Help making sets

Help making sets

I could really use some help making sets. Wither with how to put them together , or just outright suggestions. I did not put the key, I’m just learning the most common key if that makes sense. During the pandemic, with the help of Blayne Chastain’s site, these are the ones I have been working on:
Drowsy Maggie (reel)
Cooley’s Reel
Maid of Mt Cisco (reel)
Earls Chair (reel)
Musical Priest (reel)
Banish Misfortune (jig)
Bag of Spuds (reel)
Garret Barrys (jig)
Harvest Home (hornpipe)
Kesh Jig
Kid on the mountain (slip jig )
merrily kiss the … (reel)
monaghan jig
merry blacksmith (reel)
musical priest (reel)
off to california (hornpipe)
Amhran na Leabhar (air)
Bruach na Carraige Baine (air)
Donny Brook fair (jig)

Re: Help making sets

I just noticed that 10 years ago I made the same post! Wow. I’ll look at that post too. Many of the tunes in this discussion are different though.

Re: Help making sets

In my opinion the easiest way to form sets is to look at how the tunes transition into each other, so they are easy to play one after another and have a clear change. Take a listen to as much music as you can, and you’ll start to see the common sets people do. By playing through those sets you will develope your ability to put together sets on your own.

Re: Help making sets

I’ve found the relatively new features in the tunes section,- i.e., the members selected new sets, along with the new (super) improved midi-playback feature to be quite helpful and convenient. Certainly a lot of the set selections don’t suit me, but I check them out every day and I have occasionally been rewarded (it’s like going fishing and not knowing what you will get;- sometimes nothing and sometimes something brilliant). There definitely are certain keys that work well when going from one tune to another, Also, it is often good to follow one tune type to another, and some members will probably advise you on that. For me, I do it like I do with all of this music, I just follow my ear and experiment, as well as steal everybody else’s good stuff.

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Re: Help making sets

Brian, your above list of tunes didn’t really mean much to me, but I just looked at your previous discussion from ten years ago, and I think David Levine’s first responding sentence back then explains why. David wrote. :My own feeling… is that “anything” can go with “anything,”.
I was initially going to say that, but then I do believe that there is an art in building good sets. The problem is that the art to a large degree lays only within yourself. I’m sure there are some tricks to it, but I don’t know them (I will keep reading). You can also, of course, just steal what you like off other people like I do (I do a bit of both. That’s how I learn, I think).

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Re: Help making sets

Just tonight taught a two-hour Zoom workshop on exactly this skill.

I’ll see if I can summarize it here in the coming days.

Re: Help making sets

‘David wrote. :My own feeling… is that “anything” can go with “anything”.’
With a few provisos I would tend to agree with that. You can start out with a pair of tunes you feel are totally incompatible, but after playing them for a while they sound as though they were always meant for each other.

The provisos are, that in building a set, it’s useful to have an ‘aural structure’ where a change of tune can be clearly felt; a key change or change of mode. So you’d get, say, GDG for the three keys of the tunes in a set. The D is in the middle to offer a clear key change. Or you could stay in the same key but change the modes: Ionian-Dorian-Ionian; Lydian-Dorian-Ionian; etc. A set with tunes in the same key or mode throughout can give the “it all sounds the same” feeling of which the non-congnoscenti so often complain.

Re: Help making sets

Seems to me that there are two primary effective approaches to building sets:

1) Melodic

2) Harmonic

About the Melodic approach, I’ve spent surprisingly large amounts of time searching for just the right tune to follow a tune I’d decided on, or just the right tune to precede a tune I’d decided on, when I’m wanting the melody to smoothly flow from one tune to the next. There’s no formula or theory, it’s a tune-by-tune thing.

About the Harmonic approach, as anyone in Pop music or Christian Praise music can tell you there are certain harmonic progressions and certain key relationships that always seem to sound good to the General Public.

