures it will not be seen as consistent with the genre and people who like Irish traditional music will probably not adopt or play it. That’s not to say it is not worth doing

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Let’s face it, the essence of the older tradition are instruments such as fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, whistle, and concertina playing the melody in unison (or near-unison). Add to that the uilleann pipes playing over a fixed drone, and certain instruments perhaps adding drone-notes or chord-notes here and there.

As soon as you add a guitar or piano playing fulltime chordal accompaniment the old feel of the music will be changed.

To me the interesting thing is where the accordion sits in all of this. What’s the feeling of Irish accordionists? Full 1-4-5 chord progressions? 5-7-chords? Using no chords? Using something in between?

I think there’s a feel for that something-in-between. Open chords were mentioned above and for sure DADGAD guitar and "Irish bouzouki" accompaniment address that. I know a guitarist who is good at sounding DADGAD-like in ordinary guitar tuning.

About substitutions, the notion of "substitution" follows from the notion that there’s a universally agreed-upon chord in a certain part of a tune. But in Irish trad that’s often not the case due to many tunes (or parts of tunes) being harmonically vague. There are points in certain Irish tunes where you’ll hear three accompanists using three different chords, for example G Major, B minor, or E minor where the tune is dwelling on B. Which is the "real" chord and which are the substitutions? It’s a matter of opinion.

It’s become standard operating procedure in many trad bands to use certain chord progressions which one could say are based upon certain stereotyped substitutions.

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"It leaves me with some questions why don’t Irish tune writers use Phrygian?"

Back in 19 August 1974, I attended a lecture by Michael O’Suilleabhain at the Scoil Éigse at Listowel, held in the run-up to the Fleadh Cheoil. His topic was "The Modes", which he delivered supported only with a tin whistle. His approach was to nominate a mode, talk about it, play the scale of the mode on the whistle, and then play a tune in that mode. I found it very effective. Once he had played the scale of the mode, you could hear it in the tune to follow.

Reason I mention it, is that I reckon he had a Phrygian tune among all his examples, although I think I remember him commenting that they are rare. It is 44 years ago, so I won’t swear to it! It might have been Lydian!

It gets more complicated in that there are more than one modes entitled Phrygian, but I would assume the use of the old church mode, which I think is E to E playing the piano’s white notes.

I seem to remember that Michael also talked about gapped scales (e.g. pentatonic, heptatonic) and how some of the seriously-weird notes in the modes are skipped over using gapped scales. If you take out the Fnatural in the E to E scale, it doesn’t sound so strange.

So, don’t necessarily assume there are no Irish Phyrgian tunes. Perhaps one of our programmers could devise an algorithm to scan for them?

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Since so many people are reading this who understand Irish music theory, I thought I would "hijack" it briefly. While I’ve studied music theory for years, I’ve discovered that students of traditional Irish music are well taught in the theory as applied to Irish music - a specific context with specific focus. Could anyone recommend sources that might help me catch up on Irish theory? Thanks in advance, & back to Phrygian stuff!

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If you’re new to theory just make sure you’re not putting the cart before the horse. Theory gives names to stuff that already exists. It doesn’t prescribe how you write or play. If there are no Phrygian tunes it’s a bit like asking why there’s no cumin on pizza.

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Scottish and … but it might give you some ideas.
- - -
Jack Campin (mentioned above)
Scales and Modes in Scottish Traditional Music by Jack Campin
says Phrygian is uncommon, but has been used in Scottish tunes. Lydian tunes are also represented.
Also, there are gapped scales that are ambiguous and can be interpreted as Major or Lydian.
Read his book. He has done a lot of research.
But since the Greek modes all have the same pattern of intervals, scales can be ambiguous. Scottish pipe tunes often resolve to a non tonic chord which makes it more confusing.

