Understanding music theory is not a prerequisite for playing any type of traditional music, but a bit of music theory can sometimes be mildly helpful; and periodically theory can be very helpful! This is especially true for accompanying ITM on any of the GCBOM instruments (Guitar, Cittern, Bouzouki, or Octave Mandolin). Of course, with enough experience a player can figure out a great deal, but that often takes decades of dedication. The type of understanding that a bit of theory provides greatly reduces the time it takes to make certain connections. In other words, theory is very practical. Also, being able to learn by ear, to hear what others are doing as well as yourself, is extremely valuable when playing traditional music.
2. All About Keys
In music “key” is short for “key signature,” and refers to the resolution note of a melody and the number of sharps or flats in the scale. Take the key of D major, for instance. If you were playing a scale you’d start on a D note and play D E F# G A B C# D. The key of D has two sharps, F# and C#, by the clef sign. As a tune might not always start on the resolution note (some call it the “home note”), it might be more helpful to say that tunes in the key of D resolve on the D note (the first scale degree). For another example, the key of G major has one sharp, F#, by the clef sign. The G major scale is then, G A B C D E F# G. The reason the sharps and flats are right up by the clef sign is that, when writing the dots and sticks on lines (i.e., notes on a staff) it was more convenient to put the sharps or flats by the clef, than marking every flatted or sharped note with a symbol.
As evident from the list of tunes, the most common scales in Irish music are D and G — the most common modes use these scales (Edor uses the D scale, for instance). Also, despite some jokes about traditional music you might find on the internet, the modes used in ITM are just Ionian (major), Mixolydian, Dorian and Aeolian (minor), but we’ll get to them in a moment.
Now, knowing the key of a tune is helpful. If the tune is in D, then as a melody player you know to play F# rather than F and C# rather than C — unless the tune does otherwise, which some of them do. When we are only dealing with Major and Minor keys then things are fairly simple. When you’d see F# and C#, then you’d know that the tune is either in D major or B minor (since these have the same sharps). If you’d see just F#, then you’d know that the tune is either in G or E minor (since these have the same sharp). Similarly, if you see no sharps or flats, then you know you’re dealing with either C major or A minor. You’d have to hear the tune (or know how the tune resolves) to know which it is. All this would matter more to the accompanists than to melody players, of course, since in order to construct an harmonic motif for the tune the GCBOM players have to understand the way the tune flows.
Still, things get a little more complicated when we are dealing with more modes.
3. What in the heck is a mode?
Familiarity with the modes will greatly enhance the proficiency of those playing GCBOM instruments (Guitar, Cittern, Bouzouki, or Octave Mandolin), and acoustic bass. The term “mode” just refers to a way of playing a series of notes. Major and minor are modes too, but in mode-speak we call them Ionian and Aeolian, respectively. Though any series of notes is technically a mode, only certain series have been given names that can be repeated in polite company. Also, we don’t actually have standard modes with more than a whole-step interval, but in other parts of the world they do, and theoretically almost anything is possible. While most real possibilities have been explored in some part of the world or other, there are only a few modes that have taken hold in particular parts of the world. Of course, some musicians are likely to create their own modes to compose in, just to keep music school professors on their toes.
First, let me get two things out of the way. Why do we have the modes we do? I don’t know. Why can’t we play in more modes? You can, you just won’t be playing this kind of trad music.
Anyway, the most familiar music to most of us employs only two modes: what we call Major and Minor. So unless you have grown up with traditional music, the music that you’re likely to have encountered in your life is in one of the two modes of Art music (with few exceptions, and music school kids not withstanding). In Irish traditional music there are actually two modes that could reasonably be called “major” and two modes that could reasonably be called “minor.” The two that have a “Major” feel are Ionian and Mixolydian — Ionian is the mode name of what is usually called Major. The two that have that “Minor” feel are Aeolian and Dorian — Aeolian is the mode name of what is usually called Minor. Given that there are two Majorish modes and two Minorish modes, the use of the terms “major” and “minor” should be discouraged when talking about Irish trad music (ITM). We should name the particular mode instead, as it makes more sense to talk and think in more useful categories rather than holding on to terms and categories that cause confusion. I generally avoid talking about “major” and “minor” keys when discussing ITM. I only use the terms “major” and “minor” as a teaching tool. My aim is to get you away from them by pointing to them and showing that they cause too much trouble.
