Question on Modes and Keys etc.

Question on Modes and Keys etc.

I’m not particularly knowledgeable about keys and all that stuff apart from recognising the number of sharps but I have got around recently to trying to figure why some tunes have a completely feel to others even though they have the same number of sharps. Which has lead me to looking up some of the threads on modes on this site etc. and in partic. Will Harmon’s little table at http://www.slowplayers.org/SCTLS/modes.htm

I’m a little confused though.. take the reel ‘Man About The House’ - Kathleen Nesbitt in her book, Fidil gives this as an example of a tune with key signature of D but in Dorian mode. This makes sense as the ‘home note’ is E and the Dorian being the Ray mode as I understand it would give a tune based on EF#DABC#DE i.e. with two sharps like D Maj. but with E or Ray as the base note. On this site, though it is assigned as E Minor.

Take the ‘Congress Reel’, Kathleen calls it key sig. of G but in Dorian mode. Again makes sense as A is ‘home note’, based on ABCDEF#GA. On this site, the same tune, same setting as far as I can see is called as A Dorian. So is it correct to call it A Dorian or G Dorian, latter seems more likely to me as there is only one sharp.

Which brings me to the key of A. Most tunes I know that I would say were in A, I only play with two sharps ie. F# & C#. I just play the G not a G# which the A maj. scale would call for. So does that mean that these tunes should really be called as key sig. of D but in Mixolydian mode i.e. not A at all. ‘The Mooncoin Jig’ on this site is called as A Mixolydian but should it be described as D Mixolydian. How about ‘Tom Billy’s’ jig : cAA cAA gee gab etc., all c’s played natural, one sharp, A very definitely the main note … is this G Dorian rather than A??

Sorry for boring anyone not really interested in this stuff but just curious and we all know about curiousity and the cat ……..

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

The example you give of ABCDEF#GA would never be called G
Dorian - if anything G Major as it uses same notes as G Major,
but A Dorian would be more accurate.

If you are familiar with Aminor being the minor relative of C
Major then modes are not that difficult to understand.

C Major : C D E F G A B C intervals are W W H W W W H
(W=whole, H=half tome)

Then using the same notes but starting at A you get the A
minor scale.

A Minor : A B C D E F G A intervals are W H W W H W W

The intervals between the notes are what define the scale as
Major, Minor, Dorian or Mixoldyian.

So similarly if you use same notes but start on D then you get
D Dorian : D E F G A B C D intervals are W H W W W H W
So as A minor is the relative minor to C, D Dorian is the
relative Dorian to C, and G Mixoldian would be the relative
Mixoldian to C.

All would have the same key signature, but would be different
modes.

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

I would tend to agree with Larsheen there.
From a backing point of view it is useful, baring in mind
though that tunes aren’t necessarily going to strictly adhere to a particular mode.
It will do you no harm knowing it a bit, and it’s not rocket science.

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

And, as I have mentioned before, there are a whole host of tunes that have, for example, both Cnats and Csharps. Not to mention all the tunes that vary their centre or even have no centre at all. Rules are made to be broken. (though, as we know, you have to know the rules before you break them)

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

From a backer’s point of view, or just from the point of view of building any kind of chords, having some sort of theoretical backup is quite useful. It’s good if you want to improvise. But melody playing - hell, you either play what you know or you stay out. Or otherwise you do this dreadful thing starting with "n", which you just don’t do, do you, please don’t ask Jack.

Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

Thanks Beg F,
so, following your line .. ‘Man About The House’, ‘Drowsey Maggie’ have E as the ‘theme’ note, my expression. They are played with 2 sharps, does this make them E Dorian looking at Will’s table. Why call them E minor?

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

Larsheen,
I know what you’re saying and I agree but I’d kinda like to know why some tunes have a much softer feel to them than others apart from the fact that they just do and that is at the heart of the music. The Cnat definitely plays a big part and does this change how you describe the key etc.

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

Well with Drowsy Maggie if the C is always sharp then

Two ways to go about this.


1. The notes are going to be E F# G A B C# D
Same notes as D Major
But the tonic being the second note (ie E)
Therefore the mode is E Dorian.

2. Mode starting on E with intervals are W H W W W H = Dorian

Now some people might call this E minor as the tonic chord is
Em and the Interval from the 1st not E to third note G is called
a “minor third”.

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

I personally find the best way to classify tunes is by tonal center and mode of the first part. "Key signature" meaning what is written on the staff is fairly useless, because Mixolydian and Dorian are sooooo common. Most guitarists or backers will figure out that Am really means A dorian.

