Modes in Irish trad tunes

Modes in Irish trad tunes

Hi All,
I’d like to get a handle on modes, the common ones used in Irish trad. Could anyone point me in the direction of a source that is user friendly? Any time I’ve looked them up in the past I’ve got bogged down with so much comprehensive detail that I’ve abandoned the subject. The topic has been tackled here a few times some years ago but it was hard to separate the woods from the trees.
Many thanks..

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

If you go to the tunes section on this website and click the drop down for key it lists pretty much all the common modes plus a few more. Ionian (major), Dorian, Mixolydian and Aeolian (minor) would be the main four types of modes in ITM. Mostly in key signatures that don’t stray far from 2 sharps.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

Hi,
I’d recommend Breandán Breathnach book, "Folk Music and Dances of Ireland", the second chapter deals exactly with that, a clear and short (8 pages) explanation of modes in the context of Irish music. No need for a strong background in music theory for it to be readable 🙂

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

Key = more or less where the tune starts and ends. WHat it revolves around.
Mode = which notes within the scale it typically uses.

for example,

D major (Ionian) scale is where you start. It is D E F# G A B C# D. It sounds like do re mi fa so la ti do.

D mixolydian is D E F# G A B C D. The 7th is 1/2 step down from Ionian (major).

D Dorian is D E F G A B C D Both the 7th and the 3rd are 1/2 step down from Ionian (major).

D minor (Aeolian) is D E F G A B C# D. The 3rd but not the 7th are dropped 1/2 step from Ionian (major).

Some composers like to mess with these (eg Fahy and Dwyer).

Note that the key and the mode are not the same thing: a tune can be in G mix or A mix, etc. You don’t really need to "know" these unless you back, in which case you’ll want to know eg that a reel in Amix cannot have an E major chord played with it (cos the E major has a G#, which is not in the A mix scale).


Chris

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

"You don’t really need to "know" these unless you back"

I’d say that it helps a lot to know this if you want to play with other people - who might play other instruments. A fiddler/mandolin player etc. can handle keys and modes outside the D/Edor/Amix territory, but if you suggest such tunes to musicians with a D whistle/flute/pipes, you’re in deep trouble. No matter how "common" you think a Dm/Gm/C/F tune is, it helps to know if the other instruments present are somewhat "limited" as regards key and range, espcially if you put together sets in advance and want to include people.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

The seven modes are based on the major (Ionian) (diatonic) seven note scale. These mode names come from Greek theory originally though modern harmonic theory is different. The seven modes are named for which note the scale is rooted at (e.g. Mode I key of D with c#,f# is rooted in D and resolves to D. Mode II (of DM with c#,f#) is rooted in E with the same seven notes and resolves in E… There’s a lot I could explain to make this clearer but I’ve found from my experience as a teacher that a better, though less thorough way to explain the modes, is to do as Chris Stoltz has done above.
The first step is to understand your major scales. In trad music G and D major along with the modes that go with them dominate the harmonic landscape. Less common are A, C major There are others but they are pretty rare. There are twelve major scales but you may not need to undersatand them all depending on your purposes.
Second step is to understand the modes as Chris explained.
Dorian - flat 3 and 7 steps of the major scale. (I.e. CM becomes CDEbFGABb(C))
Mixodian - Flat 7 step of the major scale (CM becomes CDEFGABb(C))
Aeolian (aka Natural Minor) 3,6,7 steps of the major scale (CM becomes CDEbFGAbBb(C)) There are three types of minor scales that you don’t necessarily need to understand but when I see the minor third step and the minor Sixth I call it minor. When I see the m3 and M6 steps I usually call it Dorian. You will see different 6th and 7th steps in minor keys (I consider Dorian a type of minor key) but the 3rd step will remain flatted. If a tune has a section where the 3rd step is major then I would say the section has modulated to the major mode.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

Think of it like this…..

Major is like a dog (bright and bubbly)
Minor is like a cat (serious and mysterious)
Dorian is a Cat but with the back legs of a Dog
Mixolydian is a Dog with the back legs of a Cat

and Fahey Mode is a Dat with the Eyes of a Cog

hopefully that clears up any confusion.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

@Theirlandais — That just made my day.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

Chris, you list D E F G A B C# D as D minor (aeolian). While that is variation of D minor (melodic minor ascending) it is NOT aeolian. Aeolian is the natural minor which would have a B flat and a C natural.