At least one Irish tune may be part Phrygian. The ‘B part’ of ‘The Butterfly’ the version played with c naturals at the beginning of phrases. Try playing just the ‘B part’ and end on a B note to get a feeling for it. setting 7, A:7
|:B2c e2f g3|B2e g2e dBA|B2c e2f g2a|b2a g2e dBA:| B
I think if you play just this melody you will see how resolving on B sounds pretty good.
If you put chords to it you would of course use more Irish-ish chords rather than the Spanish chords I listed below.
I much prefer the 7th setting. The Phrygian adds a touch of wildness to the tune which I think has more character:
|:B2c e2f g3|…
rather that the other setting which sounds a little to tame to me.
|: B2 d e2 f g2 d | …

I think that Scottish pipers may be more adventuresome with some scales. You can change the mode of a tune just by picking different backup chords. So there may not be any right answers, Here are tunes that Jack Campin interprets as Phrygian:

The Dhu Hill - jig - - Irish?
Part A and B: F# Phrygian scale
Part C: G Lydian scale

Haud Awa’ Hame - jig -
F# Phrygian scale

The Cloud Crown - air? -
F# Phrygian scale

The Seas Are Deep - air -
A Hijaz scale: A x - - C# D - E F - G - A (Phrygian with sharped 3rd)

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Just for fun:
Spanish, Flamenco, Hill-billy-rock, and Surf music all use Phrygian with this cadence
Example E Phrygian: Am G F E
The E major (tonic) chord uses the out of scale g# note.
But the g# is sometimes used in the scale to get a Jewish or middle-eastern Hijaz scale (but not for the tonic chord).

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Sorry,Steve, but I can’t agree with that last analysis. Am, G,F,E is I, VII, VI, V in A minor- no Phrygian in earshot.

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Yeah, if Am is the home chord, it’s Am. The assumed E Phrygian above derives from A harmonic minor (A B c d e f #g a, and E F #G A B c d e respectively), or if you want: E Phrygian with a raised third. But I’d only call it E something if the E chord was indeed the home chord. (As in my two tunes mentioned.)

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"Could anyone recommend sources that might help me catch up on Irish theory?"

As mentioned:
"Scales and Modes in Scottish Traditional Music"
by Jack Campin

Lots of interesting ideas. In particular the first page as to why learning about modes might matter.

One thing I got out of it is how rarely we play in the Minor (Aeolian) mode, how commonly we play Dorian, and how often we see Hexatonic scales.

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What’s this Phrygian yous are going on about? Quite the opposite here this summer, in fact it’s bloody hot!

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Lydian is rather common in older Highland pipe music, and modern pipers are still composing new music in Lydian.

On the Highland pipes it’s

G A B C# D E F# G

The note C# (which is the note that turns the scale from G Major to G Lydian) is prominent in many of these tunes. The feel of the tunes suggest G Major as the tonic chord and A Major as the dominant chord, the chords typically goings G>A>G.

There are other tunes in a G gap scale which lacks the 4th (C#) and have the feel of straightforward Major tunes.

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Here’s an old pipe tune in Lydian, Lady Margaret MacDonald’s Salute

Generally throughout the tune the measures have three pulses which go G Major > A Major > G Major.

The concluding measure of each line (of six measures) goes G Major > A Major > A Major.

In looking over a number of pibrochs I see that the ones in the key of G are generally in a gap scale that omits the note C#.

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I claim that once we start talking about gap scales than we should really put some thought into claiming them as belonging to a particular mode. I believe this is something that can be argued but I see mistakes made for example: Root G with pitches (G, Bb, C, D, F). I have seen examples where someone will claim this is a Phrygian mode with ‘gaps’ but human ears will hear this as a minor because of our cumulative listening experience. In order for you to ‘hear’ an unusual harmony then that harmony needs to be presented. In this example a gap scale might begin to sound Phrygian with: Root G with pitches (G, Ab, Bb, Eb, F) or (Ab, C, Bb, Eb, F (would require a drone or bass note to define the root)). It looks strange but to my theory background you keep the ‘color’ of the scale.