I beleive that having an understanding of this stuff also helps melody players pick up tunes on the fly.

Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

Wounded,
To answer your question "Why call them E minor?", there are three possible explanations:
1. The person posting actually plays the Cs as naturals, making it really E minor, at least the way they play it, though they may be in the minority;
2. The Cs shift amorphously between natural and sharp or are absent entirely, making the mode ambiguous between minor and dorian;
3. The person posting the tune doesn’t know the difference between dorian and minor.

I suspect 3 is most common. This site, like the world in general, is filled with misinformation provided by people, sometimes myself included, who don’t know the full story.

To give another slant on BegF’s good explanation, the note in a key/mode description (i.e. the E in Edor) always represents the home note (assuming it’s possible to identify it). If you think of the sharps in the major mode for that key, say Emaj four sharps (F#, C#, G#, D#), removing them one at a time in reverse order according to the circle of fifths gives:
Emaj F#, C#, G#, D#
Emix F#, C#, G#
Edor F#, C#
Emin F#
If you run out of sharps to remove, add flats. For example, the G modes are:
Gmaj F#
Gmix none
Gdor Bb
Gmin Bb, Eb

This pattern major - mixolydian - dorian - minor also suggests that mix is a bit less major than true major and dorian is a bit less minor than true minor. It also suggests why the other three modes are rare - they lie beyond rather than between major and minor. Rather than exploring ground between two familiar sounding modes, they move away from one without moving toward the other.

And to go back to the original question regarding tunes in "A", I think Amix is more common than Amaj in Irish music. My understanding, though I’m not an expert, is that most true Amaj tunes common in Ireland are Scottish imports or modern compositions. But, again, there are probably lots of tunes here where the person posting didn’t know the difference between major and mixolydian.

Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

Ah,
I think I get it - so the Mooncoin is in A … A Mix as it has same notes as D.
But what of Tom Billys : first part goes cAA cAA GEE GAB cAA CAA A-d ded cAA cAA GEE GAB cde ged cAA A—
Very definite emphasis on A and I would hold an A at the end of the tune. But all c’s are natural. One sharp - so that makes it A Dorian.
So the key signature isn’t very relevant and Kathleen Nesbitt is correct but not quite explaining it meaningfully in her book.
Useful ‘cos I occasionally post tunes to the site and scratch my head when the tune is not obviously in G or D major.

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

If I was looking at just the dots (which I wouldn’t be)
The key signature with one sharp sharps (F#)
Tells me that the mode is with G Major, A Dorian, D Mixolydian
or E Minor
Then the home notes tells me which one of these.

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

“with one sharp sharps “ - what that ?
of course I meant “with one sharp”

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

We sloppily call all E minor or dorian tunes "E minor" around where I play, because that is the predominant chord the accompanists use for both sets of tunes. But it does make a difference in which accomaniment fits, when you get past the first few chords that fit the tune and into the intricacies of the harmonies.
And it is important to understand the differency between major and mixolidian. In A, using or not using that G# send the tune in a whole new direction in the melody, and on the accompaniment side, someone applying major accompaniment to a mixolidian tune sounds horrendous. Although, again, like folks around here use the imprecise term "E minor" to cover a lot of bases, they use the generic term "A modal" to cover the mixolidian mode.
I would say that understanding modes is important to melody players as well as accompanists. When you play, you shouldn’t just emphasize and ornament notes based on rhythm, you should also have an understanding of which notes are the root notes of the tune, and which notes indicate the harmonic structure of the tune. This understanding should drive the dynamics of your playing. If you just play a stream of notes without proper emphasis or awareness, your efforts will not sound good. And if you stray from the fixed melody, and especially if you want to try to harmonize in spots, knowledge of the harmonic structure is vital.
All that being said, this is something I am still learning myself—I am by no means expert in all of this.

Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

Thanks Gary,
that way of thinking about it - removing the sharps to move ‘down’ the modes is very helpful. And the ‘gradations’ from major to minor. Though they are two different systems as I understand but I suppose everything is related in the end.

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Thanks to all, for the explanations. I’ve been even more confused than Hussar, as my only experience with Modes was on the Appalachian Dulcimer. So, an ignorant question: on the dulicmer you re-tune the drone strings to get a different mode. Do pipers do this?

Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

(I mean: retune their Drones. Unless pipes suddenly have strings. - this to forestall Ptarmigan.)

Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

Innocent Bystander

Technically with the Appalachian Dulcimer you don’t re-tune the drone strings to get a different mode, you re-tune the melody strings. In all of the traditional tunings the bass string is tuned to the tonic (home tone) and the middle string to the dominant (the fifth note of the scale). The melody string(s) are then tuned so that the pattern of whole and half step frets fits the correct mode (excluding the 6 1/2 fret which is a modern addition).

To use D as an example (listing the strings from bass to melody):

DAa tuning (aka Ionian tuning): D in the bass is the tonic, A is the fifth, and the melody string is tuned to A which places the D is on the third fret. This gives you a D Ionian=Major scale starting on the third fret: 3/D, 4/E, 5/F#, 6/G, 7/A, 8/B, 9/C, 10/D. It is/was popular with noter players because the open melody string gives you the lower dominant note where a lot of songs start (think "Oh Shenandoah etc.)

DAd tuning (aka Mixolydian): again the bass and middle strings are tuned to the tonic and fifth. But here D lies on the open string, which gives you a Mixolydian scale between the open and seventh frets: 0/D, 1/E, 2/F#, 3/G, 4/A, 5/B, 6/C natural, 7/D. The 6/12 fret was added in the 1960’s to give players a normal D major scale starting with the open string — but then you have to start quite a few tunes on the open middle string to get that low A.

DAc tuning (aka Aeolian = Natural Minor): Same bass & middle strings, but now the tonic lies on the first fret and you get an Aeolian scale between frets 1 and 8: 1/D, 2/E, 3/F, 4/G, 5/A, 6/B flat, 7/C, 8/D. Here again, the modern 6 1/2 fret gives you a B natural allowing you to play in the Dorian mode out of this tuning. This is a wonderful tuning, it brings out amazing overtones in your dulcimer: try Shady Grove and see if you don’t agree.

DAe tuning (Dorian): No change to the bass and middle, but now the melody strings are tuned up to e, and the tonic d is on the fourth fret: 4/D, 5/E, 6/F, 7/G, 8/A, 9/B, 10/C, 11/D.

In traditional playing the choice of tonic and dominant was up to the player and was generally chosen to fit the voice. If no other instruments were involved the actual notes did not have to be in tune to any standard, as long as the instrument was in tune to itself and the singer was comfortable. Before dulcimers started to hang out with the fiddle crowd, they were often based in C or even, gasp, F.

Hope this makes it at least as clear as mud!!

KateG

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

Um, Thanks KateG, you may have clarified what I already sort of knew in an inaccurate way, but you didn’t answer my question…

Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

GORDON BENNETT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- Thank goodness you don’t HAVE to know any of this stuff to be able to play thousands of tunes!

Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

You’re right about Mooncoin jig (AMix) and Tom Billy’s (ADor).

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Gary,
I think A mix is more common than A maj in Irish music because of the flutes, which do not have an easy way of playing G#—yes, you can half-hole the note, but while many can do that, many find it tricky to accomplish on the fly. While flutes are a diatonic instrument, they do have an easy cross fingering that allows the C natural, which gives them the ability to play in both G and D easily. But other accidentals are more difficult.
Because they were played on diatonic instruments, a lot of these old tunes simply avoid the notes that weren’t available on the composer’s instrument. For example, if I heard a tune in G that avoided C’s, I would suspect that it was written by a D melodeon player, who didn’t have a C natural available on his or her instrument. You will also notice that our A minor tunes, which we play frequently, often avoid F naturals, which are again, not easy on flutes or available on a single-row melodeon in D or G.
There are tunes whose notes allow them to be played on instruments that are not in their home key—one example is "Amazing Grace" which can be played in three keys (C, F and G) on a diatonic instrument in the key of C.
I would bet that most of the Scottish imports in A major are fiddle tunes—fiddles do not have these diatonic constraints that make G# difficult, and A is a very nice fiddle key. (Now, some might say that fiddle players like A because flautists have difficulties with it, but that is one of those conspiracy theories that defies proof.)
Trying to figure out the instrument that might of been played by the long-lost authors of our tunes is kind of like trying to figure out who wrote the Gospels, or what the real story behind the Gospels is. Now all we need is a book about a musical archaeologist who cracks the code and figures it out—I can see it now, "The Mixolidian Code," available at a bookstore near you!

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There is a recurrent question here that i find interesting:
"Do you need to know all this technical stuff to be able to play diddley?"

Opinion is polarized on whether you play just the melody, or you strum. This is a false polarization as harmony is merely melody stacked on its end. And melody is merely harmony spread out.