Tunes are not always in just one mode. Minor tunes often have a raised 7 to provide a leading tone. "Banish Misfortune" is in D mixolydian, but has raised leading tones (C#) at the cadences.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

I liked Theirlandais’s comment. Each mode has it’s own "feel" - whatever that is. Not to mention, that music has a cultural as well as biological (psychological? neurological?) basis.

The feel (to my ears, anyway) of the modes goes from light to dark, as they progress from Major through Myxolydian, Dorian and Minor. I think 3/4 or more of ITM tunes are Dorian or Major. Also quite a few are hexatonic where identifying a single mode is a little ambiguous. Minor tunes are surprisingly uncommon.

Notice that that sequence of modes going from light to dark are a fifth apart (In the key-signature of two sharps: D-maj, e, f#, g, A-myx.. A-myx, b, c#, d, E-dor.. E-dor, f#, g, a, B-min.)

Fifths come up a lot in music. In folk music we have the famous I - IV - V chord accompaniment. I prefer to think of it as a fifth up and fifth down). In Western music there is a strong sense of resolution as we return home from V to I .

Modes are used a lot in Jazz as well. Here is a truly great, and surprisingly accessible, discussion of music theory, exploring why John Coltranes’ "Giant Steps" is so difficult. https://www.facebook.com/VoxEarworm/videos/359315524626704/

https://youtu.be/62tIvfP9A2w

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

All those comments are really interesting thank you.
Gallopede, or anyone who may have played that useful link of ‘She moves thro’ the Fair’:
he says it’s D Mixolydian because it had the notes of D major except the 7th is flattened. To me the root seems to be G, G is central to the piece to me. I don’t understand why it is called a D mode rather than a G mode. Maybe I’m just too indoctrinated in thinking classical major/minor.. however the root is important in Irish trad also I would have thought. Any comments/corrections etc v welcome : )

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"She Moved Through the Fair" Sometimes the key center can be confusing (tonal ambiguity) and on this one I see your point. I hear it in D because the final melodic note of the final phrase ends in D with D Maj harmony.
As another example, the tune that I’ve argued with friends, is Abbey Reel. It is always listed in A Dor but it sounds like G Maj to my ear and I’ll be convinced it is until someone shows me why it is not. It may be my jazz background (Lots of tunes (e.g. Honeysuckle Rose, Satin Doll) start on the ii in the first bar and transition to I (am-G for Abbey)). It may also be the source I learned it from - Kevin Burke. The accompaniment does not use and am chord. This version is ||:D/A |D/A G/B|D/A |G :||: C | C | C | G/B :|| There’s one point where it sounds ‘resolved’ totally to my ear - the last bar of A and the last bar of B is a G chord as well but ‘hangs’ over a B root. It still sounds resolved in the context of everything else. For me, these are some of the really interesting tunes. Most tunes 90-95% are clear. Just be aware that they can move around in what I call key center (e.g. DMaj-DMix (where you see C naturals and C sharps). DMaj-DDor (F sharps and F naturals). Paddy Fahey and Ed Reavey did this a lot but you see it in many of the ‘old’ tunes as well.

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Thanks JW.
At least I’ve sorted something.Ive realized he’s playing ‘She moved…’ starting in D. I always start it in G so was at cross purposes. It makes absolute sense now.. he’s playing in D Mixolydian, the notes are of Major but with flattened 7th.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

Lagan Love another interesting song to look at.It’s got that same sort of sound. If you start the song on D, to me it seems to be in G Mixolydian. It has the notes of G major except the f is natural, so flattened 7th. Of interest there is no A at all so it’s actually hexatonic.
However in 2nd part the B is flattened turning it into G melodic minor I think.
Any comment ? I’m on a learning curve here.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

If you click on my user name and look at my profile, you will find an article I wrote on accompanying Irish music. It includes a brief and simple discussion of the most commonly used modes in the music. It might be useful as a starting point.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

I notice a lot of people are put off by modes and think they are a difficult subject; they really aren’t. There’s a lot of different approaches. And some people make them sound confusing because they simply aren’t good at explaining them.
Look them up on you tube. There are lots of videos there on modes, some good and some bad. Mostly related to jazz but the modes and how they work are the same thing whatever you apply them to. you’ll find video explanations that suit you and get your head round them but really they are quite simple as you’ll discover. I wouldn’t worry about them too much; if you are playing ITM then you are using modes all the time already, and there isn’t much you need to really know.