In modern jazz this is done all the time probably becoming common around the post-bop period with musicians such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. They used a lot of pentatonic substitution devices which, using my own interpretation, was a way for them to play the gap scales that tend to sound a little more melodic and yet with interesting harmony for musicians who were looking to push the music forward out of bebop. A common example of this is: Key G, Chord D7b9#9 Over these dominant chords it is common to play what is referred to as a minor 6 pentatonic (flat second mode of D7b9) with pitches (Eb, F, F#,A#, C). This is an Eb Minor Pentatonic (Also sometimes called the Michael Brecker scale) played over a D7 chord. It works because of the unusual color tones which are the b9, #9, M3, #4, and dom7 (over D7). This harmony is actually quite common over this type of chord - all of the tension it creates drives you back to the G which I stated is the key of the tune in this example. Now if you’re reading this from a trad perspective you may claim that this is ‘why I hate jazz’ but in the context of jazz it fits the language beautifully. To my aesthetic this is a beautiful language and yes the language developed first before the math (theory) that explains it.

As far as Phrygian. I agree with everyone that has said it should only (and always) be used as a means to explain music that came out of our imagination. I claim that 99.9% of the time Phrygian can not be used effectively to explain trad music tunes. I have looked at some of the examples in this thread and I believe they are incorrect. I also have a hard time imagining a true Lydian scale that doesn’t lead our ears to believe the music is something else other than trad.

Bridging The Gap uses the D natural minor scale.

Spanish Phrygian is something entirely different.

Phrygian Whistle - I feel fine about calling this Phrygian and it works - I like it nice job. I do think it sounds exotic but with the instrumentation and style I’ll give you that it is well rooted. Yet still my ear wants tells me the harmony is borrowed. It is a wonderful example that I needed though - thank you.

The Butterfly B part (C naturals) - Melody is in Em - Phrygian requires F naturals. I would call this natural minor.

Dhu Hill - F# requires g naturals to sound Phrygian. I would call this natural minor.

The Fair Face I Never Saw - I’ll give you this one and I’ll do some more research because this is interesting to find this harmony in an old tune.

Cloud Crown - This sounds Phrygian but to me it sounds like borrowed harmony - I want to say it sounds Breton or middle eastern - especially with the a#. I would be interested to know the source - my searches came up empty.

The Seas Are Deep - With the C#s present I would call this D Harmonic minor.

Lady Margaret MacDonald’s Salute - Sounds like Bb Mixolodian to me. The drone is in Bb - perhaps you transposed it but in any case the drone will root the mode to our earth ears and the pitches are (Root, M2, M3, P4, P5, Dom7). Call it a Hexatonic scale if you wish but in the absence of a sixth step in traditional music I will claim that our imagination will ‘hear’ a M6th step over m6 thus, Mixolodian.

…This post was highly anal but I’m on vacation and I find this fun. It also helps me with my rusting music theory.

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To 5stringfool and jeff_lindqvist
I probably should not have given an example of Phrygian scales in other genre’s.
But I think that it is helpful to recognize that the standard jazz/classical way of analyzing modes does not always work for folk/traditional music. The Spanish Phrygian is a great example.

After I explain how the Spanish Phrygian deviates from standard mode theory see; I’ll show how many Irish E Dorian tunes deviate consistently from standard Dorian mode theory enough to be a different standard.

Jazz, Scottish and Spanish Phrygian modes are all handled very differently from each other.
Here to see standard (jazz/European) modes

Any Spanish music theory book or Spanish teacher would describe the Spanish E Phrygian as such:

- The scale is E F G A B C D E where E is the main tonal center.

- Some times a G# is used in the melody to get a middle-eastern flavor, but NOT in an ascending/descending classical manor. More like how Blues uses a flatted fifth.

- The tonic chord is E major : E G# B (NOT E minor as you would expect)

- The "dominant" (second predominant) chord is F major : F A C (NOT Bdim, NOT the Gregorian dominant, NOT the ("dominant 7th" type chord) on III). Strange if you have never heard it before.

- The main cadence is F resolving to E. The complete cadence is Am to G to F resolving to E.

As you can see, the Spanish Phrygian does not follow standard mode theory. You both noticed that in my previous message. I hope I described it better this time. The Gregorian Phrygian is also handled very differently (the melody and the harmony). I don’t know enough Scottish music to analyze the Scottish Phrygian.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Now, let’s look at how many Irish E Dorian tunes deviate consistently from standard Dorian mode theory. Not all do, but enough do to be a different standard.

