Harmonising in ITM

Harmonising in ITM

My background is jazz but at a folk group I tried to play a few harmony notes on my whistle to give a little backing to an Irish fiddle player.
He was not amused. I thought it blended nicely but the message was crystal clear.
Did I commit a cardinal sin.
Not being familiar with the sin structure it may have been only venal.

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Yes. Don’t mix Jazz and Old Irish country music pls.

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Yeah, that sort of thing will get you in trouble at a lot of sessions.

I’m not saying there aren’t some sessions where that might be OK, but in my experience, harmony on a whistle might be OK or even welcome accompanying a singer on a pub tune if they are OK with it (but never sean nos singing), but almost never in the context of sets of instrumental dance tunes.

There are some exceptions, for example, if you know the tune, everything is going along nicely playing it a few times through in a set, perhaps you throw in a melodic variation that still fits in the basic harmonic structure of the tune the last time through, the key being that it’s clear you know the tune well enough to vary it, that might be perceived as “cool” or “clever”. Or not. You might still get eye rolls/daggers. Depends on the players and the norms of the session. I’ve been in fine sessions on both ends of that scale.

If you’re just playing harmonies behind a fiddler on a tune you don’t know (you didn’t say in this case), that’s most likely going to not end well in most sessions, at least in my experience.

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I’m not sure whether harmony is strictly speaking gluttony or pride, but whichever it is, it’s on the naughty list. This is a music to which accompaniment is a recent and not entirely welcome arrival. Harmony is right out.

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You have committed a cardinal sin and must now sit in the penalty box for a while. ;)

I have sinned in a lesser way by adding a bit of doublestop or partial chord (dyad) harmony here and there within the melody line when playing mandolin. Just here and there, like you might hear the regulators used on Uilleann pipes, or the bass buttons on accordion. It can work on those instruments because the main melody note is still being played along with anything else. But a continuous harmony line on a linear instrument like whistle is just distracting. Especially at the high pitch of a whistle.

One of the only two times I’ve ever seen someone formally disinvited from a session was an octave mandolin player, who wanted to play melody on every tune whether he had learned them or not. On the tunes he didn’t know, he improvised a harmony melody line instead of just strumming the chords. There is an accompaniment style on bouzouki or OM that can work that way, but this wasn’t it. It was distracting as hell, so he was told to come back when he learned the tunes. I don’t think he ever did. He was mostly an OldTime player and the approach was more accepted in that circle.

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Yes, the naughty box. When I was younger and less wise, I thought it would be cool to add a harmony line to a well played reel in a session. Ah, no. I got a warning, almost a red card. There is much pleasure to be gained by playing a tune well in unison.

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The main thing about Irish tunes is their melodic nature. If you don’t follow the melody, whether rhythmically or harmonically, it will always throw off the music. If you’re going to play a melody instrument, playing “a few harmony notes” as backing is going to throw the music off because the sound that is called for is melody. Now, please anyone correct me if I’m wrong, but most melody instruments have the capacity to accompany themselves with rhythmic and dynamic harmonizing(harp, uilleann pipes, fiddle, concertina, etc.) with the exception of the flute. If the musician wants to apply that sound, they will do it themselves. But to hear another instrument just throw in random notes, even if they are in harmony, is off-putting in my opinion. I imagine it would sound like they were trying to join the tune, but either couldn’t find their place, or didn’t know the tune; Both of which would likely be true if they aren’t playing the melody to begin with. I would say the best thing you could do if you want to harmonize is to go the traditional route and play the tune an octave lower. That adds a fun and unique dynamic to the music because it’s not something that always happens.

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HARMONISING?
IRISH TRADITION!!!

Absolutely foul, pestilent disease which now has epidemiologists trying to eradicate this latter day movement which shakes the very foundations of this simple peasant tradition.
These heretics shall be excommunicated and banished to everlasting fires, torment, pain and anguish for their daring to break free from the shackles of tradition!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuY2N-v4hPs


Don’t yield to temptation you good people out there, I’ll pray for you
🤣

Keep safe and well everyone

All the best
Brian x

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That Bothy Band clip was great! But ’ya know, performance vs. session.

Last week my wife and I ventured out for the first live concert in two years: Lúnasa in Seattle. The start of their West Coast tour. The lads were in great shape, and it was wonderful to see Seán Smyth back with the band on fiddle. But horrors! For one set, Kevin Crawford pulled out what must have been a low Bb flute, and he played a low harmony line under the tune the others were playing. Horrors!

It sounded fantastic. But unless Kevin is going to sit beside me at a session, I’m not sure I’d want to hear anyone else trying that outside of a performance context.