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Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

" I don’t understand why it is called a D mode rather than a G mode. Maybe I’m just too indoctrinated in thinking classical major/minor.. "

It is in G but it is built on the 5th note of G Ionian. Which is D. ( That’s where the 5th chord is built, the dominant chord. The Mixolydian mode is closely related to the dominant chord. In G the 5th is D and from D to D you have only an f# and a c natural hence only 1 sharp, and the distinctive sound of the mixolydian mode that ends in a tone interval, C to D, not a semitone.

so starting from G you get D mixolydian. If you started from C you would go up to the 5th , G, and derive G mixolydian ( with an F natural and related to the dominant chord G7) . If you started from A the 5th would be E and you would derive E mixolydian ( E7) etc . And the same for the other modes. ..

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Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

JWiseman, are you thinking of Abbey Reel exclusively in terms of explicit chords? ~ "…it sounds like G Maj
to my ear and I’ll be convinced it is…" If so maybe that is why you tend to hear it the way you do.
On the other hand have you considered any chords may be "implicit" and variable?

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Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

Abbey Reel - Yes - I understand the concept of alternate chords but I usually have, for most tunes, a general conception of where the tune ultimately resolves. I do understand that this can be perceived differently by others. I listened to a couple other Abbey Reel versions after I wrote the post. One group plays Am almost the whole way through but they still resolve (my sense) to G in the fourth bar of the A section and my perception that this is the resolution was not altered. I like to experiment with alt chords quite a bit but my concept is almost always harmonic relativity - relative to my idea of the basic tonality.
I’ll be seeing my friend tomorrow. He is a very good guitar/bouzouki player and it is he who I had the short argument with about this tune a long while back. I’m going to play the Burke chords version and show him why I hear it in G just as a little experiment. He’ll love the chords and yet I’m sure he’ll still hear A Dor. He will also say something like it really doesn’t matter and this is ultimately the correct answer. He is almost entirely an ear musician. I believe that the harmonic (and melodic) tension and relaxation is a big part of what makes music work - the way it can pull at the listeners emotions. These tunes that have some ambiguity are really interesting I think.

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Lucy Farr - Very good! I think you got it. All of it I think.

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Cheers, JWiseman. I’m sure you know your stuff. Unfortunately I am failing miserably at getting my point across. But that is life on the Mustard pages. ~ lost in translation.

;)

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I think I know and then I try to explain in a forum and I take pause. Why do I enter these discussions you ask? Purely for my own education. If you can explain it… The theory is relatively easy but it should be taught properly with diagrams and chalk boards (YouTube videos?). …and theory often will struggle against reality when it comes to real practice with living and breathing musicians with their instruments. Still…for me it’s a fun endeavor.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

Hi, J. I’ll give this one final gasp. This is a video I’ve posted a few times before. I like what Ms. B. says, how she does the things she does and where she lives. My only clue is listen to the bit between 5m 30s - 5m 52s.
Beth Benedetto (Cedar Creek Valley, Virginia, U.S.A.) ~ https://vimeopro.com/cookstudios/celticjuice/video/30714344

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Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

I had a very hard time learning the modes. Then Robin Bullock explained it this way: Mixolydian is major with a hint of minor. Dorian is minor with a hint of major. Mixolydian is the major (Ionian) key with a flatted 7th. Dorian is a minor key (Aeolian) which already has a flatted 3rd, and then adds a flatted 7th.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

lynnhayes, while that’s a useful guide, here’s how I think of it:

Here’s how I think about modes in practice. From the Major key signature, take away two sharps to get Dorian, one sharp for Mixolydian, three sharps to get Aeolian (natural minor) modes.

When I say "take away two sharps", it also is interchangeable with "adding two flats" If you run out of sharps to take away, start adding back flats.

So for G Dorian, start with the G Major scale:

G A B C D E F# G A B C D E F# G

Take away the F# and add one flat (Bb in this case since you ran out of sharps to remove):

G A Bb C D E F G A Bb C D E F G

For the Aeolian (i.e. natural Minor) mode, take away three sharps.