Jack Campin whom I quote, calls them Double Tonics. [[my comments in brackets ]]
"Double Tonic: Some of the oldest tunes in the repertoire [[Scottish]] make systematic alternations in mode between two tonal centres one step apart; most commonly between the dorian mode and the relative major below it [[the seventh of the Dorian mode]], or the mixolydian mode and the relative minor below it. This technique is usually called a DOUBLE TONIC."

These "Double Tonic"s occur in Irish music as well. The ones I know are in E Dorian.

We have E Dorian (double tonics) like ‘The Butterfly’ and ‘Drowsy Maggie’ and ‘Morrison’s Jig’ and many others.

Part A and C (B in some versions) of ‘The Butterfly’ seem to be in E Dorian but end on a D chord where D is acting in my mind as the dominant chord. The cadence being D resolving to Em. In Jack Campin’s mind he sees it as having two tonic chords Em and D. Regardless of how you think of it, the Em chord is the main chord (tonic) and the D chord is the next most important chord (you can think of it as the dominant, or as a secondary tonic). In standard E Dorian theory A would be the next more prominent chord, being the ("dominant 7th" type chord) the Dorian IV.

Likewise, the first part of ‘Drowsy Maggie’ is E Dorian. But the D chord is super prominent, and each part ends on the D chord. Thus you have another E Dorian Double Tonic.

And again; the first part and at least most of the second part of ‘Morrison’s Jig’ is E Dorian. But the D chord is super prominent, and each part ends on the D chord. Thus you have another E Dorian Double Tonic.

There are so many Irish tunes that follow this particular deviation from standard mode theory, and very consistently, that is seems logical to conclude that there is a specific Irish/Scottish Dorian Mode; perhaps two Irish/Scottish Dorian modes.
- - -
To Kellie,

I hope this helps a bit. There are regional and ethnic variations on mode theory.
There is more complexity that standard mode theory suggests, but there are still standards that can be fairly easily understood. Though it may be difficult to find information.

In my opinion Jack Campin’s book is one of the best theory books to understand the details of Irish music theory. Most descriptions are too simplified and overly rely on standard mode theory.
Scales and Modes in Scottish Traditional Music by Jack Campin :

Also, ‘Richard D Cook’ and ‘JWiseman’ above have great information. I think ‘JWiseman’ is worth reading several times. He packed a lot of information in his reply. And thanks to ‘JWiseman’ for analyzing each tune. Some folks don’t like theory, but for me it opens up a deeper/wider understanding of a tune, and makes it easier to remember, because the harmonic changes fit into a pattern.

Thinking about it more, I would agree with ‘JWiseman’ over Jack Campin though about Irish/Scottish Phrygian.
The Spanish really "own" Phrygian. I have tried some of the few Phrygian examples (Irish/Scottish) that I referred to, and it’s really a stretch to call them Phrygian. But I am very used to Spanish Phrygian. Beethoven used Phrygian sometimes, but it does not sound Phrygian to me. Once you get exposed to Spanish Phrygian, there is no turning back.

I might question ‘JWiseman’ about Lydian. I don’t have enough listening experience to have an opinion, but a lot of Scottish pipers seem to believe that Lydian is a natural pipe scale that has been normalized in modern times to be more major. However, I have also heard some Scottish pipers who believe that it is more of a theoretical scale for understanding modes.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

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Re: Theory in Irish Music

I don’t have an understanding of Scottish Pipe music to say whether it is Lydian or not - I would appreciate a couple examples. Lydian is beautiful to my ear and I believe it’s essence is quite common in most music. Phrygian is tough on my ear. I noted the original that one of the posted wrote and linked. The chord sequence is Bm-C where B is the key center. I don’t have any examples but it seems when you do run across these Phrygian tunes they will have the bII chord present and from my listening experience, albeit incomplete, it almost seems any Phygian based tune needsthis presence. I would use F#m and G (G bII)(F# Phryg) for Cloud Crown if I were accompanying. For Haud Awa’ Hame I think I would use some well placed G chords as well but I wonder. This is the most interesting tune for me because I really don’t understand where it’s coming from. The Phrygian scale itself without a chord sequence is unrecognizable as melody. I can, especially after going through today’s exercise, write bits of Phrygian melody that has meaning but that is because I am feeling the chords change to bits of melody I write. The melody below kind of popped into my head. It kind of works with the chords I wrote in but if you only play Em chords it doesn’t do a thing to my ear. I’m figuring this our for my self in real time so I hope this makes sense.