One thing is going up a step, which has become almost mandatory in Christian music (for the final verse, or final chorus) and is common in Pop music as well. The obvious thing is to play Foxhunters Reel in G, then in A.

It can be applied to any tunes: in Matt Molloy’s album Stony Steps he plays a set of three reels, the first two in G and the last one in A.

Try playing any reel in G followed by one in A, or any reel in D followed by one in E (dorian) to hear the effect.

Going up doesn’t have to be just a step, it can sound effective to go from a tune in E (dorian) to a tune in G.

I discovered years ago, when playing in a Ceilidh Band, that putting together reels in the sequence

D Major > E dorian > G Major

nearly always sounded good regardless of the tunes.

Tunes don’t necessarily have to flow into one another melodically, you can even do a cut in between tunes, which can make the key-change sound even better.

I’ve mentioned before the thing you’ll hear with many Cape Breton sets: staying in the same tonal centre but “taking away sharps”

A Major > A Mixolydian > A dorian (three sharps > two sharps > one sharp)

It sounds really cool when the first G natural of the 2nd tune is heard, and when the first C natural of the 3rd tune is heard.

Re: Help making sets

From the above list, anything goes with anything within the same tune type.

Try a set of the two first reels. Then the next two. And so on. Try the last one with the first one. Then the third with the eighth. And so on. Play any combination of the reels (still from your list). Any combination of jigs, two or three in a set. You’ll notice how pretty much everything works fine. If it doesn’t yet, practice until it does. Then until you become sick of the set.

Re: Help making sets

This may or may not be helpful, but what happens with me is I’ll be playing a tune (on my own, mind you) and after a few times through another tune will just pop into my head - or at least the first few notes of another tune. That’s how I often develop sets.

You seem to have enough tunes, according to your list, to do the same. At least give it a try.

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Re: Help making sets

Here’s how I present my thoughts on this in my tune set building workshop. Of course, this is just my methodology, not “the” answer.

I think of sets as building stories, with a beginning, middle, and end. I associate tunes and specific keys/modes with specific emotions, and then use them to build my stories.

For example:

Major - Happy, joyful, playful,
Dorian - Dark, foreboding, hopeless
Mixolydian - Optimistic, thoughtful
Minor - Very dark, foreboding, hopeless

Prototype common tune examples:


Jig: Lark in the Morning (D Major), Kesh (G Major), Coolea (G Major), Merrily Kissed the Quaker’s Wife (G Major)

Reel: Miss McClouds (G Major), Sean Reid’s Favorite (D Major), Tom Billy’s (D Major)


Jig: Gallagher’s Frolics (E Dorian), Cliffs of Moher (A Dorian), Sliabh Russell (A Dorian), Palm Sunday (A Dorian)

Reel: The Piper’s Despair (E Dorian), Toss the Feathers (E Dorian), Star of Munster (A Dorian)


Jig: Sporting Pitchfork (D Mixolydian), Banish Misfortune (D Mixolydian), Garrett Barry’s (D Mixolydian), The Collier’s (D Mixolydian)

Reel: Toss the Feathers (D Mixolydian), Trip to Neenah (D Mixolydian), Bank of Ireland (D Mixolydian), The Old Bush (D Mixolydian), The Gooseberry Bush (D Mixolydian)

Mixed emotions:

Reel: Mayor Harrison’s Fedora (E Dorian -> G Major -> E Dorian), The Fermoy Lasses (E Dorian -> G Major), Maid of Mt. Cisco (A Dorian -> D Major -> A Dorian)

Jigs: Tripping Up the Stairs (D Major -> B Minor -> D Major), The Shores of Lough Gowna (B Minor -> D Major -> B Minor), The Cook in the Kitchen (G Mixolydian -> G Major -> D Major)

Slip Jig: Kid on the Mountain (E Dorian -> G Major -> E Dorian)

I put a lot of the Scottish sounding A Mixolydian tunes in their own Ranting category:

Jig: The Atholl Highlanders (A Mixolydian), Bill Harte’s (A Mixolydian), Donegal Lass (A Mixolydian)

Reel: The High Reel (A Mixolydian), The Monaghan Twig (A Mixolydian)

Based on these emotional qualities for each tune, I’ll build the story.

