Curious about Cs

Curious about Cs

So I am curious about the use of Cs in Irish Trad! Recently I played a tune at our session but was surprised to find that they use C sharp not C natural. (They said that the tune is played both ways…my version, learned from an Irish group on YouTube, uses C natural). And I played along with an old video of an Irish fiddler, and noticed his Cs are neither C-sharp or C-natural, but something “in-between”?

Is this just part of the looser aural tradition, where they could see where someone’s finger is landing, but can’t see exactly where? Or is there a deep traditional history behind these “variable” Cs?

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It really depends on the person’s interpretation I think. I find uilleann pipers often use the C sharp particularly for use in playing triplets, but may use the C natural in other versions. Piping tunes will often have the C sharp in as well mainly so the piper has as much room as possible for adding in piping ornaments

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I’ve heard these ‘in between’ notes on fiddle recordings. They are rather hard to emulate on a fretted instrument (mandolin in my case) short of some tricky string bending so I have to come off the fence and play one or the other

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Those are interesting points about the use of Cs for the pipes and fretted instruments! So, some C choices are probably just for practical and physical reasons.

An article I came across online titles it “Untempered tuning by fiddle players”, pointing out that often fiddle players played unaccompanied (so C at that moment can be whatever sounds good to their ear). He also adds, “Many Irish tunes feature some modulation, particularly of the note C. Tunes such as The Gander in the Pratie Hole and Rakish Paddy feature C-naturals and C#s in different places. This is part of the charm of these tunes. But… I have heard a recording of Tommy Peoples playing The Gander in the Pratie Hole in which he didn’t modulate. He played the same C all the way through, but it was neither C-natural nor C-sharp – it was what Scottish fiddler and teacher Alisdair Fraser has dubbed “C supernatural”. (I think that’s a great name for that in-between C 🙂

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There is a thing in this music called the “Piper’s C” and sometimes “C Supernatural,” indicating a note that should be a C natural but it’s played a hair sharp. It results from the diatonic nature of certain instruments like pipes, whistles, and flutes where that note just happens to be a hair sharp due to the instrument design.

On my flute for example, the cross-fingered C note is 14 cents sharp relative to where it “should” be in 12 Tone Equal Temperament, while all the other notes are pretty much bang on for 12TET pitch (except for a characteristically flat F#). I can get a bang-on 12TET C note using the C key on my flute, but I prefer that slightly sharp Piper’s C so I always cross-finger the note. Somehow it just feels right for the music. Or else I’ve been listening too much to pipers and now my ear is bent that way.

I first learned about this when playing mandolin in a session before I got into flute. A mandolin of course is locked into 12TET intonation with the frets. When playing melody on a tune like “The Choice Wife” I would sometimes throw in a full C chord on the distinctive C notes in the tune for emphasis. That sounded fine when playing at home, but the chord sounded sour in a session. I eventually realized that the whistle player was playing the C a bit sharp, and so were the fiddlers! So I quit playing that chord within the tune. The extra intervals in the chord were emphasizing the “out-ness” of the C note.

Not all sessions will drift a hair sharp on that note; some fiddlers who can easily play it either way instinctively do it and others don’t. But it’s something to keep an ear out for .

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One of the joys of this music, for me, is the ‘modal’ tunes, where most often, they are switching between major and mixolydian (where the 7th note is flatted). If you’re playing in D, that means that you’re switching back and forth between C and C#. So that’s one part of this – tunes that actually specify the use of both Cs. In these cases, it’s pretty common to play with someone who plays a different C than you do at any given spot in the tune… That sounds dissonant and really muddies up the session sound, so it’s really good if you can spot it as you’re playing, and switch it when it comes around again. (Which sometimes leads to multiple people switching Cs on the fly, and you’ll never find a consensus. But especially if you’re not a regular in that particular session, it’s most likely up to you to make the change…)

The other part of this is when people are using a C(ish) note that is somewhere in between natural and sharp. On banjo, I have found the most effective way to handle that is to do a quick slide between the two notes, so you actually hear it both ways. That can also be a handy trick in the aforementioned lack of consensus, too, and can help make the dissonance of the two Cs being played together a bit more tolerable…

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This relates to a larger issue of pitch in fiddling, in particular, as it allows more variation than most instruments. There are those who insist that anything that strays from standard pitch is simply poor technique - or perversely-misguided technique - and there are those who hold that there are alternative notions of pitch that are traditional and valid. And ne’er the twain shall meet.

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@cancion: I’m curious about what the tune in question was …

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In bygone days, fiddlers called the note between Cnat and C# the “sweet C.” Other notes were also sometimes sweetened, notably F and Bb. Seems less common now, with most fiddlers not straying from a more formal-music intonation except to match the tuning of pipes, flute, or whistle.

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gimpy, do you have a source for that ‘sweet c’ reference, please? I’m keen to read more.

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GW, sorry, I don’t have a written source. It was part of the aural tradition. I originally heard it called that by fiddlers who had learned from and played with the likes of Martin Rochford, Junior Crehan, Bobby Casey, and Paddy Canny. That makes me wonder if it’s something of a regional thing (e.g., Co. Clare), or if it was common enough across Ireland.

FWIW, I’ve also heard several of today’s most highly regarded fiddlers say that the sweet C was just sloppy intonation, that there’s no excuse for not being precise in distinguishing between Cnat and C#. I can’t help but feel they’re missing the point—it’s entirely possible to be precise about Cnat, C#, *and* sweet C, and to use each one when appropriate.

To my ear, the sweet C is part of the bluesy wildness you hear in the old recordings that’s too often missing today.

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Thanks for that - I just hadn’t heard the term used in that way before.