I hadn’t heard of Spanish Phygian but the source I found spells it (C - Db - E - F - G - Ab - Bb - C) and makes no mention of a flat 3. It would seem I need to do my own research. I don’t like calling anything Phrygian that has a major third because for me it is the most defining note in the scale in most modern harmony. As you describe it, the Spanish Phrygian scale is the same scale tone as regular Phrygian except that there is an extra step that appears (occasionally?). Perhaps there is some tuning involved as well. I would need to hear the music (as always).
In general I get nervous when people talk about different theory for folk and jazz and classical. I feel like ninety-nine percent of the time classical music theory is capable labeling harmonic schemes of all music - I’m sure there are some exceptions but I believe they are rare. I am most familiar with jazz theory with my background and it does have it’s own vernacular but I would rather it did not. To me it’s almost like using a different math to explain a physical phenomena because it comes from another part of the world. Music theory is really just math. Where the math does indeed fail is when music starts falling between the cracks with tuning and things. I guess at that point you have to create new math.
I reiterate, the most important thing is the music and listening. Explaining it with theory always falls short but for me it helps me organize my musical brain, helps me to teach my students, and it is a fun nerdy thing to practice.

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Son of Kellie, I am delighted to hear that you are learning about music theory and thinking about how it applies to Trad (it does). Irish Trad isn’t, and should not be thought of as, one dimensional. It’s not just a bunch of old men staring at the floor. Use what you learn and fly with it. Just be mindful of those you play with and respect their ideas, just as they should be of yours.

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PJ Mediterranean: Great tunes!!

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Reading through this thread, I can’t find any mention of Cathal McConnell’s Slip Jig, aka the Cock and the Hen. Is that Phrygian? Assuming you start on F#, there are no Gs except perhaps as passing notes, but I’d say they were natural.

Cathal’s tune The Rainbow is in a similar mode, though there are accidentals so it moves around a bit. Someone once told me I was playing in Phrygian when I played it.

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Hi cab,

I played ‘The Cock And The Hen’ and I am pretty sure that the F# version
The Cock And The Hen - (SETTING 2)
Is a gapped mode that is ambiguous between Minor and Phrygian because of the missing G or G#.
But it feels pretty Phrygian to me, especially on whistle (That may be because Spanish Phrygian is very normal for me).

There are different music theories. For the most part I find Jack Campin’s theory of modes as very useful for Irish/Scottish music.
Scales and Modes in Scottish Traditional Music by Jack Campin :

To me, assuming the tonal center is F#’The Cock And The Hen’ is a very good example of a "Minor/Phrygian Gap 2" Mode.
Because there is one note of the scale missing (G# or G), the mode is either Minor or Phrygian if one only considers the 7 tone diatonic modes.
Min/Phr (2-gap) 1 - - 3 - 4 - 5 6 - 7 - 1

This particular mode is present in Irish/Scottish music but not common.

The Minor/Phrygian Gap Mode might sound Minor to a northern European, but could sound Phrygian to a resident of southern France or Spain. If you play the F# version on a D whistle or flute and do the F# roll with G natural (F#,G,F#,E,F#), it definitely sounds Phrygian. Though, you could use other embellishments to get a Minor sound.

The second part uses the A chord a lot, but strongly wants to resolves to F# at the very end. You could interpret it as a shift in tonal center (mode) or just the III chord of the F# mode to get a lighter feel before resolving back to the more serious sounding Minor/Phrygian mode.