For example, start the story off moderately happy with a tune in G Major, go a bit dark with a tune in A Dorian, maybe back to G Major to find some relief, fill some time with a optimistic/thoughtful D Mixolydian tune, back to moderately happy with a tune in G Major, then go very dark with E Dorian, and finally wrap up with a bright and overly cheerful tune in D Major. Roll the credits, lights in the theater come on, everyone goes home with a smile on their face humming “The Bucks of Oranmore”.

I think newer players are best served just keeping things going without stopping and just playing some other tune they can remember, without worrying so much about emotional contours, but as they expand their repertoire after several years of playing, it’s worth possibly considering that sets aren’t just tunes strung together, they are a story that evolves in real time.

I’ll sometimes hear players string together, for example, a bunch of E Dorian tunes all in a row. In my class I talk about this being like being pushed out of a jet plane at 45,000 feet with no parachute (but you have an oxygen mask and pressure suit, so you won’t black out). Let’s say you have about 4 minutes before you hit the ground (just picking a number). You’ll probably spend the first minute screaming in fear, and then will run out of energy to scream, then you may laugh for a minute at the absurdity of it all, then spend the next minute being thoughtful about your family and the life you lived, then devolve into crazy maniacal laughter for the last minute of your life as the ground rushes up.

It’s difficult to sustain any emotion for a long time. Three times through a tune is about a minute, and if you put three tunes with the same emotional quality back to back, by the third tune, it’s just exhausting and you really ready for some other feeling.

So, if I’m building a set, either in advance, or in the heat of the moment, I’m always thinking, “what’s the feeling I want to go to next” and then pick a tune that would fit the bill.

Now, of course there are also other kinds of sets that one also runs into, for example the “classic” sets like the Michael Coleman - The Tarbolton reel / The Longford Collector / The Sailor’s Bonnet. Pretty much you start Tarbolton, often more than one player is going to assume you’re doing that set and automatically go into The Longford Collector at the transition. Sad, but true. So much so that I’ve heard of tee-shirts with “Free the Tarbolton Three”. There are others like “Humours of Tulla / Skylark / Roaring Mary” that something run into this same phenomena.

Then there are the “themed” sets, like “Mouse in the Mug / Cat’s Meow” or “Out on the Ocean / Rolling Waves”. The theme is the point, the emotional quality contour be damned. Generally a wonderful insider joke with great opportunity for the punsters.

And finally, there are those sets we all know from popular CDs, like Lunasa or the Chieftains, and we might play them in the same order as the recording without giving much thought to why the original group chose them in the first place. We’re all just having fun essentially being a cover band. 🙂 This is actually very useful sometimes. I used to travel to Japan a fair bit for business and when the meetings were over, I’d go with a friend to sessions in Kyoto and Osaka. My Japanese was only survival level, but because the players there were playing sets from Lunasa, I knew exactly what tune they’d be going into next even if I couldn’t have a conversation with the person next to me.

All of these I think are factors in set building I find in the sessions I’ve hosted or attended. Personally, I enjoy building my sets based on the story telling approach.

In my workshop I went over everything I detailed above in more detail. I then play tunes and ask the participants what they experience as the emotional quality of the tune to get them thinking of them as more than just notes strung together.

I’m very interested in hearing from other players who build sets, either in advance or on-the-fly, how you approach the subject.

Re: Help making sets

Of course, to address the original poster since I realized I made some assumptions about knowledge of set construction in my longer post, all the tunes in a set I construct would always be the same style, i.e. reels, jigs, hornpipes, etc. and at the same tempo.

