Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

Hello folks,

Lately I’ve been diving more and more into the nuances of the scales and accompanying chords used in ITM. I find a very interesting relationship between the use of (as we would call them in classical analysis) the Aeolian and Dorian modes. In ITM, these are both simply referred to as "minor," and "minor" is simply acknowledged to have a sort of variable sixth scale degree.

Plenty of tunes sit firmly in one or the other, but many seem borrow chords from each other, and a select few use both the higher and lower 6th scale degrees in their melodies.

One example of that would be Road to Lisdoonvarna, where the dominant melody uses the higher 6th scale degree, but you’ll hear many of the flourishes use the lower one.

Crested hens, on the other hand, keeps it’s melody in Dorian but borrows the major VI chord from Aeolian in the accompaniment of the B part (Em, C, D, Bm). With the Dorian 6thth, the C major chord would be a C# diminished chord, which is seldom ever heard in Irish music.

If anyone has any thoughts on this, let me know! I’d also like to hear about any tunes you all know of that make interesting use of this variable minor scale. I’m thinking about making an educational video about it, and putting it on youtube. There just isn’t enough stuff out there teaching people about how incredible and nuanced this musical tradition is.

-Cal

Re: Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

As a straight melody player (fiddle) I think it will take some of the strummy musicians here to perhaps explain (to me) my discomfort with your proposal about chords. Meanwhile, I am forced to start with a small nit-pick:- i.e., Why would you choose to compare Road to Lisdoonvarna with a French bouree? Sure ‘The Crested Hens’ is a nice tune and maybe gets a play or two, but it isn’t at all representative of Irish Trad.

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Re: Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

Cal, after looking back at two of your previous posts from 12 months ago (see links below), I can’t help but wonder if you are not looking at this music somewhat Baxter Front! What I mean is that in this music the melody is fundamental, not the backing chords. Many of us even prefer it as melody only. Also, many of the chords played by a good (say) guitarist may only have two notes and they are neither major nor minor.
https://thesession.org/discussions/44165
https://thesession.org/discussions/43111

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Re: Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

I think I’m with Gobby here. Chords are a peripheral, an add-on, largely up to the taste of the accompanist. They are not integral to the tune, even though the tunes sometimes strongly suggest certain progressions.

My feeling is also that the idea that a tune is "in" a certain mode but then steps out of it may be a handy description, but is not of fundamental. Melodic lines rule, modes trail and harmonic progressions come further behind. Diminished chords should be banished altogether, of course.

All in my humble opinion, of course, and I’m not just saying that.

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You put it much better than I could manage Alex.

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Re: Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

I think if you want to analyse Irish accompaniment in classical terms you need to forget about chord progressions and think instead in terms of baroque voice-led counterpoint. If you watch the left hand of a good bouzouki or guitarist you’ll see it flying all over the fret board in a way that is very different to what happens in most other genres. He isn’t just playing block chords, what is actually happening is that he is playing the melody (or a simplified version of it) on one or two strings, then adding tenor and bass lines on the lower strings, the actual chords formed are irrelevant.

Re: Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

Cal, you’ve got to remember that a lot of Trad Irish music players are somewhat intimidated by any musicological analysis and become very defensive.
I know loads of trad players who, despite being fab, even top division ones, can’t even name the single notes they are playing let alone the mode/ key.
Because of their lack of music theory and comparative music studies they tend to pooh pooh any intellectualisation. Some even cringe if one makes comparisons to another very similar and geographically related styles of traditional music. In some cases, it’s almost a studied indifference .
There is a hint in their attitude that one is trying to devalue or undermine what they think is unique and inscrutable.

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And yet what Mark M said is absolutely true and is itself a valid consequence and example of intellectual musicology!

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I suspect Yhaal that all these people who "can’t even name the single notes they are playing" would recognise in an instant that a tune from "very similar and geographically related" style such as Crested Hens was doing things that Irish tunes rarely do and so have any critical tendencies aroused.

My brain doesn’t do chords unless they are obvious enough to be corny. Mark M’s way of looking at things gives me an inroad into thinking about harmony in trad.

(crossing with Gobby)

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Also! Cal, the sixth chord raised in Edorian will be spelt C#, E, G which is a plain minor flat five. If one extends the chord with the seventh degree you’ll get C#, E, G, B which is C#m7b5 not a diminished (half diminished if you like). A full 4 note diminished raised on C# is spelt C#, E, G, Bb and the Bb note is not in the mode.

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Perhaps we should ditch suggested ‘chords’ and go for suggested figured bass or continuo!

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I would say that, for ease of understanding, when people say a tune is minor/major all this mean is that the third above the root is minor/major. You don’t really need to use the terms Aeolian and Dorian - for the vast majority they are irrelevant (and a good accompanist doesn’t need to be told).