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Re: the Bothy Band track…

it’s worth pointing out that they are doing more than just “harmonizing with” the tune. They’re playing a through-composed counterpoint. (Then there’s a third line which harmonizes with the counterpoint).

I happen to dig this kind of thing, especially when it’s done as well as the Bothy Band did it. (Steeleye Span is good at this sort of contrapuntal-Irish-music stuff, too). Is it in keeping with traditional performance practice? Of course it isn’t. And I wouldn’t try it at a session, especially when I am just a student of the music.

There’s a vast difference between ITM sessions and ITM bands, in terms of what ideas you can try out… which is why I feel like you get more out of the music by playing it in both environments…

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The reason the Bothy Band track works so well is because Kevin Burke’s fiddle is way up front in the mix and so what you hear very clearly is his melody line - I had to make a conscious effort to listen out for what the other band members were doing, oh yes there’s Triona’s keyboard, there’s Matt Molloy playing a low harmony line, etc but that’s not going to happen in a session, improvising on a whistle is going to be right in everyone’s face [or eardrums] - like everyone says, learn the tunes!

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I’ll sometimes play the first couple of bars of the Star of Munster a third up. There’s a rising line in the second part of Frank’s that also sometimes works in thirds. And a wonderful fiddler I know would sometimes play a growl A instead of the repeated C naturals at the start of Rakish Paddy. Occasional variations like that sound great to me and I wouldn’t want to go to a session where people got grumpy about that kind of thing.
The moment you try to be ‘authentic’, you are by definition not ‘authentic’.

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Thanks everyone. I knew it was wrong when the fiddler told me and I haven’t done it since. But I thought it was a good conversation piece.

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Am I mistaken on what is considered harmony…
Is jumping up an octave when the notes go to low for the whistle is ok, but jumping a 3rd or 5th is right out?

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It’s interesting to think about why it doesn’t work (mostly) in this form of music. For me it’s like mint chocolate. You have chocolate, the tastiest of all foods, why would you add mint to it, it’s just a distraction and dilutes the full appreciation of the chocolate. Irish trad tunes played at their best are rich enough to occupy your full attention, theres a balance between the general rhythm, the accents, phrasing and ornamentation as well as, the whole line or story of the tune, to be struck by all the players. …by playing an improvised counterpoint it’s like adding more ‘stuff’ to an already full soup of interest.

My favourite ensemble recordings there is always never a particular instrument that stands out, for more than a little bit here and there. It sounds creative, spontaneous but cohesive and collaborated, without anyone grandstanding or indulging wild over-inventiveness, so to speak. So probably if an embellishment, variation or bit of harmony is for just one little phrase, it’s ok, so long as it’s not sticking out like a sore thumb every repetition of the tune!

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My general point being, that it’s not simply that harmonising is forbidden by an arbitrary consensus or tradition, but that there is some tangible rationale for it’s exlcusion. (Just like there is nearly always a rationale for seemingly arbitrary traditions)

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I believe that one aspect of the harmony issue is that some of the tunes in the “modal keys” would lose the austere beauty of their melody line, if harmony was used.

That said, bands like “Four Men And A Dog” have used harmony on tunes when in “party” mode, but even then they use it fairly sparsely.

An analogy might be someone adding a piano part to Bach’s Sonatas And Partitias 🙂

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What follows is my own thoughts prefaced by “ often wrong, never in doubt“. I only agree with myself some of the time!

Harmony makes music. It’s why pianos allow more than one note at a time (polyphonic) and fiddles more than one string. Harmonies allow melodies to shine by giving them something to stand with, or against. Sure, my wife looks good in the simple black dress, but notes that the ability to accessorize is what separates us from savages! It helps to remember that without a good melody, harmony can’t exist. The Trad we play is not somehow set aside.

And now for the hard part. Harmony isn’t easy. Harmony requires a clear understanding of melody. Harmony needs a knowledge, either instinctive or learned, of how, why, and when two or more notes work together. Harmony is not, say it with me, not some random squeaky high notes or low drones, it is not an unpurposeful passage that “still fits in the chord”. Harmony has to have a reason. Harmony is most certainly not a chance to make a noise or show off when you don’t play the melody. I would argue that playing good harmony is more difficult than playing a melody. Harmony is hard and not everybody can do it, not even close.

Now I’ll add that we need to make a distinction between a performance/recording and a session. Unlike the performance a session is a like-minded community gathering. Knowledge, skills, and abilities vary. That’s not to say that the players are “bad”, it’s just to recognize that we’re all in varying stages and levels of commitment. Simply put, if we all (in a session) play the the same tune , at the same time, and more or less in the same way we can appreciate the sense of community that brings together. For me the excitement of a session happens when we’re all in the same groove doing this wonderful thing together. A performance is about the fascination of hearing how all the musical bits come together. Yeah, there’s room for some risk taking in a session but there will be limits based on the temperament and experience of the group. Best to know what they are first. For my part I probably wouldn’t go to a session with too much, and probably poorly understood, harmony or go to a performance (or get a recording) by a group of players doing little more than having a session on stage. Everything has it’s place.

