Choosing the right key in which to learn a tune

Choosing the right key in which to learn a tune

Hello all. I’m relatively new to all this, so please forgive me if I’m overlooking some obvious things relating to theory (of which I know very little). I recently discovered a great tune I want to learn on the John Skelton Kieran O’Hare album DOUBLE-BARRELLED. It’s the slip jig Trotting To Larne. I looked here on the Session and there are two settings - one in A and one in D. In the comments of the tune, someone specifically mentions John Skelton’s version being in D. So I thought great… that’s the version to learn to play along with the recording itself. But when I actually tried that, I found I had to raise Skelton’s playing one half step on the recording to get it to match the key of D setting here on the Session. So doesn’t that mean that Skelton’s version on the recording is actually in Db instead of D? That’s my first question. Am I misunderstanding the relation between the recording and the key stated here on the Session?

The other setting for this tune here on the Session is in the key of A. I found three other versions of this tune on Spotify, and they all I believe were in the key of A (at least the A setting here enabled me to play along with them). I do really like Skelton’s version (in Db?). So I have two options when playing along with the Skelton recording (I use an app to play along with that can adjust speed and pitch): I can raise John Skelton’s recorded version one half step and play along using the D setting here or I can lower his recorded version 4 half steps and play along with the A setting here. The version on the Session in the key of D is much easier for me to play on the tenor banjo (or tenor guitar), but I don’t want to learn a tune in a key that no one else would play. When faced with options like this, what is the more practical thing to do? Right now, I’m at a level where I’m playing (learning) alone 95% of the time. But I hope to progress to some informal sessions eventually. In this situation, is it more practical to learn an easier version (for me to play) or to learn what seems to be the more common keyed version (at least in the recordings I’ve found). Is it common to get to a session and find that other people want to play in keys less friendly to your instrument and abilities? Are the keys you hear tunes in on recordings usually the keys they are played at in sessions? What are your strategies with regards to what key to learn a tune in? Any advice will be appreciated.

Re: Choosing the right key in which to learn a tune

I’d learn it in both keys, just in case. 🙂

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If it were me, a fiddle player, I’d learn it in D.

I prefer D over A typically, and generally in the sessions I’ve been to more tunes are played in D than in A.

Also, the pitch of recordings can vary quite a bit. So I’d take the simplest route for you - get the app to adjust pitch to D, learn the tune, play it. And at some point in the future, if you want, learn it in A as well just for the fun of it.

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Re: Choosing the right key in which to learn a tune

If John Skelton’s rendition is pitched in D♭(or C#), then I would wager he is playing it on a C# flute, i.e. a flute pitched a semitone lower than standard (‘concert’) pitch – it is *very* unlikely that he was playing the tune in C# on a concert pitch flute. So, for your purposes, the tune is in D – which, if you have the means to change the pitch of the recording, need not be a problem when it comes to learning the tune.

A recording of John Skelton that you posted a few days ago was played on an F flute (three semitones above concert pitch), so he apparently likes to play flutes of different pitches. You’ll find it is quite common on commercial recordings of traditional music to hear an E♭flute (a semitone above concert ) or a fiddle tuned up a semitone, so all D tunes sound in E♭, G tunes in A♭ etc.; lower pitched instruments are also common, particularly the pipes (‘flat-pitch pipes’) – C, B, B♭or A (each of which corresponds to the ‘D’ fingering on a concert pitch set) – but also flutes. I may be corrected here, but I think a C# instrument is rather unusual.

Ed.: I think I might have missed the main point of the question and merely stated the obvious. But if John Skelton’s C# version was actually being played in ‘A’ (as fingered on a concert pitch flute), it would have to have been an F# flute, which seems rather unlikely.

Re: Choosing the right key in which to learn a tune

David50 - yes, that’s the track.

Very informative comments. Thank you all. For now then, I will learn it in D and also play around in A. A is not impossible, just not as finger friendly as D for me. I was just surprised to find it in A on all three of the other recordings. I have never encountered the tune before on any recording, so I imagine it’s one that doesn’t get played that often in sessions anyway. I think it’s a great tune. I’ve become partial to slip jigs. The tune following it is also nice - The Random - a jig I’d never heard before.