Despite what some people might say, to me there is nothing particularly unique about "harmony" applied to traditional music. There is no universal rule that says accompanying chords can only use scale tones. That is an arbitrary construct that is not slavishly adhered to in reality.

We may try to construct rules and algorithms for harmonising but in the end they offer only crude guidelines. I’ve tried to read books and articles on harmony and usually fall asleep after the first page. I can get further with a book on Galois Theory before the glaze sets in. What most of these books and articles miss out is the human element, the creativity, the magic spark. I’d like to see the algorithm that comes up with as good a harmonisation as that for the middle eight of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas", for example.

You’re young, Cal. With age and experience you’ll learn and, perhaps, understand a lot more. The best learning tool at your disposal is the pair of crinkly appendages at either side of your head. Listen to the melody and try to make sense of it without having to think in terms of whether the sixth is major or minor, i.e., try not to overanalyse.

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David50: the cornier Trad Irish music is played the better it sounds in my opinion.

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DonaldK: Quite right. BUT an Aeolian 6th chord in a Dorian tune (e.g. Cmaj chord in an E Dor tune) always sounds like the backer has listed to to much Jethro Tull or simply doesn’t understand modes over scales!

Re: Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

I agree to a certain extent, Yhaal House, and I tend to avoid the Aeolian sixth chord, even in Aeolian tunes unless the melody requires it, but, nevertheless you will hear it used by "modern" professional bands in Dorian settings.

What I’m trying to avoid are hard and fast rules that seem arbitrary to me.
So, for example, in The Rights of Man, Aeolian if I’n not mistaken (though the second part has a C# in it), I’ll sometimes harmonise the last line as:
Em - Em/D# - Em/D - E/C# - C - B7 - Em - Em. I don’t hear a terrible clash there, really.

Oh, and you can never listen to too much Jethro Tull.

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I think the nuances come from what Breandan Breathnach called "inflection", the way that on instruments in the usual concert pitch (say, a D whistle or D uilleann chanter) the notes C and F tend to fluctuate between sharp and natural.

He discussed it from a melodic rather than harmonic viewpoint, giving examples of certain melodic patterns where C would usually be played sharp (regardless of the tune’s presumed key signature) and other melodic patterns where C would usually be played natural (regardless of the tune’s presumed key signature).

As people have alluded to above, it’s the players’ approach to melody that’s involved, not theories about keys and chords and such.

BTW it being a melodic thing, it’s not limited to tunes presumed to be in a minor scale by any means!

Tunes in D will fluctuate between Major and Mixolydian.

Tunes in G will fluctuate between Major and Lydian.

And oddest of all, tunes which I would regard as being in C not only fluctuate between Lydian and Major, but also the tonic itself can be C# in some passages.

Re: Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

Yhaal House, C# E G is a diminished chord. It happens to be a diminished triad, which I’ve never heard called a minorb5. Half-diminished 7ths ARE called minor7b5 chords. C# E G Bb is a (fully) diminished 7 chord, not just a diminished chord.

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A diminished chord and a minor flat5 chord are the same thing - root,b3,b5

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I think Yhaal House is assuming the convention that diminished chords are made up of four distinct notes (in a jazz score that would certainly be the case). If I was asked to play a C# diminished chord then I would always play either x4535x 0r 9x898x (or similar, including the Bb) unless it was specifically indicated otherwise. C#mb5 would be one such indication.

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I know this takes us away from the subject of the thread, but I’m curious and don’t understand: in what notation system is a C#dim chord represented as ‘x4535x or 9x898x’?

And I’d have to take issue with VTmoon’s posting above. Diminished chords and Minor 7th flat 5th chords (‘half-diminished’) are not the same thing: they differ by one semitone. In the case of Cdim, it would be C, Eb, F# and A. The half-diminished would be C, Eb, F# and Bb.

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Re: Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

Thank you all for enduring my questions.

I think the music theory classes I’ve been taking these past few years have definitely blinded me in some ways to the, I guess, more raw natural form of this music.

Mark M, thank you for those comments regarding the nature of accompaniment- in all honesty, when I think about it, that is how I have learned to play these tunes regardless of how I might try to analyze them when I get all nerdy like this. I tend to just form natural chord-melodies out of the shapes of the melody on my instrument. Oftentimes it’s very ambiguous.

Gobby, as always, thanks for giving it to me straight. You scare me sometimes, ha, but I always learn from you.

David L, haha, thank you for indulging my pointless ramblings about that half diminished chord.

Richard, I was unaware of the concept of inflection, but that makes a lot of sense and answers many of my questions.

I’m off to go practice some more.

