Versions of the same tune in multiple keys?

Versions of the same tune in multiple keys?

I recently got hold of a copy of the Comhaltas Foinn Seisiun books and discovered that some of the tunes we play at a local beginners slow sessions are in different keys to those in the books.

Yes I realise this is an aural tradition, and that the books are just tools not the last word etc etc etc.

However I was wondering is it was common for tunes to be played in a variety of keys?

Re: Versions of the same tune in multiple keys?


Some tunes moreso than others, but nearly any tune can be transposed into other keys to suit a particular instrument (taking a Gdor fiddle tune, say, and playing it in E dor on whistle or flute), or player’s tastes.

For example, Dave Richardson’s Calliope House was written in E maj, but is also widely played in the more flute-friendly key of D, and also works well in G. Bag of Spuds is commonly played in both A dor and E dor. I’ve played Man of the House in E dor (most common), A dor, and G dor, just to blend with someone else’s version.

Tunes also sometimes shift modes. There are "major" and "minor" versions of many tunes, though one may be recognized as the "standard" and the other as the variation on a theme.

Posted .

Re: Versions of the same tune in multiple keys?

D major tunes sounds warm in A major. A dorian tunes sounds cool in G minor. G majour tunes sounds brighter in A major. I think it’s fairly common to play very well-known tunes in a bit different keys. But, as Will suggests, flute players hate such tricks.

As for common tunes, Kerfunten Jig is played both in D and G; Bill Harte’s Jig in Dmix and Amix; Walls of Liscarrol in Edor and Dmin; and The Foxhunter’s Reel in G and A. In some parts of the world, Man of the House is often played in Dmin, The Congress in Gmin, and Silver Spear in A. I heard that some Dublin musicians play Maids of Mt. Cisco in Bmin, but it’s probably not so common in other places.

I’ve been enjoying playing George White’s in D these days, inspired by Matt Molloy, Harry Bradley, Kevin Crawford, etc.

Re: Versions of the same tune in multiple keys?

Sorry for the lack of grammar and mistyping in my previous post above.

*D major tunes sound warm in A major. A dorian tunes sound cool in G minor. G major tunes sound brighter in A major. I think it’s fairly common to play very well-known tunes in a bit different keys….*

Keying up ~

Agree with all that has gone before, but other things have affected key change too. C to D / G to A ~ the old sharp tunings and some recording practices, speeding up includes a raise in pitch, easily lead to a full step shift, and some are easier to make than others, so ~ C to D / G to A… I’ve seen this in for example old free reed instruments, single row melodeons, two row, concertinas ~ where the fingering is one thing, say C on a single row, but the sound compared to modern pitch A=440, is quite sharp…

All in all, it is just another of those things we’re given some free choice in, but with respect to those we share the music with. Post WWII there has also been a want to ‘jazz’ up tunes, more so the closer you get to where we are now, so there have been some odd key changes too. Already mentioned are what’s thought to be best for the instrument you play, such as the fiddle, do you want more ‘open’ strings, or even less, in the playing or a particular tune, or you favour a particular selection of double stopping. And if you’ve a single row C melodeon, or a Bb set of uilleann pipes your choices are decidedly limited ~ by range and comfort, though I’ve known some single row players who could fudge other keys.

On the note previous to this, there are and were ‘micro-tones’ too, between the accepted notes, much easire for fiddles and winds and impossible for free reeds. Those tones were more common pre-WW II, less so post…

Slainte ~ your spelling is at least as good as mine… 😉

Re: Versions of the same tune in multiple keys?

Impossible for free reeds? Not if the free reed instrument is a harmonica. Bending and over-blowing can produce a range of tones on the harmonica.

Re: Versions of the same tune in multiple keys?

‘Reel Beatrice’ - usually in Gm, sometimes in Bm if there’s a box playing too.


Yeah TaoCat, hey, any relation to ‘Dow’? ~ anyway, I should have noted that as here next to the keyboard are several ‘harps’ / harmonicas. I’ve also heard a few button operated reads that were so abused they ‘bent’ too… I love the harmonica, in the hands of others more adept than I, one of my favourite free reed instruments…

Re: Versions of the same tune in multiple keys?

I’ve been in dead trouble in sessions for playing in the "wrong" key - but unrepentant.

I believe that traditionally, however, a tune became a different tune if it was put into a different key. I don’t know about the Irish tradition specifically but generally where music was learnt by ear this seems to have been the case. In Playford and other early English collections of music the same tune turns up in different keys with different names. The key seems to be part of the definition of the tune.

Although i don’t know about the irish tradition I believe that in the Western Isles of Scotland where they play waltz after waltz in really bizarre keys they always play the same tune in the same key. I met an Irish fiddler who had been up and down the isles for years working on oil rigs and he said they did.