Sometimes I’m sure it’s just the artist’s rendering that really makes me like a tune and feel like it’s new to me. More than one I’ve found myself really loving a tune on a recording, only to find that I already have it on other recordings - but those renditions never caught my ear in the same way.

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That’s one of the problems with learning from commercial recordings, especially if you’re primarily a session player. In commercial recordings, the players have the ability to do things that wouldn’t work in sessions. It’s very common to hear recordings that were done on Eb instruments, for instance. But you also find a lot of recordings (especially on wind instruments) where they were recorded on “flat instruments” (C, Bb, etc). So in cases like these, it’s not a bad idea to do what you did, and look at the tunes (and the comments on the tunes) here, since this site is more dedicated to session playing.

There are also plenty of audio players out there that can change the pitch of a recording. (I use one on iOS and Mac called Anytune Pro). That way, you can take the original recording (assuming you have a digital copy, or can record it from another source) and tune it to the more friendly key for learning/transcription/practice…

It’s also important to note that many tunes are regularly played in multiple keys. So in those cases, it’s best to pick the one that is most commonly played around where you live. But learning to play a tune in a different key can also help you “open up” your familiarity with your instrument, and having transcriptions in multiple keys might make that easier for you…

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@Bribak - it plays in D in my browser. I think. Perhaps someone else could try. Thanks for drawing my attention to that recording. It had completly passed me by and I’m sure will be a favourite.

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David50- I’ve been playing along with it here in the last half hour and fine-tuning the pitch a little more with my Anytune app. Perfect for me seems to be raising the pitch about .5 semitone (rather than a full half step). I got my version off of Spotify, so maybe that differs in pitch a little from the YouTube version? Of course it could be a bad ear on my part as well.

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Reverend - thanks for the comment. Anytune Pro is exactly what I use. A really handy app. As far as “familiarity” with an instrument - I too have found that trying the same tune in different keys does seem to help me get a better feel of the relationship between notes on the fretboard. Sound advice.

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+1 for AnyTune Pro+ on iOS. Closest app I’ve found on iOS to Transcribe! which is my primary tool for learning tunes on my Windows-based desktop.

It also is one of the few iOS slower-downer apps that has built-in recording features.

Probably not as big a deal now than many years ago where there was no way to transfer files between apps except by mailing them to yourself or going through Dropbox or some other storage provider.

That was a huge issue when doing workshops at locations that had essentially no internet connectivity.

AnyTune Pro+ on iOS made it possible to both record the lesson and immediately start setting markers to isolate and loop sections at slower speeds to work on the workshop tunes each day.

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I don’t think Skelton is using a Db whistle - it’s just that the D whistle is a bit flat. Such things can happen.

Re: Choosing the right key in which to learn a tune

If you play in sessions then the right key is the same key as everyone else. Nothing worse than putting the time in to learn a tune in G and realise everyone else is in A!

Re: Choosing the right key in which to learn a tune

As a long term strategy, it is useful to practise playing tunes in the ‘wrong’ key*, e.g. G tunes in A, D & F; D tunes in C & G; Am tunes in Em & Gm etc. There are certain tunes that are regularly played in several different keys – e.g. The Foxhunter’s Reel (G or A), Out On The Ocean (G or A), The Star of Munster (A Dorian or G Dorian), Coen’s Memories (E Dorian, G Dorian or A Dorian), The Boys of Ballysodare (G or F) – and it would obviously be beneficial to be familiar with such tunes in all the keys they are played in. But, in the long run, it doesn’t matter much what tunes you practise transposing (the more, the better), as it ‘hard-wires’ into your brain the relationship between fingerings in different keys, eventually enabling you to transpose spontaneously, so you are prepared when someone starts a tune in an unusual key. (There is, of course, nothing wrong with sitting out and listening – but is nice to have the choice to join in if you wish).

*The keys and modes you are most likely to encounter, outside the ‘standard’ D, G and related modes, are A major, E major, C major, F major, B♭major, D minor, D Dorian, G minor, G Dorian, G Mixolydian, C Mixolydian, B Dorian, F# minor. In the context of traditional music, any others would be wasted effort (inasmuch as you could be putting your energies into working on other aspects of the music, in the keys that you are more likely to encounter).