Hexatonic Modes or Gapped Modes are common in Irish/Scottish music.
Here are other gapped modes that are pretty common:
Lyd/Maj (4-gap) 1 - 2 - 3 - - 5 - 6 - 7 1
Maj/Mix (7-gap) 1 - 2 - 3 4 - 5 - 6 - - 1
Mix/Dor (3-gap) 1 - 2 - - 4 - 5 - 6 7 - 1
Dor/Min (6-gap) 1 - 2 3 - 4 - 5 - - 7 - 1

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - RAINBOW
Seems like a Major mode to me, not Phrygian.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

Gapped scale or not, I think of The Cock And The Hen as a tune with the A part in minor and the B part in the relative major - in other words, a typical Aeolian tune. (See: )

This being said, I sometimes DO play a G natural in this very slip jig (e.g. FGF FEF c2A), but it’s of minor importance as a kind of passing note, so I’d never label the tune Phrygian.

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Gapped modes (hexatonic) and pentatonic modes have a completely different feel to me than 7 tone diatonic modes.
Of course, you can harmonize a pentatonic tune into a diatonic mode that you are more comfortable with.
Guitar players find many Irish tunes difficult to harmonize because they don’t fit Philippe Varlet’s "little system of classification". Thought, it is a good system for a great many tunes. (See: [Thanks to jeff_lindqvist for the reference])

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Oops sorry Steve - I meant Sunset not Rainbow. I knew it was something colourful in the sky!

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I’ve always thought of The Geese in the Bog as being Phrygian. It uses the C major scale but every other note is an E. What does everyone else think?

Re: Theory in Irish Music

Geese in the Bog is generally considered to be in A Dor or A Min. For a tune to be in Phygian it needs the flatted second scale step - in this case Bbs. To my ear though, I feel this key in CM. The general rule is that your key center ‘tell’ is the last measure and usually the last note. In this case Am. My ear just never feels the tune as finished on the last Am chord - it feels like it still needs to progress somewhere (CM). Perhaps it’s an ambiguous key center tune or it may be I have a glitch in my thought process.
I have a similar key center confusion with "The Abbey" - it’s generally considered an A Dor tune but I think it ends on G so it’s in G. The version in my ear is Kevin Burke’s and the guitar player plays (A part) ||D/A | D/A G | D/A | G |D/A | D/A G | D/A | G ||. This makes it really sound like G.

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Cock and the Hen - Phrygian - That ‘s very good. I hear a G natural as well. I don’t know why and it doesn’t make sense. Lunasa plays the A section ||:F#m A|F#m E|F#m A|A :|| With the E chord you would think I would hear the G# but I don’t. The B section goes AM clearly but it is momentary so if I were writing this out I would leave the key signature the same because it ends up back in F#m again.

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Trad tunes dont always resolve at the end, because they are played in sets . Thet are designed thst way.
If i recall geese in the bog is in 2 keys am and C maj
Its a few decades since I played it!

Re: Theory in Irish Music

"Trad tunes dont always resolve at the end, because they are played in sets."

Playing tunes in sets is apparently a relatively recent (20th Century) innovation. Tunes with unresolved endings are designed to be cyclic, so the end of the last part leads back into the beginning of the first part.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

Geese in the Bog - Phrygian? When did a tune become Phrygian just because it has a lot of Es?

(Will, it’s only a few hours since I played it!)

Re: Theory in Irish Music

@CMO the operative word there is apparently. There is a lot of conjecture masquerading as fact . The truth is we dont actually know that much about how tunes were played historically but if can provide any evidence id be interested .

Re: Theory in Irish Music

@Will Evans: Yes, I was careful to include that word - indeed, there is much we don’t know about how this music was played before the recording era (or how much the earliest recorded performances were influenced by the fact of being recorded). But it makes more sense to me that unresolved endings are designed primarily to lead back into the beginning of the same tune, since that tune always starts the same way; whether or not an unresolved ending is helpful in linking to another tune depends entirely on how the next tune starts.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