So the answer, of course, is sure you need to know it. Sure you need to be able to differentiate these "modes", whatever you play. It’s very very important to know how and why the intervals in tunes give them different feelings. I cannot stress this more.

Having said that, the real question is: "Do we need to have this knowledge formalized into standard western notation?" And the answer to this is, quite simply: "Some people seem to need it, otherwise they struggle. And some people seem to just get along fine by having a deep understanding of it on a purely subconscious level. Each to their own."

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Well said Michael - each to their own.

I’m always amused by people who get hot under the collar towards those who have an interest in this sort of thing.

If it doesn’t you, fair enough, move along folks, nothing to see here.

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That’s right Beg. But a problem arises when those who are getting hot under the collar about it believe themselves to be in the "deep understanding of it on a purely subconscious level" camp. Where as they actually haven’t a clue, and could do with learning a bit of theory

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Thanks to all for advice and it is a lot clearer now. I was playing a few tunes there last night and thinking about keys and modes. A further query arises as follows: take the jig, Leitrim Fancy or Leitrim Jig, GBG FAF E-B BAB etc. I would be inclined to think the home note here may be E. The tune has an F# but there ain’t no C’s at all in basic tune. So is this E Dorian (2 sharps) or E Minor (1 sharp)? i.e. does the complete absence of a note that would normally be sharpened in a key affect how you would describe the mode. I guess if you listen to the tune and decide on it’s sound, it doesn’t have a very sad or minor feel to it so on basis of Garry’s advice that would make it E Dorian but then maybe I’m completely out and it’s not in E at all !!!
Similarly take the well known polka, ‘Britches full of Stitches’. I know this is a five note or Penatonic tune - does that make it a special case?. Playing it starting on G, the home note is G but there are no F’s in the tune. Does this make it G Mix or G Maj? Play it starting on A, home note A, F# and C#, no G’s at all in tune - does this make it A Mix? Reason I ask, is that I have seen it noted with G# marked in key sig. but there are no G’s in the tune. Could be a very silly question - but what the hell!

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

As Michael said above “there are a whole host of tunes that
have, for example, both Cnats and Csharps.” and some tunes
may have neither, so the mode isn’t clearly defined
(unless you decide to throw in C# or C natural yourself).
The complete absence of the defining note means you can’t
define the mode definitively (God Bless my English)
But that’s just the dots – that’s not to say that you may throw in
C#s in a variation, or in roll etc in one part and then use C’s in
another part, so the modality can change.
Great isn’t it.

“G# marked in key sig. but there are no G’s in the tune” – some
people will put this

in for convenience when notating – easier to give the key
signature as A major and then have no G# that it would be to
indate that’s it’s based on a Pentatonic scale.

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Re: Question on Modes and Keys etc.

I just had a look at Leitrim Fancy. I’d say the A part is in E Dorian and the B part is in G Major. I’m no accompanist, but it sure looks like the first couple of bars alternate between E minor and D major chords, which make it a minor or dorian tune. It is, as you say, hexatonic, so it’s ambiguous. But dorian is much more common than minor in Irish music, so if you needed to decide (like for posting the tune here), dorian would be the best choice. Calling it D major is just plain wrong.

The B part seems to call for G, D, and C major chords, which would put it squarely in G Major until the last measure, where it heads toward a D Major chord instead of resolving to G, as it prepares to return to E dorian for the next time around.

It’s very interesting in that the home note of E is not prominent at the end of the A part. Perhaps that’s because it’s preparing for the shift to G for the B part.

I’ll cross post this to the tune section, since it really belongs there.

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Larsheen:
“apart from not having a clue about this stuff was never too bothered to try to understand”
“but can never figure out how knowing this stuff, improves the playing of tunes on melody”

How would you know if it helps or not if you haven’t tried it?

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Larsheen:
Either you can’t read or won’t read.

I’ll reiterate …

"Some people seem to need their knowledge of modes formalized into standard western notation, otherwise they struggle. And some people seem to just get along fine by having a deep understanding of it on a purely subconscious level."

What I’m referring to here is quite simple. If you don’t know it, you’ll be a crap musician. But you don’t need to know it on any formal basis. Intuition can be enough. A problem can arise, however, when you think you have it nailed by intuition, but really you are floundering in the dark. Now I’m not saying you are like this, I’ve never heard you play, but it’s a difficult one to judge for yourself. You have to ask yourself the question, when hearing tunes, do you know instantly what the notes are just by the sound of them and the "feel" of the tune. If you struggle to hear the notes correctly, your intuition is maybe letting you down. If this is the case, You may well benefit from learning a bit of theory.

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