Understanding music theory is not a prerequisite for playing any type of traditional music, but just 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, Octave Mandolin). Of course, with enough experience a player can figure out a great deal, but that often takes at least a couple of decades of dedication. The type of understanding that a bit of theory provides greatly reduces the time it takes to make certain connections, and to grasp harmonic possibilities. In other words, theory is very practical. Also, being able to learn by ear, to hear what others are playing and emulate it, is extremely valuable when playing traditional music. What follows is a quick guide (what I sometimes call a “just enough guide”). It is simply a rough and ready tour through music theory, focused on keys and modes used in ITM. Note that there is some repetition. That’s because I don’t expect everyone to read this guide from start to finish.
2. All About Keys
In music “key” is short for “key signature,” and refers to an ascending series of notes (a scale) that will be used in a melody, and to the number of sharps or flats in the scale. 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 is more convenient than marking every flatted or sharped note with a symbol.
Practically speaking “key” refers to the resolution note of a melody, also called the “home note.” The resolution note is the note that makes a melody sound complete. Take the key of D major, for instance. If you were playing a D major scale you’d start on the D note and play D E F# G A B C# D. You’ll notice, the key of D has two sharps, F# and C#, by the clef sign. Now, a tune might not always start on the “home note” — a tune in D major might start on an A, like the tunes “Bonnie Kate” and “Newport Lass.” Still, these tunes resolve on a D note. Now, what looks like the final notes of “Newport Lass” (the C and E notes) are called “pickup notes,” and they take you to the next part (in this case back to the A part), and you wouldn’t play them if you were ending the tune. So, what’s important here is that the key a tune is in is determined by how one would resolve the melody, rather than the note (or chord) the tune starts with. There is a caveat here: not all tunes will actually resolve. That’s just because musicians like to be unpredictable some times. Still, playing the resolution note at the end of the tune will make it sound complete regardless of how the tune was composed. 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. On whatever note a G major tune starts the G note will resolve the tune (i.e., give the feel of completeness).
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 — jokes written by folks who really seem to have far too little understanding of the music IMHO — 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# by the clef, 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.
Now, if you look at these two little charts you’ll notice the correspondence between each major and each minor in terms of sharps and flats. So, if we call the C major scale the Starting scale, then we can say that the A minor scale begins with the sixth note (or scale degree) of the starting scale. It uses all the same notes of the starting scale, but just starts in a different place. Notice, now, that this is true for all the rest as well: E is the sixth note of the G scale, B is the sixth note of the D scale, and so on. In short, the minor scale always begins on the sixth scale degree of the corresponding starting scale. This is important because it helps you to understand how some modes are built just by starting in a different place on the starting scale. Pick any major scale, start on the sixth note and play the scale from there. You’ll be playing a minor scale. The key in which you would be playing is called the relative minor: Bm is the relative minor of D major, Em is the relative minor of G, etc..
Things get a little more complicated when we are dealing with more modes, but that’s just because we have two more places to begin from on the starting scale.
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. Now some people will say that this or that tune is in “A modal.” This was very common a few decades ago. It is, in my opinion, not very helpful and not very accurate. I understand why people do it, but I think it would be better to just bite the bullet and give the mode, which will be one of only four in ITM: Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, and Aeolian.
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, while historically the music that was most popular among Westerners has mainly employed only two modes (what we call Major and Minor), around the late 1950s popular musicians began to be interested in playing with other modes. Still, most of the pop songs you will hear are still in just the two modes we call Major and Minor, with a few exceptions, and music school kids not withstanding. You’ve heard the other two modes, of course. The Beatles song “Norwegian Wood” is in the Mixolydian mode, as is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” The song “Horse with No Name” by America is in the Dorian mode, as is the song “Along Comes Mary” by The Association and “Oye Como Va” by Santana. The Mixolydian mode has a Majorish feel, and the Dorian mode has a Minorish feel. So, 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 commonly called Major. The two that have that “Minor” feel are Aeolian and Dorian — Aeolian is the mode name of what is commonly 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), as should just calling a tune “modal.” Just 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 will cause confusion. I generally avoid talking about “major” and “minor” keys when discussing ITM, and only use the terms “major” and “minor” as a teaching tool (as I’m doing here). My aim is to get you away from them by pointing to them and showing that those terms 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. (Yes, this document is in progress. Feel free to make comments!)
Ionian Mode (I)
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 (i.e., the first note of the scale) 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.