Re: Help making sets

Talking about “organic” sets (were we?), one thing we used to do in our session was take turns playing, say, jigs. First player would start a jig, others would join in, then the next player would start up another jig, etc. etc. Lots of fun and you get some interesting and nice transitions.

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Re: Help making sets

“I’ll sometimes hear players string together, for example, a bunch of E Dorian tunes all in a row.”

Around here, it’s always Gm or Bm that lead the musicians into temptation.

“I’m very interested in hearing from other players who build sets, either in advance or on-the-fly, how you approach the subject.”

I might build a set in advance, at the starting blocks before the pistol goes off, or the seconds before switching. It’s not unusual for someone to get an idea and name a tune (sometimes a key is enough - especially if you know each other’s repertoires inside out), sometimes someone just asks “how about smth in A after this one?”, and then someone else comes up with an appropriate tune.

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Right. Then there is the “lets play every freaking Dm reel there is all strung together” thing to express our inner Goth “life is painful and meaningless and just endless suffering” tendencies…

Re: Help making sets

It’s a great thrill to find tunes that flow together nicely on your own, without just copying what you’ve heard on a recording or in a session. It’s one of the most fun things about this music. I’m not good enough to do it on the fly, but I enjoy working out sets at home.

I don’t know if I have any pearls of wisdom on how to do it, except maybe to avoid too large a jump in pitch between the ending of one tune and the beginning of another. That sounds a bit jarring to my ears. Once in a while I’ve made that work by adding a bridge note or two as a connector of sorts, but because the “bridge” isn’t actually part of either tune, it’s something I have to remember to do. So it feels a bit awkward and I try to avoid it.

I do have a small pet peeve about hearing too many sets in a row that start on a minor feel and always end on a happy, major tune as if that’s a requirement or something. Nope, can’t have a “sad set,” there always has to be a lift at the end. I agree it can be boring if an entire set is nothing but Dm tunes, but there are ways to break that up with key/mode shifts. Personally I don’t mind a set of “dark” tunes if it’s the right combination and it sounds interesting.

Re: Help making sets

@Michael Eskin “Then there is the ”lets play every freaking Dm reel there is all strung together“ thing to express our inner Goth ”life is painful and meaningless and just endless suffering“ tendencies…”

Hey man, no kink shaming! 😉

One thing that works for me sometimes is to take the last note of a tune and go a step up or down the scale, the try to think of a tune that starts with that note. To me, these transitions feel really nice.

Re: Help making sets

Huh! There was me thinking I’m an existentialist, and it turns out I’m a Goth!

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Re: Help making sets

Michael, I like your parachuteless fall analogy! LOL! I find it somewhat difficult to think of sets ahead of time and then execute them. I am so used to deciding what I’m going to play next while I’m playing a tune. And my process goes something like this:

1. I think about what key I’m playing in, and I want to switch it, or at least switch modes.
2. I think about what kind of tune I’m playing (not reel, jig, etc., but more like “this is a flowing, melodic tune”, or “this is a bouncy, rhythmic tune”), and I try to think of other tunes that fit that same idea. The pitfall here is that it’s easiest to think of “similar tunes” that happen to be in the same key as you’re playing…
3. I think of keys that are related, like moving to a tune in the relative minor of the current key… Another thing I love doing is finding a tune in a different key that starts on the note that resolves the current tune. (But I pull that one off less commonly)
4. Then comes the hard part -- can I figure out in my mind how to start the next tune without screwing up what I’m currently playing? Sometimes I get down to even the last note, and change my mind and end up going into one of my “I can start this tune under any circumstances” tunes, or end up going into something that we commonly play after the current tune… Or sometimes it just ends up in a trainwreck, but in that case, we all just laugh and go on…

Having said all of that, it took me years of work to be able to do that. You need a fairly wide repertoire to mix it up that much. I learned to do it mostly because I was sick of playing the same tunes in the same sets week after week. Yeah, it’s great when everybody knows what’s coming and the transitions are seamless, but it gets repetitive, and drives me crazy. The flipside of that is that when other people are doing this, I get a rush when I don’t know what’s coming next, and get surprised by a tune that I wouldn’t have thought of playing (especially when it works well!)

