Playing up a semi-tone

Playing up a semi-tone

I haven’t been able to find anything about this in searching previous discussions.
Many people in ITM seem to play a semitone sharp, giving a brighter edgier tone. This seems to be a more northernish feature eg Dervish, Frankie
Gavin and some Donegal players.
Could some of the muiscally literate frequenters of this group perhaps expand on this.
Is it regional? Is it a growing trend? Is it age related
Do sessions in Ireland play up? As as fiddle player
this is technically easy but what about other instruments?
It makes learning tunes by ear difficult as one has to learn the tune and mentally transpose it, you can’t just play along. I used to have a variable speed
record deck ( Large black plastic discs you may have heard of ) this could mean you could change pitch without retuning the fiddle which upsets it.
Can any modern CD or Mp3 player do this as simply?
Tim

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

I have never heard of this. I am guessing that perhaps it’s just that in some places, notes are generally tuned higher. Pitch doesn’t seem to be the same in all places.
–Emily

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

there are so called “Eflat sessions” with the fiddle tuned up half a note and the whistle played is e flat and i believe noel hill has concertina tuned up a semitone. or is this just more urban legend?

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

It’s not unheard of to play up or down to get a certain effect (I’ve heard recordings of fiddlers playing down a bit to get a growly loose-string sound out of their D, for instance, on certain tunes that it just sounds really good on). For the most part, however, it’s probably that a player didn’t check their tune to A440 before beginning to record, or that there’s a non-tunable (or difficult to tune) instrument playing and everyone simply tuned to that. (We usually tune to Dirk’s pipes and then have to tune up sharper as the session goes on. Uilleann pipers can tune, yes, but sometimes it’s just easier for everyone to tune to them as they sit.) Or even that the recording equipment was a bit off speed-wise.

A440 is always the same no matter where you go, but there’s times when you just don’t bother tuning to it. 🙂

I *have* heard of sessions that are permanently tuned up or down to suit a particular instrument (usually a fairly unusual one, like some kind of exotic bagpipe), but I think in general, you just tune to either the un-tunable instruments or the session leader or A440.

Tim, think of not being able to play along with a recording as a plus. It’ll force you to learn the tune by ear before trying to play it. Or…just tune up. 🙂

Zina

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

Unless the fiddle is being re-tuned, I doubt that anyone is just playing a half-step higher or lower - it would almost completely eliminate being able to use your open strings for a drone, which almost everybody does.

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

“there are so called “Eflat sessions” with the fiddle tuned up half a note and the whistle played is e flat and i believe noel hill has concertina tuned up a semitone. or is this just more urban legend?”

No it’s not an urban legend, such sessions certainly occur. I have no idea how prevalent they are in Ireland. Though they might sometimes happen to suit other fixed-pitch instruments such as concertinas (some old Anglos in original condition are tuned to Ab/Eb or whatever), largely I think the pressure comes from fiddle players, who like the bright penetrating sound of a tuned-up fiddle.

Years ago I hung out at a session in London hosted by Danny Meehan and he would tune up any time conditions allowed.

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

Great discussion! I don’t know but it seems like something that was popular in the past, Frankie Gavin does it on most recordings, I wouldn’t consider him a “Northern” player though. I know that A=440 was standardized sometime in the early 20th century & that GB hung on to a higher pitch for a little while (maybe A=445) before going to A=440. What I do know is that it gives stringed instruments a louder tone because there is more string tension therefore it produces more energy. I’ve tuned up my fiddle a couple of times & it gives it a whole ‘nother sound, it’s brighter & louder. It is a different sound than just playing in Eb/D# while tuned to A=440. I have heard of G#/C# concertinas & Eb flutes are still somewhat common as well as whistles. All of which would have the same fingerings but would play a half step up. I enjoy it, but it is probably a pain in the neck for piano players backing up the music, as they are not as easily retuned as a zouk or a guitar. Most old u-pipes where pitched in ‘flat keys’ either C or Bb. Hughie Gillespie favor tuning down a full step to get a darker softer sound. Nowadays most instruments are tuned to A=440. Whenever I’m at a session we usually tune up to the nontunable instruments like boxes, concertinas (most free reeds) or a piper as it’s easier to tune fiddles, flutes, guitars etc than it is to tune a set of pipes. Most flutes are made to play at their own set pitches, if you push the slide all the way in to try to crank up a half step the tone holes will end up out of whack in relation to the embrachoure hole (& the end of the flute) & the notes will be all out of tune. Same thing with pipes & whistles. A Eb whistle won’t kill your budget, but a sharp-set of u-pipes would. I’ve never seen or heard a sharp set, with exception of an old “Rowesome” set that was pitched at Bb but with the old A=450 which put it closer to B natural in A=440 (oof, I’m dizzy). I don’t know of any modern makers that have “sharp sets” standard in their offerings, but $$ can buy anything if you have enough of it. As far as a piece of software that can detune I use The Amazing Slowdowner by Roni Musc
http://www.ronimusic.com/
it’s shareware & costs $40 for the full package - but the trial let’s you do enough that it’s worth tinkering with. It’s also a great program for slowing down without changing pitch as well. Good luck 7 thanks for the good discussion.