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"when I get all nerdy like this"… No Cal, nothing nerdy about it at all. It’s all about learning and realising new experiences. It’s good to see that you are open to it. Also, as you can see by some of the above disagreement, nothing is ever really black and white.
As per your "You scare me sometimes, ha, but I always learn from you". .. Well that’s ironic really because it scares me that anybody would think they learn anything from me. Careful there young fella!

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Re: Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

Breathnach discusses the way that C and F fluctuate as follows

Folk Music And Dances Of Ireland
Breandan Breathnach 1971

"…no reference has been made to accidental notes in the scheme above…two such notes occur, C sharp and F natural.
C sharp occurs usually by way of variation and almost invariably in a weak or unaccented position.
(He then gives examples in staff notation.)
These remarks apply to the note as it occurs in tunes of the G series. In tunes of the D series C is always sharp whether in a strong or weak position.

F natural on the other hand occurs only in the accented position. Its occurrence is something of a mystery. It does not occur very frequently and it cannot be used at will merely as a form of ornamentation. It is more often found in the upper than the lower octave and its presence seems to be confined to tunes in the G series. It is one of the colourful notes in Irish music and is made by sliding upwards…a note of no fixed pitch but rather a long glide with a centre somewhat sharper than the F natural of art music.

It is of interest to note that these two notes, C and F, are lacking in the pentatonic scale and their mobile character may derive from this fact."

Interesting that he states that C is always sharp in tunes in D, because C natural often appears in those. Chief O Neill’s Favourite, in D Major, as played by some players, has both C and F fluctuate.

But as far as I know the term "inflection" was coined by Tomas O Canainn.

Traditional Music In Ireland 1978

"A note which appears in both sharpened and unsharpened forms in a tune is said to be inflected, and such inflection is common in Irish music."

(He then gives numerous examples in staff notation.)

Re: Interesting Nuances of ITM’s Minor Scale

Bazza, VTmoon was correct as he was describing a pure diminished and minor flat 5, which each only have 3 notes. You’ve described a diminished 7th and minor flat 5 7th, which are four note chords. Btw it’s the convention not to mix sharps and flats, so they would be better described with Gbs. Also, I’ve never really understood the concept of half-diminished ;) I shall google it!

Edit: Ok seems it’s just another term for the aforesaid minor flat 5 7th.

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@bazza "And I’d have to take issue with VTmoon’s posting above."
What is wrong with my posting?
I make NO MENTION of "Minor 7th flat 5th " in my post. Why do you imply this?
Are you related to Donald Trump?

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@ Richard Cook.

It’s interesting that D-tunes seem to stick with C#, but G tunes may find ambiguous usages of C# and C nat. Habits from diatonic instruments?

I’m not sure, but in some of those D tunes that use a C-natural. I don’t think that is a stylistic ambiguation; maybe more of an intentional hook i.e. something that is composed or special about that tune:

Nine Points of Roguery
My Love is in America.

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"Btw it’s the convention not to mix sharps and flats"

Not sure about that one. In conventional scales, yes, but in modern jazz scales and chords no.
Technically speaking, a Bb7+ chord is made up of the notes Bb, D, F# and Ab. If we write the F# as Gb it becomes a b13, does it not? Also, D7b9 is D-F#-A-C-Eb.

If we’re being super pedantic, Cdim should be made up of the notes C, Eb, Gb and Bbb. You can think of a Cdim chord as the upper partials of an Ab7b9 chord: C is the 3, Eb is the 5, Gb is the (b)7 and Bbb is the b9.

I would spell the other three inversions of Cdim as D#dim (D#-F#-A-C), F#dim (F#-A-C-Eb) and Adim (A-C-Eb-Gb).

There, I bet you’re really glad you read this.

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Spot on Donald K!

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VTmoon: I not only withdraw any observation about your posting, but would be prepared to swear that it was faked by unscrupulous but unspecified adversaries. (I take my cue from the soon-to-be-ex-leader of the free world, the ‘humble genius’ who doubles as a male model for comedy hair products). ‘Tis true: you made no mention of any 7ths. You are right to scorn the base insinuation.

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@bazza Thank you. And I apologize for my attempt at black humor. You’re much better at it.

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For sure Tom and I did mention that in my post, the example I gave was Chief O Neill’s Favourite which is in D Major yet both F and C fluctuate.

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Since the discussion has re-opened. Re Crested Hens in the OP. Is the B part Dorian or some arty breed of minor? Not often in Irish music but most times I use the D# key on my flute in a trad tune from western Europe it’s in exactly that context in an ‘E minor’ tune.

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DonaldK, Yes of course, when you need to augment a fifth that is natural in a flat key then it must become sharp. At the end of the day it comes down to which degree of the scale is making up the chords. And actually, I was glad I read your post, as I’d never really thought about the Bbb as the 7th in CDim7 - Nice 🙂