Dorian Mode (II)
The Dorian mode is sometimes called “the Romanian Minor” or “the Ukrainian Minor.” In sessions, it is the most common minorish mode. It uses an Ionian scale with flatted third and seventh. So, pick a scale. Let’s say D, and start on the second scale degree but play all the notes in a the D scale and you’ll have Edor — that’s why I have a “II” in parentheses above. 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 (E minor), 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, a.k.a. the sixth scale degree). As such, a C chord will clash when played against the C# notes in the melody. One might use it for tension, of course, but that would be odd. Playing a C chord when backing an E Dorian tune is a sign that the person backing the tune has mistaken the mode. If you hear your error 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 Dorian, be careful. Keep in mind that 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 Aeolian mode. The difference between them is just that the Dorian mode 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. Call it “creative tension” if you prefer, but it’ll still make melody players cringe if you do it. In sessions the chords you will find most useful for the Dorian mode 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 chords||More useful to less useful chords|
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 make that chord 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 (D minor seventh flat sixth), just to confuse those who don’t know. Also, Dm6 is sometimes written instead of Dm13 when in Dorian (since Dm6 means play a D with a minor 6th, which is B natural).
Mixolydian Mode (V)
The Mixolydian mode sounds majorish. It’s the mode used in the Kinks “You Really Got Me,” Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star,” the Beatles “Norwegian Wood,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” Guns N Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and Lorde’s “Royals.” It starts on the fifth note of the Ionian mode. Start with the C Ionian mode: C D E F G A B. The fifth note is G. So, the G Mixolydian mode would be G A B C D E F — the same notes as the C scale, but starting with the fifth scale degree. Now notice that the difference between G Ionian and G Mixolydian is jut the seventh scale degree. Tunes in this mode are built around an Ionian scale with a flatted seventh note. Gmix uses the C scale and so has no sharps or flats, while the G Ionian (G major) scale has an F#. The chords used in Mixolydian will have to be different than Ionian because, practically speaking, the seventh note of the scale is used in building some triads (three note chords). Note, the G Ionian mode is G A B C D E F#, and the chords are I/IV/V (that is, the G chord, the C chord, and the D chord). The Gmix mode is G A B C D E F, and the basic chords here are I/IV/VII chords (that is, the G chord, the C chord, and the F chord). People at sessions who try to accompany Mix tunes (and haven’t read this illuminating guide) will try to play Mixolydian tunes with Ionian chords, since Mixolydian sounds majorish. That won’t work. The V chord will sound dissonant, and betray a lack of understanding. In G the V chord is D, which is spelled D A F#. Since Gmix has an F natural, that’ll make the D chord sour, and melody players will cringe. So, in general, a trick to determine whether a tune is in Mixolydian rather than Ionian is that the V chord (which includes that un-flatted seventh note) will not fit, and will clash in unpleasant ways. Suppose the home note is D and the tune sounds majorish. You’re backing the tune and then notice that the A chord (the V chord) doesn’t work. What you should do is try a C chord (the VII chord). So, the idea is that in majorish sounding tunes, when the V chord doesn’t work play the VII in stead. Sticking to the I/IV/VII chords is the safe road. It usually works best for Mix tunes, but you can add in relative minor chords (such as Am for C) as well, depending on the tune. In short, the most useful chords are I, IV, VII, 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, for example, if we take Gmix as the mode, the Dm7/G chord, or the F/G chord — which means a Dm7 or and F major triad with a G note in the bass. Sometimes you might find that playing a diminished chord works better than a minor. In Mixolydian playing a diminished iii, rather than iii (a minor) sometimes works better. Suspended chords can be useful too: Gsus, Gsus4, G7sus4, or G11. The term “suspension” comes from old classical harmony, and it 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, it doesn’t mean that, it means the fourth is not resolved — or perhaps it is just suspended for a day or so. So today the suspended chord consists of the root, fourth, fifth, and can include the seventh. If you are playing with a very traditional melody player, use diminished and suspended chords at your own risk.
Some session tunes are in the familiar Aeolian mode, which is our old friend the minor scale. The Aeolian mode is built from an Ionian mode, and starts with the sixth note, playing the same scalar notes. 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 — and seems to imply there is an unnatural minor somewhere, though I’ve never heard anything referred to as “an unnatural minor,” not even very weird kids. 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, or 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 (a.k.a. the “home note” or “resolution 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 ways of figuring out what mode a tune is in (thanks to 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 from years past) 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 sound? Then it’s D mixolydian (e.g., Rakish Paddy). – Will Harmon
|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.
That’s all I have so far. Hope it helps!