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Bribak, you didnt say what instrument you are learning on? If I am learning a tune that could be played in several different keys its often just a question of moving up or down a string on the mandolin, moving from one row to the other on melodeon , or picking up a different harmonica. I would imagine that on flute or whistle these simple options are not available, if that’s what you are playing?

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Would you not know by just listening, say a tune like The Sally Gardens you would realise almost immediately that G would be the obvious key. The Bucks of oranmore D etc. etc.

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“Would you not know by just listening, say a tune like The Sally Gardens you would realise almost immediately that G would be the obvious key. The Bucks of oranmore D etc. etc.”
With experience, maybe. Maybe not. But Bribak says he/she is relatively new to it all.

I find it useful to take tunes I know well in one (usual) key and deliberately practice them in a different, more obscure one. It forces me to think outside the first position, even if I’ll only ever perform the tune in one key.

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Yes, you can generally tell by listening 🙂 but not necessarily if you are “new to all of this” as the OP states.

We don’t know what instrument Bribak plays either. Some are more amenable than others to learning tunes in multiple keys.

However, I agree that it’s not a bad idea to try tunes in different keys , octaves, and positions as it helps you gain familiarity with the instrument.
Of course, it’s important that you learn a tune firstly in the key which is most commonly played especially where your session may be.

Generally, most “standard” tunes are usually played in D, G, and A and/or their relative minor keys etc. In Ireland, keys D and G are most common while in Scotland it is more often D and A.
There are many exceptions, of course. Many Scottish tunes can be found in C or F, especially on accordion. Also, in GHP, the notes are usually a semitone higher although the pipers may still refer to the key as “A” or “D”, it will sound as B flat or E flat.
In the harp tradition, there are also a lot of flat keys used. The harp is tuned in “E flat”(Old style clarsach players may even use Ab). So, there’s lots of music composed or adapted for these keys.

Having said all that, most of the Irish and Scottish music you will encounter in sessions WILL be in the keys G, D, and A but (As Eric Morecambe might have said) not necessarily in that order.
As regards the tunes on this site, I’d reckon that the great majority are transcribed in the key in which they are most commonly played.
Some tunes are very popular in both Irish and Scottish music e.g. https://thesession.org/tunes/702
As you see, there are settings in “G” and “A”. In Ireland, it is usually played in G whereas in Scotland, you’ll hear it played in “A” more often than not.
Another example is “Mrs Mcleod of Rasaay” which is also played in G by most Irish musicians but “A” is much more common “Here in Scotland”.

I’ve not mentioned the “modal keys” yet. 🙂 That’s a whole topic in itself but the more common tunes there also tend to be notated with 1, 2 or 3 sharps.

Oh , it’s also not uncommon for musicians to record even well known tunes at a semi tone higher etc but they will usually play them in the regular keys in a session situation.

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> Would you not know by just listening

With such incisive clarity, have you ever considered teaching people how to play, goose?

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Re: Choosing the right key in which to learn a tune

“We don’t know what instrument Bribak plays either.” In Bribak’s profile. Maybe only recently added.

Anyhow, it’s a great tune - and I still find the recording in tune, in D.

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Tenor banjo, ok - so what I said about moving up or down a string sometimes works, except in some cases G and D fingerings are totally different and G> A different again.

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Being that I play whistle, I learn tunes where they “sit” best on the whistle.

Then to play with others I use whatever whistle is needed for the tune to come out in whatever key it’s being played in at that time.

I’d much rather play in G Major than A Major, thus I have a Low E Whistle which transposes G to A.

There are other tunes in various keys that I prefer playing in whistle-positions which mean that I need to use a whistle other than D for them to come out in the session key. Often it’s the range, for example tunes that dwell below Bottom D will get played on mezzo G or mezzo A whistles.

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D whistle is fine for sessiúns, keys of D G Em Am are no problem, and sit very nice.

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Yes, tenor banjo and tenor guitar (no backup, just melody) are my instruments. And as I said before, I am relatively new to both this music and the instrument. I am 64 and only started the tenor banjo about four years ago. So it’s a late start. My ear seems to be developing some and my fingers are beginning to find their way to the right notes easier than when I started.