So to get B Aeolian (natural Minor) mode, take B Major:

B C# D# E F# G# A# B C# D# E F# G# A# B

and remove three sharps, G#, D#, and A#:

B C# D E F# G A B C# D E F# G A B

Of course this assumes that you know that sharps are added in this order (showing first 5):

F#, C#, G#, D#, A#…

and flats added in this order (show first 5):

Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb…

Another way some people think about it based on which Major scale the key and mode is based on

If you take a standard C major scale over two octaves:

C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C

and start it on D (showing two octaves)

D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D

that’s D Dorian mode (flatted third and 7th, i.e. take away two sharps from the key signature of D Major)

If you start it on G (showing two octaves):

G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G

That’s G Mixolydian (flatted 7th, i.e. take away one sharp from the key signature of G Major)

So, to find the notes on E Dorian, write out the major scale one whole step lower:

D E F# G A B C# D E F# G A B C# D

and start on the second note, E:

E F# G A B C# D E F# G A B C# D E

That’s E Dorian. E Major has four sharps. E Dorian has two

To find A Mixolydian, start with the major scale where A would be the fifth, i.e. D Major:

D E F# G A B C# D E F# G A B C# D

Re-write it starting on A:

A B C# D E F# G A B C# D E F# G A

But I find simply taking away sharps as a easy way to immediately determine the notes for Dorian and Mixolydian modes in practice.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

I’ve written quite a bit on this in this book
http://www.scottishtraditionalmusic.org

my PhD on mode is also available free here but may be a bit detailed for some here (and the writing makes me cringe a bit these days!).

https://research-repository.st-andrews.ac.uk/handle/10023/4809

Chapter 3 has a lot of detail on this topic

I’m not a fan of church mode theory but more interested in motivic content which to me lies at the heart of what makes traditional music traditional.

All the best

Simon McKerrell.

Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

> the writing makes me cringe a bit these days

I don’t think you were alone in the early days of the piping invasion back then….some fine academic-speak going on.

I’m looking forward to reading this.

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Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

And then you have tunes like The Blarney Pilgrim, listed here as in Dmix, but there is no third (F#) at all in the tune.

It’s in D Ambiguous Mode. ;)

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Thanks, Dr. McKerrell! I’m truly enjoying reading your writing. (No cringing, & I don’t even like most highland piping out there).

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Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

AB - I understand and appreciate the perspective from the video you linked. I don’t see it quite the same and I can’t/won’t write about it on these mustard pages as I think you called them (and yet here I go). Harmony can put chains on a melody and I try to avoid that as much as possible. I also believe that melody is naturally framed in harmony even when the harmony is not audibly present. Harmony also has the power to put a new perspective on a melody that can be beautiful. I have been messing with "Some Children See Him" which has a beautiful melody that is greatly enhanced by the harmony (the version I know) in my opinion. There is color that would have never occurred to me left to my own harmonic sensibility. I also think it is often most appropriate to let the melody stand on it’s own. Let the listener frame it in their own way. Framing is similar to a chained melody one might argue but I believe melody is only meaningful because it is framed by the listener. The sense of consonance and dissonance based on relative pitch and the relationships these sets of pitches have with each other based on the listener’s life experience with song.
We hear the harmony when there are no vibrations - the harmony is actually heard even when the ears are not sending that message to the brain. The brain ‘hears’ it and does not know the difference. There is also plenty of harmony within one note with ringing overtones and reverberating melodic shapes. All these things exist like individual and unique entities within each living person based on their listening experiences. I love this conversation but would much rather have it over a couple beers.

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I’m trying to remember your name. I think it’s Jessica. Yes, I too would much rather have any conversation over a couple of beers, or tunes or stories. It’s good to be here though. It’s a few degrees separate from meeting in the flesh but this can be a useful field for planting seeds.

Did you catch the bit near the end of the video where she’s ribbing her drum accompanist? I don’t know which was first but I like her musical sense and her sense of humour.

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Re: Modes in Irish trad tunes

No - I need to watch it properly. Around the holidays there’s always a lot going on so for now I only watched the bit you directed me to. I will watch it and I’ll message you. This thread is old now.
Thanks