Full disclosure: my own collection of recordings is split between melody heavy, solo recordings and dynamic small groups playing arranged sets and only a very few big “show bands”.

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It’s just going to come across as wrong notes or a different melody. It’s not traditional and it can throw other melody players off. At least it does to me sometimes.

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ITM is harmonised as soon as the first D chord is played on a guitar! Or the box player plays a bass, or the piper touches a regulator, or if a fiddle plays a double stop!

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What’s the juxtaposition of different pitches called when someone plays three eighth notes for a half bar of a jig and someone else plays quarter-eighth? Or are rhythmic variations only allowed if they can be same-pitch. I’m sure there have been discussions here where people said the tight unison of a ceili band wasn’t what sessions are about.

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I might be confused as what ‘harmonising’ means - as a layman, I thought we were talking about adding a reflection of the main melody on different notes, like what the beach boys or jazz musicians do, e.g. playing with the melody by transposing it somewhere else on the scale, jazzing it up, or like adding an improvised counterpoint melody.

There are obviously loads of examples of good harmony or accompaniment in Irish music, which add to the playing, and don’t obscure it!

And there are some great players who do ‘harmonising’ as described above, e.g. Micheal o raghallaigh is always slipping in little harmonised lines here and there, but just sparingly, not constantly, and probably very much pre composed!

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The problem with trying to harmonise in a session is that what goes on (in terms of harmonic accompaniment) is generally not pre composed and, if it is, then it’s probably an arrangement that’s too close to a performance.

You’re at a session to play tunes together and perhaps learn some on the fly that you haven’t heard before. You’re going to struggle with that if someone is playing random notes, even if they harmonise with the tune. And is the guitar or zouk player going to have to adjust to accommodate someone else’s harmonising notes?

A performance of trad music where everything is worked out in advance is a very different musical situation.

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It seems the issue, as always, comes down to “learn the tunes”.

The issues I’ve experienced with “harmonization” have been when a player (often a whistle player it seems) doesn’t know the tunes, doesn’t understand how sessions work, and just start improvising some random harmony line against whatever they hear.

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@Agnar – I don’t believe jumping a 3rd or 5th when a note is too low for a whistle will put you in the penalty box.

I do that all the time on flute, because “folding” an octave up for a too-low note sometimes sounds jarring to my ears. So I’ll find a note closer like a 3rd interval or something as a substitute, if it works in the context of the tune and I know the actual low note will be played by fiddlers to cover it.

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Michael, I liken your point to the common complaints one hears about bodhran players. You are addressing the pitfalls rather than the subject per se. Anything done incorrectly or without taste or competence will sound like crap. My opinion is, if one can pull it off, it is not best done without. On the other hand, if the crowd ain’t diggin’ it, perhaps it is best saved for a different venue.

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I see comments like “bad notes or different melody”, “player doesn’t know the tune or doesn’t know how sessions work”, “improvising some random harmony line”. Yup, that’s the problem. Harmony is hard and not every can or should do it. Harmony isn’t a bad thing unless it’s done badly (as is so often the case) and that takes time and work to learn how to do it well. Of course it can be spontaneous but it only works when the player has the skill. I suppose you could the same thing about playing a melody badly. As for harmony being a distraction I can only think that playing with good, fitting harmony is a skill that is learnable. Playing with poor attempts at it is just painful.

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Hello, Conrad. You mentioned that you play jazz. Which instrument & which type of jazz?

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Ah, every time I hear about harmony in trad it conjures up this scene from The Boys and Girl of Country Clare. “We are not playing jazz, leave that to the Beatles!”

https://youtu.be/OvgameIDGgU


We all make mistakes when we first start out. You’ll survive. Maybe someone might make a joke or two of it and laugh it out in the future.

Cheers,

Melany

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I’ve seen that clip from BAGFCC loads of times but never noticed before the piper struggling to fix his reed for the entire rehearsal! Is that a familiar scenario for pipers? [apologies for side-tracking]

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The event wasn’t a Session, but at a folk group where we sing and play individually and often the guitars will also come in. The fiddler played his tune and, like many players, he played and played. Great if I were dancing but it was a bit repetitive.
In jazz we can play several choruses of the tune, but modifying and improvising.
After a few choruses, I put in a few bass notes which I thought fitted well. He didn’t.
We are still friends.