I have to have a bit of a chuckle here. I’ve been playing piano for decades, (after starting with sax) and in that time learned a of of tunes of course, most being for what we call ‘old time’ dancing.
Although (it seems) that jazz is sort of frowned upon (even derided) in this site, I found it quite liberating - let things go stupid in behind the eyelids and so let me develop my own unique style of accompaniment.
However, since taking up piano accordion and playing (and more specifically reading - note for note) Irish music, I found myself playing all sorts of strange arrangements, as well a new phenomenon (to me), that, as Will Evans has noted, "Trad tunes don’t always resolve at the end, because they are played in sets". Possible!
My eldest daughter is very well educated in music (got the genes from daddy) and I asked her things like "this is strange to me, I’m playing a tune written as in the key of G, but I don’t play a Gmaj chord anywhere?". She looked at some of the music sheets I have acquired and said "oh daddy that’s in ‘(whatever)’ MODE".
So I looked into modes, spent time studying and practicing (seven of them), only to arrive at the moment where I thought "what the heck, this is a waste of life, I don’t NEED to know what MODE I’m playing in, it’s Irish music, just play it as written".
And so it is. A new season in my life, at 66, I practice every night, learning a new instrument, a new style of music and a new mindset - DISCIPLINE.
I’m actually playing note for note. And I feel that until I have learned enough tunes to play at least 20 sets, I might be familiar enough with the tunes to sit in with other lead players and do some improv. (jazz? - Hmmm! tic, tic, tic).
THEORY - that’s mine.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

I love the dialog. I’ve already disagreed with myself a couple times in this one thread. I thought about arguing the comment that ‘a lot of trad tunes don’t resolve in the last measure because they are designed to be played in sets’. I think it’s true in a sense. Playing tunes in sets may be considered a relatively modern phenomenon but I feel almost certain that the music was played in sets of some sort in the long history of the tradition. I think what I would state differently is that there are a lot of tunes that do not resolve in the last measure because they are designed to lead: to a repeat, to another tune, or to an extra ending bar. I also think that there exists a subtle dominant chord effect when you play a tune in D that ends in D going into a G tune. The pivot works well and there are other key relationships where ‘set’ pivots work progressively much like the chord progression within a tune. It’s definitely not by rule but I think the effect is not just random.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

Fair enough a more accurate statement could have included other reasons as to why they dont always resolve at the end.
Modal theory is hard to find it seems , why are theee only 2chords in mixolydian mode!? I VII (and VII7) for example?

Re: Theory in Irish Music

cab, add about 200 years to Cathal McConnell’s age and I might be prepared to call "The Cock and The Hen", "his". The first place we hear a tune is very rarely the first place it was played.

I sight read music, and have a pretty reasonable ear for tune. reading the bumpf on this thread all I can say is I’d rather spend my time playing than learning a load of stuff I have, in 40 years, had pretty much no need for whatsoever. YMMV indeed!

Re: Theory in Irish Music

"… why are there only 2chords in mixolydian mode!? I VII (and VII7) for example?"

There is a third chord: IV (and the three chords, IV, VII and I, translate to I, IV and V in a major scale). Chord IV in the Mixolydian mode gives a kind of semi-resolution - a kind of harmonic ‘ledge’ where the tune can rest temporarily.

"… other reasons as to why they dont always resolve at the end. "

One reason might be that the whole concept of harmonic resolution comes from the diatonic system of the European Classical tradition (although it may have preceded it in some form), which, whether we like it or not, we in ‘The West’ (and many elsewhere in the world) are all infused with. So they only ‘don’t resolve’ with reference to that system of musical cognition.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

…I should add that that sneaky IV chord plays a similar role in the Dorian mode.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

All music comes from folk music. Resolution in music has always existed. When the last chord doesn’t resolve in a session, usually the session will add a bit to the end in order to resolve the tension.
I would argue that the basics of music theory exists in nature within the harmonic series of vibrating matter. The harmonic series in C is: C, C2, G2, C3, E3, G3, Bb3, C4, D4, E4… This is why musicologist believe basic melody has a commonality universally in aboriginal music in cultures believed to be completely isolated. Resolution creates an natural feeling of rest and relaxation when the sound and it’s partials is ‘waving’ together. Dissonance begins when we move away from this natural resting resonance and I would argue that this can create and emotional need for the music to move or travel. That’s the way I look at it. I also don’t believe that it can all be explained with physic and physiology. For me there is some other mysterious element that can make me tear up or make the hair on my neck stand up (God?). That’s a whole other topic though.
Clearly the music came first and always will come first. I just find the theory very fascinating. I also think it aids my playing in some small way.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

‘All music comes from folk music. ’

Really? I think not.