I am also very limited in theory knowledge, so talks of different Dorian or Mixolydian modes are like a foreign language to me. I grew up in a Bluegrass banjo environment and tablature was my tune learning tool - so actual theory wasn’t critical to learn. I realize now that has crippled me somewhat in better understanding the ins an outs of this music. On the tenor banjo, if I encounter a tune in an unfriendly (for me) key, I will sometimes try transposing it downward until I find a comfortable key - knowing I can always throw a capo on. I try to avoid that though as I feel the tone of my instruments suffer somewhat from capo use. Of course in Skelton’s Trotting To Larne case, that isn’t applicable as the (easier) D setting is already slightly higher than the recorded setting. Sometimes I will lower the key 7 semitones - which lets me drop the whole tune down one string. Usually that’s only for playing privately when I find I prefer how it sounds utilizing more of the bass strings. Again, as a mostly play at home musician, these decisions of proper key aren’t as critical. But as much as possible, I’d like to learn the tunes in the most common key so that in the event I find myself playing more with others, I will be better prepared. Anytune Pro+ is great - as I can modify any recording into a key I can play along with in a key I’m comfortable with. But that will do me no good in the real world with real people. Thanks to all of you who have offered advice.

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Bribak if the tune is written in D it really doesn’t matter what key John Skelton plays it in on the recording. He would use a D whistle in a Sessiún. My point being musicians use different pitched instruments for recording just to give the music a different feel.

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gooseinthenettles – OK. I do understand that. I was wondering more along the lines that for someone like me, who doesn’t know what key most session players would prefer to play a tune in, is an artist’s recording a reliable predictor of what key to expect at a session. More than once on this site here I’ve decided which key to learn a tune in by which key the greatest number of contributed settings were in. But the gist I’m getting here is that it will depend on each individual local session, what instruments the session members are playing, how friendly the key is to those particular instruments and abilities, etc…to determine what key it might be played in by that particular group of individuals. That makes total sense and is something I should have imagined to be the case. It was news to me that recording artists might use different keyed instruments on a recording just to give the tune a different feel. That’s interesting. In the days before pitch-altering slow-down apps, I imagine that could have been frustrating for people who want to learn a tune by playing along with recordings.

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I don’t think artists recordings are necessarily a good predictor. For example on some of his recordings Matt Molloy plays Eb flute, and Frankie Gavin tunes his fiddle to Eb. In sessiúns they would revert to concert pitched instruments.

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Bribak, what you’ll find in general is that if a tune fits easily on a D whistle, then it will usually be played in whatever key it lands in on that instrument. And as a general rule, there will only be one way that it fits comfortably.

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Re: Choosing the right key in which to learn a tune

Calum if your looking for lessons, you’ll find plenty of beginners lessons/ courses on the Internet for all instruments that are used in Irish music. Best of luck.

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‘Dorian and Mixolydian Modes are like a foreign language’ ok Bribak, I know what you mean! In its simplest form Dorian tunes are going to sound like they are in a minor key, eg Drowsy Maggie, Morrison’s Jig, [Em] or Cliffs of Moher, Sligo Maid [Am] and Mixolydian are going to sound major but with a ‘blue’ note every now and then , Old Hag You Have Killed Me [Dmix] or The Old Bush [Dmix] basically D major but going to a C nat rather than a C#. That’s how I learnt to understand it, hope it works for you!

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@Christy Taylor – Don’t bring The Old Bush into this! 😉 . It’s one of those tunes that causes endless mode debates (although if I had to take a side, I would be more with the Dmixers than the Adorers). My Love Is In America or The Last House In Connaught would have been a less ambiguous example of D mixolydian.

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For whistle player, any key is ok (buy you have to carry many whistles ;)), a very useful app on a smartphone is this:
https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=uk.co.ncoreappservices.KeyFinder&hl=en&gl=US

I use it all the time in sessions…. Violinists need to practice more (they don’t have a capo…. but I have seen in Poland that some fiddlers use a string tied around the neck as a capo).