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First time I have seen that clip and I must admit that the wee boy’s contribution was magic.
How does the film progress?

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When the band are on the ferry to Ireland the marine zombie holocaust starts and these sea-weed-y zomboids crawl out of the sea on to the boat. Despite the ceilli band keeping the zombies at bay by playing a twenty minute rendition of the Kesh, the zombies prevail when the band change the tune to Rakish Paddy. Seems marine zombies are scared of major scale tunes but mixolydian mode tunes gives them health…

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Playing a harmony line (a 3rd above or below the melody) is ok sometimes. I do it sometimes on some tunes in sessions, but only when there’s a good critical mass of other musicians playing the melody. So I would only do it on well known tunes, e.g. The Lark in the Morning. And I wouldn’t do it on all parts or all repeats, just here and there.

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“How does the film progress?”
No spoilers from me, Conrad. You’ll have to watch the film. The flute playing you’re referring to is not by the actor. Someone correct me if my information is wrong. There are plenty of good trad players who play for the movie though most of them are not in the cast. Andrea Corr (she’s in the cast) is a musician, just not a fiddler.

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Michael said “The issues I’ve experienced with “harmonization” have been when a player (often a whistle player it seems) doesn’t know the tunes, doesn’t understand how sessions work, and just start improvising some random harmony line against whatever they hear.”

Worse is when all the above is true (except maybe using a flute) but the player also has no concept of which notes fit which keys. Whatever one’s personal view on harmony in trad tunes, totally random notes do NOT qualify as harmony. Sadly, I’ve met some who did not understand that.

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frkrygow, worse [worst?] is when its a tenor sax player. If you think a whistle or a flute improvising at a sess is bad………………..!!!

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I think in that BB track ( Strayaway Child ) theres a couple of over-dubbed , one high, one lower, flute lines?
( or perhaps thats the Paddy Keenan on low whistle …. second time through on the A part )

Its great how they back off towards the end, and it finishes with just the fiddle again.
class
IMO

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I confess, I like harmony - writing it, playing it though I’m not likely to improvise it on the hoof, except maybe when singing choruses to songs. I agree that on the whole faster tunes such as jigs and reels don’t need it, though I can think of a few (non-Irish ones) where it has been used to good effect, though save it for playing 2nd or 3rd time through. (The High Drive, Hesleyside Reel for example). Harmony is perhaps more appropriate to slow airs and waltzes, and my preference is usually for something that goes under the tune or weaves around it, rather than a soaring descant at excruciatingly high pitch.
But as has also been mentioned, it does need to take account of any accompanists and fit their chord structure, which is why it is better to work out harmonies in advance and learn them, just as you would learn the main melody. Many of these are written with performances in mind, but can work in sessions if any harmony players (one or two is enough!) know and can play the same version. We have a lovely 3-part arrangement of Si Beag Si Mor as an example of this.

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My profile gives my views away, I think.

Yes, I agree with most people here. Harmony is fine for a performance or playing informally with a group of players where each is aware of what the others are doing. It’s usually better worked out in advance as Trish suggests.

That’s not to say it can’t work in a regular session if it’s just one experienced player and it doesn’t detract from what everyone else is doing. Generally though, it’s better just to “sit out” tunes if you are “unfamiliar”. However, “unfamiliar” can mean different things to different players and the temptation to take a chance can sometimes be overwhelming. 🙂

As I say, such action should be only done sparingly. There’s nothing worse than lots of players all trying to do different things at the same time without thought.

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I’m coming back to reply a bit late. Sorry for my lapse. Fortunately anything I might have added has already been posted. However I do want to highlight Jerone’s response. If you missed it or cannot recall what he posted it’s right here ~ https://thesession.org/discussions/46929#comment939231

Well worth a second look!

edit:one brief comment. Jerone, something just came to me about two friends who often played harp and flute together. In this case they knew each others playing and while they did not walk on each other with random harmony they definitely would improvise harmony, the fluter that is. She was always sensitive to the harpist’s playing and her melody.

Cheers!

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I was asked what jazz instruments I play. My favourite instrument is the clarinet but in one band I am allocated to play alto sax. In the folk club it’s a high D whistle but I’m trying to improve on low D and low G,but that one squeaks a bit.

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Interesting that you favor clarinet, since one seldom hears that instrument in jazz outside of Dixieland music. Clarinet was my first instrument, which I abandoned for flute, on which I play folk, blues, jazz, rock and Irish.

I realize there are greats like Benny Goodman who shone as soloists, but by and large, even with reed players who double, clarinet is seldom seen. You might give flute a try for jazz and Irish.

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You have heard, I hope, “The New Blackthorn Stick” (Andy Lamy), a different take on the tunes, but not at all bad. Worth a listen.