In what follows I discuss modes first as they’d be relevant to GCBOM players, and then as relevant to whistle players.
Ionian Mode (Major Scale)
The Ionian mode corresponds to our friend, the major key, and so what chords work with Ionian tunes are the familiar I/IV/V chords. If your scale is D, the root chord (I) is D, and the others are based on the fourth (IV) note of the D scale (G), and the fifth (V) note of the D scale (A). A basic progression within an eight bar section will start on the root (I) chord, move to either the IV or V chord depending on the melody, back to the I chord, then end with quicker use of the IV and V chords and resolve to the tonal center (that is, return to the root chord the second time through a particular part) – session tunes don’t always resolve at the end of every part, but the vast majority will return to the tonal center the last time through the last part. If you are playing a tune that doesn’t seem to resolve, you can often throw the tonic note or a dyad (two note chord) at the end. Generally, the chords that will be used will be I, IV, V, vi, ii, IVsus2 or IVsus4 using Nashville notation, or using chord names:
|Most common Ionian keys||Rare Ionian keys|
|More useful to less useful chords||More useful to less useful chords|
One more thing about the Ionian mode. In jazz and country music this mode is associated with the use of major seventh chords. These chords are not often used in Irish music, and make tunes sound “Americanized.” Still, consider the following: in D, for instance, the major seventh chord is notated Dmaj7 (or D with a little triangle next to it, or most often DM7) and contains the notes D F# A and C#, which can work with the whole D scale except the G note (fourth scale degree – the fourth note of the scale). This is true across all keys, so unless you’re attempting to introduce dissonance, avoid playing DM7 when a phrase contains the fourth scale degree (4th note of the respective major scale). The chord obtained by adding another third on top would be called a DM9 — D F# A C# E. Adding another third on top would give you D F# A C# E G, which is DM11. Due to the dissonant nature of the fourth scale degree, when the tune is in the Ionian mode follow the advice of the Grail Knight, and choose wisely — or use them only as passing chords, or when you want to create tension.
The Dorian mode is sometimes called the “Russian Minor.” In sessions, it is the most common minorish mode. It uses an Ionian scale with flatted third and seventh. One of the mistakes a beginning accompanist can make in accompanying session tunes is to apply Aeolian chords to a Dorian tune. For example, when in E Aeolian, a C chord might sound right in some place. In E Dorian, however, there is a C# in the scale rather than a C (since C is the sixth note of an E scale). As such, a C chord will clash when played against the C# notes in the melody. You can use it for tension, of course, but it’s commonly a sign that the person backing the music has mistaken the mode. If you hear it quickly enough, you can switch to Dorian chords and so disguise your error as “creative.” The predominant chord pattern in the Dorian mode is i/VII, (for example, Em and D in E Dorian). As you typically only have two “safe chords” in Dor, be careful. The dorian mode is built on the second step of the Ionian mode and uses the same notes. So, for example, Ador (A Dorian) is built from the notes of the G Ionian mode, but starting on A. The G Ionian notes are G A B C D E F# G. So, in Ador they are A B C D E F# G A. The A minor scale (A Aeolian mode) would be A B C D E F G. Notice the difference between the Dorian mode and the D Aeolian mode. The former has the sixth note raised a half step. It is because they are so similar that GCBOM players will sometimes play the same chords whenever things sound minorish. This leads to some unintended sour accompaniment (or “creative tension” if you prefer). In sessions the chords you will find most useful will be i, VII, v, III, IV in Nashville notation, or using chord names:
|Most common Dor keys||Rare Dor keys|
|More useful to less useful chord||More useful to less useful chord|
Some chords, such as minor seventh (m7), will work better in Dorian than in Aeolian (natural minor) because the flatted sixth of the Aeolian mode will be more dissonant. Take, for example, Ddor. The chord Dm7 will have the notes D F A and C. The sixth note is B in Dorian and Bb in Aeolian. So, the chord DFAC will sound better against a B note than against a Bb note, and so it’s better in Dorian. You can stack thirds on to this minor seventh chord and get Dm9, Dm11, and Dm13. These chords will sometimes work too. Notice that the the thirteen chord contains the note Bb, which will work better in Aeolian. Sometimes Dm13 will be written Dm7b6, just to confuse those who don’t know. Also, Dm6 is sometimes written instead of Dm13 when in Dorian (since Dm6 means B natural).