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Re: Theory in Irish Music

Hi Jwiseman,

I have been busy with work, so it took a while to get back here.
I have enjoyed your comments.

Thanks for sharing your Phrygian composition.
Pretty cool.

I noticed that it is in E Phrygian and uses E Minor as the tonic. Which is what I would expect Irish/Scottish music to do.

I put up an example of a traditional Flamenco song so you could see how Flamenco uses a Major chord for the tonic which is a little strange to some people but typical of Spanish, Flamenco and some Mexican music.
This example is also in E Phrygian, so it’s easy to contrast the two examples.

I am going do another comment about Spanish Phrygian confusion.

Re: Theory in Irish Music

Again, for Jwiseman.

You mentioned that you did not see a flat 3 mentioned in “Spanish Phrygian”.
As you stated, the “Spanish Phrygian” described in wikipedia is:
C – D♭ – E – F – G – A♭ – B♭ – C (Redirected from Spanish phrygian scale)
“It resembles the scale of the Phrygian mode but has a major third.”
I wasn’t aware that “Spanish Phrygian” is being used to refer to the “Phrygian Dominant Scale”. I was taught that it referred to the “Phrygian” or “Flamenco” mode.
But now documents the “Flamenco” mode as being “Phrygian” with the raised third. Though, that page states that the minor third can be used especially descending.

I was taught that Spanish music and Flamenco most commonly used the “Phrygian mode” which is:
C – D♭ – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭ – C
This is still true. I think that the confusion came about because Spanish and Flamenco (and much Mexican) Phrygian music used a Major chord as the tonic (C E G). The non-Spanish theorists have a hard time understanding that the tonic chord is major even though the melody is mostly pure Phrygian (with the minor third). Now it seems that the neo-theorists have kidnapped “Spanish Phrygian” and “Flamenco Phrygian” to refer to the “Phrygian Dominant Scale”.
However, this wikipedia page is older: states
“Flamenco uses the Flamenco mode (which can also be described as the modern Phrygian mode (modo frigio),”
but then states
“ or a harmonic version of that scale with a major 3rd degree)”.

Manuel Granados wrote the seminal book of Flamenco theory: “Teoría Musical de la Guitarra Flamenca - Fundamentos de Armonía y Principios de Composición”
He states that the Flamenco mode is indeed
C – D♭ – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭ – C (pure Phrygian)
“Peculiar to this progression is the conversion of the I chord into a Perfect Major as opposed to a Perfect Minor Chord to which it would normally correspond”
He also notes that the accidentals, major third, and major seventh may be used in the melody as either substitutions or additions.

Every Flamenco guitarist that I have ever heard would agree that the Flamenco (Spanish) mode is the Phrygian mode not the Dominant Phrygian mode.
C – D♭ – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭ – C (pure Phrygian melody, but with Major I chord in harmony, major third and major seventh may be used as substitutions or additions in the melody). The major third is sometimes used temporarily in the melody to get a more Arabic (Moroccan) shift to the melody or for harmonic reasons.

FYI: American Blues does some similar thing with scales:
C – D – E♭– (E) – F – (G♭) – G – A – B♭ – C

Re: Theory in Irish Music

Steve Wiley - I don’t know if I mentioned it but I did find some video demonstration the Spanish Lydian scale and feel like I reached a pretty good understanding. The music is not foreign at all so it was pretty interesting to connect the sound to the scale. For me, my ear tricked me into hearing the M3 even when it wasn’t there in the scale. The M3 is in the backing instrument so It creates an illusion in my inner ear. I also understand what you mean by the obtional 3rd voicing.
Thank you

Re: Theory in Irish Music

Steve T, I wasn’t suggesting the slip jig *started* with Cathal McConnell. It’s just usually called by that name in my experience. In fact, it wasn’t until I searched for it when joining this thread that I discovered it’s presumably older name:

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