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… more familiar with the ‘hidden note’ and the ‘blue note’! 🙂

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It could well be that the idea is the same but the choice of words is regional.

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I should mention that it’s also known as a “sweetened” C.

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Reminds me of that old comment about ‘tuning being an agreement between friends’. Of course there is a place for personal preference although not everybody may like your interpretation… It often delights me and sometimes not when listening to old recordings from way back when but it’s all a part of the tradition surely.
And naturally there is a place and time when accuracy of pitch does matter but to insist on it at all times? Bit pedantic to my mind.

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In addition to the ambiguity of a C played in just D tuning, there’s also choice. Breandán Breathnach’s rule of thumb was that in traditional Gaelic melodies C was always natural on notes of emphasis but sometimes sharp in passing (especially in BCD triplets). But Scottish influenced fiddle tunes in A would be different.

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@borderer - The tune where I switched to C-sharp was “Eel in the Sink” - although I confess that I do love it more with a C-natural and play it that way when by myself. The fiddler playing the “sweet / supernatural” C was Paddy Canny, as @gimpy mentioned.

It’s been interesting to learn more about this, this is such a mysterious aspect of the music to me!

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@gimpy - also, the “F blunt”, sort of halfway between F nat and F# on the fiddle E string.

It sometimes sounds out of tune (and piano-ally it is), but it can sound wild, as you say. Noticeable on the players of the past, but people like Ciaran Tourish use it too.

Just on the point of fiddlers adjusting intonation to match a fixed-pitch instrument, isn’t it the microtonal differences of them all playing together that gives a session its “sound” ?

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Loughcurra, Breathnach was a piper, which would’ve naturally inclined him toward C# in passing.

In the most common keys/modes of this music, C, whether nat or #, often occupies an important, expressive place in a melody. It’s no wonder musicians down through the years have bent, smeared, shaken, warbled, and otherwise articulated it to milk it for every ounce of that expressiveness. This is especially true for tunes in Dmix and Ddor, and for tunes that intentionally use both Cnat and C# in wandering between Dmaj/Dmix, Em/Edor, and Amix/Ador, etc.

Whenever I sweeten a C on fiddle, I’m hearing uilleann pipes in my head.

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Jim, yes I think of that as a sweetened F. Same goes for Bb/B on the A string.

As for a session’s overall sound, maybe that’s why I love a session of nothing more than two or three fiddles…. 🙂

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Gimpy, the sweetened C and F is interesting. In the classical violin world, there’s a range of technical exercises by Sevcik (you may know of them). Now it would take you 40 years to go through them all, but they can be distilled effectively to a few exercises for left hand.

On the surface, it’s just a big bunch of notes, but Sevcik wrote a little book explaining their purpose (“How to Practise Sevcik’s Masterworks”). One of the things he said was that when playing two notes together, the leading note should be slightly sharp. So, a B+ open E would have the B slightly sharp. Now maintain that same B, and play along with the open D. The B now sounds too high, so you need to sweeten it up by flattening it fractionally, actually below “piano” pitch. In that combo, the leading note is now open D, which is slightly sharp when compared to the (now flattened) B.

So he was saying pretty much the same thing, but in different words, and in a different context!

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Yes, us fiddlers routinely make such adjustments depending on what key we’re in (e.g., Gmaj vs. Emaj) and which other instruments we’re playing with.

I remember starting out on fiddle as a youngster and struggling with intonation until one day it finally clicked (except when it doesn’t 😀 ). Part of it was realizing that the “right” note depended on context. Being fretless was a feature, not a bug!

A friend decided to learn fiddle after years of playing cello. She was astonished—and a bit frustrated at first—by how even the smallest tweak in finger placement made such a difference in pitch (given the difference in scales between the two instruments).

A brief encounter with Sevcik was helpful, but it felt like overkill for the skills needed to play Irish trad. I did carry some of the concepts into what to pay attention to and refine as I played tunes.

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Thanks AB, that was a good discussion thread mentioning “sweet C”. I especially liked the part where people pointed out that it’s not some accident by an unskilled untaught ‘folk’ player, but a deliberate, intentional and artistic part of Irish Trad. And has something to do with going pleasingly with the pitch as played on the other trad instruments (this I don’t understand well, being a fiddle player). Thanks also for the wonderful YouTube illustration.

Small addendum…realized that for “Eel in the Sink” the version I learned has C-nat through part A, then C-sharp in part B. So it’s this “modulated” (maybe older?) version of the tune that I learned/prefer.

Coming from classical, encountering these “C-deviations” has been puzzling - but so unique and interesting!

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Seems to me that in uilleann piping the choice of C versus C# is often (or usually) situational.

For one thing, staccato C will always be sharp, due to being done with a single finger.

There’s a common motif back D>C>A where the back D and C are played staccato and the C is sharp.

But there are legato motifs that call for C# too, like back D>C>back D where the C will be sharp.

C when approached from B or other lower notes will often be natural.

In Folk Music And Dances Of Ireland author Breandan Breathnach says:

“C# occurs usually by way of variation and almost invariably in a weak or unaccented position…this applies to the note as it occurs in tunes in G. In D tunes C is always sharp whether in a strong or weak position.”

About the last sentence, it seems to me that a number of tunes in D have accidental C naturals occuring in stressed positions especially when approached from below.

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Interesting, thanks!

“C when approached from B or other lower notes will often be natural.”
As in part A of my favorite setting for Eel in the Sink

“But there are legato motifs that call for C# too, like back D>C>back D where the C will be sharp.
True, in part B…

I will see what other tunes I notice this pattern in! I think this variation in Cs is part of the distinctive sound of Irish Trad tunes.