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CMO, I didnt realize The Old Bush was such a bone of contention! How about Farewell to Connacht or Tatter Jack Walsh? Just trying to give Bribak a few well known examples to get a handle on modes.

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Can’t see what the problem is!
Just play (learn) the tunes in the same key everyone else in the room.
95% of tunes have a key that they are understood to be played in where ever you are in the world. Generally, every tune has a key it’s always played in.

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Yhaal House you’ve hit the nail on the head. It’s as simple as that, just sit in learn/play the tunes.

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– Just play (learn) the tunes in the same key everyone else in the room. – …just sit in learn/play the tunes…

Not everyone has the luxury of being in a room with other players for learning tunes… (Especially in the last couple of years!) This kind of gruff advice can have some merit, but has also driven some people away from this discussion forum over the years, hearkening back to the early days, and one particularly gruff poster…

It’s OK to be inspired by a recording and to learn a tune in a non-standard key. If you find that you learned a tune in a different key than people around you play it, it’s not the end of the world. You might end up inspiring them to learn it in the different key, and at the very least, the melody will be in your head, and learning it in the more standard key will be a quick process…

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Absolutely, by far most tunes have a pretty standard key at least in this tradition. I’m ignoring the E flat issue here it’s too hard to say whether they were actually recorded in that key or show up that way as a technology issue. I just know that there are a whole lot more D whistles than E flat whistles and that must mean something. For that reason and with no malice intended, the best approach is to do what everybody else does … listen and learn. Personally I’m more comfortable with not being picky about “modes”. I prefer to think of the number of #‘s or b’s and see where that takes me. I’ve been to many places where someone, often the bass player flashes fingers up to show how many sharps or down for flat keys (i.e. 2 down for Bb or whatever mode applies).

As for learning tunes in alternative keys, good idea. If you’re not a study scales and arpeggios kind of guy that’s about the only to develop a deeper understanding of whatever instrument you play. Yeah it can be beastly hard and i’m not that good at it with my flute, but it’s so worth the effort.

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“Are the keys you hear tunes in on recordings usually the keys they are played at in sessions?”

Sometimes. Sometimes not. And if not, it’s usually a half step higher. It can be a fiddler who has chosen to tune up. Or a button accordion who happens to use a D/D# (or C/C#). Or someone using an Eb flute (or whistle) instead of one in D. Sometimes they use flutes/whistles in other keys as well. But a tune coming out in F or Gm doesn’t have to mean that the tune “is in F (or Gm)”. It just sounds that way because they are (most likely) using an F whistle. Hey, imagine that someone gave them a random whistle asked them to start a tune.

“What are your strategies with regards to what key to learn a tune in?”

If you know your instrument, you can figure out that a tune in an off-key usually means something else. Open strings have a certain “ring” so you can almost hear that they’re using “A fingerings”/“Bm fingerings”/whatever, although the music is in another pitch.

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Trotting To Larne was recorded using Eb whistles, not a flute. A lot of ITM flute and whistle players use Eb to brighten a tune by bumping it up a half step. I discovered that in my early years learning whistle when trying to learn tunes from Mary Bergin LPs.

For whistle players, Jerry Freeman makes reasonably priced Eb whistles that are great when needed. I almost always have an Eb and a C whistle along with my various D whistles when I go play.

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Whistles in ‘funny’ keys are useful when a singer bungs the capo on an odd fret to sing a standard song in a ‘non-standard’ key..
Sometimes I suspect singers do the capo thing on purpose, not in order to choose a key suitable for their voice, but so that the boxes, pipes and whistles have stress joining in!

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Yhaal House, “back in the day” … if anybody did that kind of thing … for that reason … well, the first time they’d see a lot of backsides headed to the bar. If it happened a second time (and I was playing bass) they’d be treated to a 4 minute, free jazz bass solo under their aria. There wouldn’t be a third time. Alternative keys, along with melodic and harmonic variations, chord changes, all have, as mentioned, a place in recording/performance and even “jams”, but to do it for the purpose of excluding or annoying other members of the community is something that raises my hackles faster than watching somebody kick his dog.

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ross faison: some singers claim that wotteffah key is ‘more suited to their voice’ and suchlike excuses!