The Mixolydian mode sounds majorish. It starts on the fifth note of the Ionian mode. Starting with the C Ionian mode, the G Mixolydian mode would be G A B C D E F. The difference between G Ionian and G Mixolydian is that in the latter the seventh step is lowered a half step. Tunes in this mode are built around an Ionian scale with a flatted seventh note. The chords will have to be different than Ionian because the seventh note of the scale is used in building some triads (three note chords). The G Ionian mode is G A B C D E F#. The basic chords here are the I/VII/IV chords. People at sessions who try to accompany Mix tunes (and haven’t read this) will try to play them with Ionian chords, since Mix sounds majorish. That won’t work. A trick to determine whether a tune is in Mix rather than Ionian is that the V chord (which includes that un-flatted seventh note) will not fit, and will clash in unpleasant ways. If in D and the A doesn’t work, try a C chord. Sticking to the I/VII/IV chords usually works best for Mix tunes, but you can add minor chords as well depending on the tune. The most useful chords are I, VII, IV, v, vi in Nashville notation, or using chord names:
|Most common Mix keys||Rare Mix keys|
|More useful to less useful chord||More useful to less useful chord|
Other chords that might work include, taking Gmix as the mode, the Dm7/G chord, or the F/G chord — which means F major triad with a G note in the bass. Suspended chords can be useful too: Gsus, Gsus4, G7sus4, or G11. The term “suspension” comes from classical harmony, and meant that the player was to briefly delay playing the third in a dominant chord by first playing the fourth before resolving to the third. Today, the fourth is not resolved — or is just suspended for a day or so. So today the suspended chord consists of the root, fourth, fifth, and can include the seventh.
Some session tunes are in the familiar Aeolian mode, which just uses our old friend the minor scale. The Aeolian mode is built by starting with an Ionian mode, and starting with the sixth note and playing the same note. It turns out, then, that the difference between A Ionian and A Aeolian is that the latter is an Ionian scale with flatted third, sixth and seventh notes. The Aeolian mode is sometimes called the “natural minor,” though the reason is unclear to me. The most predominant chord pattern in Aeolian tunes is i/VII/VI and the most useful chords will be i, VII, VI, iv, v, II in Nashville notation, or using chord names:
|Most common Aeolian keys||Rare Aeolian keys|
|More ussful to less useful chords||More useful to less useful chords|
For backing, a minor seventh chord works some times, so will a m7b6 chord (or m13). By the way, the Aeolian mode has Aeolus as its namesake. Aeolus is a god of the winds, and so the name of this mode might be a reference to the scale of blown instruments in Thessaly, to music played to commemorate him, or maybe it just seemed like an airy mode.
4. Figuring out Keys and Modes
Sometimes figuring out the key and mode is easy. You just read it on paper. Other times it’s really difficult, as when your at a session and the tunes are flying by so fast and changing so often you barely have time to find even one phrase or chord. Then there is all the stuff in between. Maybe you have a recording of a tune, perhaps one made at a live session. Maybe you have some dots on paper that someone scribbled down for you. In any case, you have some time to work on figuring out the key and mode. The more you do work on this the better, and faster, you’ll get at it. After a while — and how long will depend on how much focused time you put into it — you’ll hear certain tell-tale intervals that will clue you into the mode and key.
To figure out the key, find it’s tonic note. The tonic note is the one the tune resolves on. It’s the note that completes the tune. To start to hear this you’ll need to play a tune, and then try to end it on different notes. It’ll become clear pretty soon what it means to say “the tonic note.” Once you do that you’ll have made real progress.