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

It was a very long time ago, so I don’t know how well I remember, but I seem to recall that in London in the 70’s, tuning for ITM was not at concert pitch, but higher - to get that brighter sound. The whistles were tuned like the flutes (at the join between the head and the cylinder) and you didn’t have to buy a new whistle - still used the ‘Generation D’. But I’m hestitant to even say this because I am no expert.

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Re: Playing up a semi-tone

Some tune to A=446 for pipes.

BTW, no need to raise the pitch of the fiddle to get more volume and brightness. The next time that you replace the bridge, cut it a little higher, more along the lines of a ‘classical bridge’. A lot of bridges are cut lower to keep the strings closer to the fingerboard,
(to improve playability), but this sacrifices tone and volume. On a lot of fiddles, years of string tension has pulled the neck ever so slightly toward the top of the instrument, and as a result, the string clearance is already too high above the fingerboard. Beware that a higher bridge will make the problem worse.

Scotty

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

Scotty, I think the thing is that people like Frankie Gavin etc etc have already recorded at the higher pitch, and if you want to play along with his recordings you have to either retune your instrument, or find a way to reduce the pitch of the recording. Its hard to learn tunes if you are not in tune with the recording you are trying to learn from. Anyway, thats the way I read Tim’s question. And by the way, I still have my old ‘Generation D’ from the 70’s.
Cheers

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Re: Playing up a semi-tone

i’m up north here and if i was doing a gig with a fiddler we would nearly allways play a semitone up(providing i’ve been practising the set tunes) what do you play tim ? if its a fiddle and most flutes, then you can tune up and if its a box, you know flat keys arent exactly that hard, just 3 sharps/flats in e flat, with a bit of practice you’ll be used to it in no time, its amazing how quick you can take to it with a bit of effort. no need for flashy technology (its cheating!)

M

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Re: Playing up a semi-tone

Living in Scotland, it’s common because of the pipes. alot lot of fiddle players I know have two fiddles, one tuned up.
It’s the same with Asturian music.
The worst ofender though is that splendid album by Tommy Peoples, Matt Molloy and Paul Brady. They tuned up to E flat and then, once they’d recorded the tunes they found that it was too long to fit on a record. So they speeded it up a bit.

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Re: Playing up a semi-tone

Thanks for contributions, I still think it is nice to play along with a
CD directly, though it is probably good to learn a tune in your head
before learning it. It is best to tune up a second fiddle as my
fiddle seems to resent changes up and down, but no-one likes to play second fiddle (joke?) I think someone needs to ask Frankie Gavin about this. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard him play in concert pitch. It does seem to be a fiddle driven personal preference thing?
But I can’t see how raising a bridge can help. If you want a loud fiddle it would ruin its set-up and be hard to play. Violin makers appear to make a distinction between apparent loudness and carrying ability to the back of a hall. ie loud instruments not necessarily the best to carry.Seems to go against common sense to me.

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

I think Scott was talking about setting up the fiddle for a louder and brighter tone without changing the pitch. Nothing wrong with that, it’s done all the time, and the tech or the player doing the setup usually knows what they’re doing with it. A semi-tone up (or down) won’t kill your setup – most people now use fine tuners anyway, which automatically puts a strain on the strings and the instrument, since strings aren’t usually manufactured for the extra length.

zls

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

If I recall what Noel Hill said when we asked him about it once in his class, he did a number of recordings in Eb and Ab because he was working with a D/D# box player (I don’t recall who right now - Tony MacMahon, maybe?). Concertinists who find a nice old box in some odd key will sometimes play it solo (like a piper) without worrying about pitch. Noel has an old D/A Wheatstone he uses a lot lately, resulting in tunes (played solo) a whole step higher than I’m used to doing them. I realized this when I heard him do a tune in F# dorian, and suspected, rightly, that it was not on a C/G concertina, where it would be quite an unusual fingering, but on a D/A.

Fintan Vallely mentions Eb flutes in his tutor book, if I recall.

I also hang out with Cajun musicians. C accordion is most common there, and the majority of fiddlers tune down a whole step (F C G D instead of G D A E). Over many years this has become traditional practice for them. But some play D boxes, and some switch back and forth. It sells lots of extra instruments!

Ken

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Re: Playing up a semi-tone

Thanks Brad
Just tried the Amazing Slow Downer. It really is Amazing and a real boon to anyone learning tunes by ear, varying pitch and speed
and looping difficult bits, it’ll make learning tunes a doddle: this should be in the learning tunes by ear discussion as well.

Re: Playing up a semi-tone

I tune up one of my fiddles a semi-tone quite regularly , so that I can play with my husband who plays the highland pipes, and I quite like the bright sound––the higher tension of the strings somehow makes it easier to play as well—they seem more responsive. I’m curious about Scottythefiddler’s suggestion about raising the bridge to get a brighter sound and more volume…how much higher? Would you do it yourself or get an experienced luthier to do it for you? I’d like to try it…..Aoife

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