So to begin with, I recommend that people work out sets that work well, and play them that way until you get sick of it, and then work out new sets. The more you work on putting sets together, the easier it becomes, and that’s when you can start challenging yourself to do it on the fly!

Re: Help making sets

Pete, I wholeheartedly agree with you!

My co-host at The Ould Sod here in San Diego thinks primarily in terms of predetermined sets. It’s the way he learned the tunes, and when you play with him, you know exactly where it’s going next. If I start one of the sets he plays, and try change course midstream, things sometimes can go sideways quickly. It’s easier to just go with what works best.

It’s nice sometimes to just not have to think and just go on automatic with one of these fixed sets after a tough day, but as you said, it can get a bit boring at times. As we’ve had more newer players join the session and bring in new tunes and sets, it’s provided a lot more opportunity for variety. If it’s a small session with just me and my co-host plus our regular backup player, we’ll just play the old sets, which are perfectly lovely.

I do think it’s useful to have a few of these “played to death” local fixed sets under your belt, particularly when traveling.

If I’m on a trip and visiting a session I’ve never been at before, or only visit once or twice a year, the players, unless they’ve been to our local sessions, probably have no idea about some common set played to death in San Diego. If invited to start a set, I’ll often start with one of these old fixed sets because I know with absolute certainty it will go well and I won’t crash and burn. Then later on, as the night progresses I might be willing to be more creative, but not always. 🙂

Re: Help making sets

That’s a good point, Michael. A lot of the tunes we play have been put into long running sets that often get played, and it’s nice to have that as a fallback if you decide you can’t cleanly make it into another tune you were thinking of…

Many times, our regular sets are ones that I put together 15 years ago, and people still play those tunes in those sets. And I’m OK with that from time to time, at least. It’s like an old friend that’s easy to get along with even if you haven’t seen each other in a while. And I, too, will often revert to those sets when I’m playing outside the confines of my regular sessions, because I know they’re good sets, and I know I can play them even when I’m distracted by unfamiliar surroundings and players, even if I get stuck playing solo (But in that case, I will often shift gears and go into something more ‘standard’, just so I’m not being a jerk and playing a whole set by myself…)

Re: Help making sets

Playing a set of jigs, or a set of reels, is good if you are playing for actual dancing, but most sessions aren’t for dancing. I like sets which have different dance types. This is more usual in classical music dance suites, where the key is more consistent than the dance type.

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Most sessions I’ve been at play tune sets that are all the same style of tune within the set.

Clearly, I need to get out more. 🙂

Re: Help making sets

My main set creation strategies have all been listed above, but why not share anyway, with some examples from your list above:
1. Change mode within a key signature, changing the mood/feel (Cooley’s into Merry Blacksmith)
2. Change key sigs by adding or removing a sharp (Harvest Home into Off to California)
3. Move scalewise one step from the resolving note of a tune to the starting note of the next tune (Bag of Spuds into Earl’s Chair)

I try to put tunes of like types together -- not just reels with reels, but tunes of similar lengths. Particularly, I pair single reels (i.e. short parts, like Drowsy Maggie) with other single reels. If a single reel comes after a doubled one, particularly if the session sticks hard and fast to “3 times through,” the comparison between the tunes that their pairing invites doesn’t shine favorable light on either tune. For example, a local learners’ session has a set that put Morning Star (a 16-bar single) after Over the Moor to Maggie (a 48-bar double). OTMTM sounds long-winded, and MS like it’s barely gotten started!

All that said, we have a few performance-ish sets that sometimes come out, largely jig-to-reel, strathspey-to-reel, or slide-to-polka shifts. But definitely in moderation, that’s less of a session thing than a gigging thing.