The next step is to notice that ITM uses just four modes: Ionian (major), Mixolydian, Dorian, and Aeolian (minor). As it does not use the other modes, there’s no reason to worry about them. Still, even if we have determined that the tonic is A, we don’t know what mode we’re in, and that makes all the difference when you try backing the tune on guitar or bouzouki. Look at table 2, below, and notice that the tonic note A is in all four modes (as are the tonic notes D, G, and E). So, we will need to know more about the tune to determine which mode it’s in. Specifically, we’ll need to know the sharps. The tables below will help you do that. Look them over and work with them.
These tables are from the Denver Slow Session folks:
Ever had trouble trying to figure out what key and mode a tune is in? Is it all rather a bit of a mystery to you? Tah dah! The following tables and directions will help you figure it out! A special thanks to Will Harmon, fiddler/fluter in Montana, who put the first table together for your use (since you, like us, were too lazy to go look it up yourself! grin). Jason Amini (a former BASS’er in California, one of our fellow Slowplayer sessions) recently sent us the second table (below), which is organized for another memorization aid.
|Key Signature||Home Note (Tonic)|
To determine what mode a tune is in, find the “home” note. That would be the note that the tune resolves on — most likely the note that you would hold as the last note to end the tune. It isn’t necessarily the last (or first) note in a tune. Also, some tunes resolve to one note in the first part and a different note in another part. It’s your call then to decide which part most characterizes the tune.
Then figure out the tune’s key signature. When you play the tune, are any notes sharp (F#, C#, or G#)? Are any notes flat (Bb or Eb)? Find the corresponding number of sharps or flats in the table, slide horizontally to your home note, and look at the top of the column for the mode.
For example, Drowsy Maggie always wants to come home to E. When you play the tune, the F is always sharp, and so is the C. So go to 2 Sharps on the left-hand column above, then slide across to E. The mode is dorian.
Some tunes have a note that is both natural and sharp. For example, in Irish music, it’s not unusual for a tune with a home note of D to feature both C sharps and C naturals. Trust your ear — are most of the C’s sharp, giving the tune an overall major (“happy”) sound? Then it’s D major (e.g., The Bantry Lasses). Or are there more C naturals–or C naturals dominating key points in the tune-giving it a more somber, “modal” sound? Then it’s D mixolydian (e.g., Rakish Paddy). – Will
|Key Signature||Home Note|
Now the diagonals are all the same “home” note (for example, the highlighted A’s). I’m mostly familiar with the major scale, so I just remember the sequence “Major, Mix, Dor, Minor” [ionian, mix, dor, aeolian] knowing that in going from one key to the next, I lose one sharp. For example: If I see a home note of “A” with one sharp, I mentally recite: “A Major has 3 sharps -> A Mix 2 sharps -> A Dor has 1 sharp.” – Jason
Thanks, gents! Something to remember about keys: if you’re a melody player, then, no, you don’t really need to know about key or mode. However, you should keep in mind that every melody player stands a pretty good chance of playing with a backer at some point in their playing life; the odds are fairly good that they may not know that much about Irish music, and if you like to have someone playing in the same key/mode as you, it’s best to know this sort of thing so you can help out by giving them the key/mode.
Also handy to know:
- a tune may be in one key/mode during the first part, but in a different key/mode in the second part
- a tune in one key/mode, might start off on a different chord from the key’s usual chord progression
- a tune in one key/mode may have unusual phrases that will require unexpected chords
These are some reasons why so many people give up trying to back Irish music. Backing isn’t just a matter of learning three or four chords, it’s actually rather difficult.
5. Whistle Modes
When you play whistle you need to know what whistle to use for which tune. The following table (initially designed by plaidpotato), will help you understand the modes available for different whistles.
As you can see each whistle key will be able to play in seven modes. Only four modes are relevant for Irish music: Ionian (major), Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian (minor). I’ve put green boxes around the modes that would work for the D whistle and the C whistle. This means that a D whistle can play tunes in D (of course), Edorian, Amixolydian, and Baeolian. A C whistle can play tunes in C (of course), Ddorian, Gmixolydian, and Aaeolian. You can use this chart to determine what whistle you’ll need if you already know what the tune is and its mode.