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Guide to accompaniment for Irish traditional music

David James <djames@tiompanalley.com>

May 10, 2002 (many revisions since)

 

This response arose from many mail messages on Irtrad-L requesting help deciphering the "arcanery" of backing/ accompanying Irish tunes on guitar or piano (mostly guitar). What I suggested is that we produce a document in collaboration, which contains our collective "wisdom" on the subject of "backing." This is NOT meant to be a definitive text, only a draft for everyone to add to. Send me your contributions at djames@tiompanalley.com.

 

SOME KEYS AND CHORDS FOR CELTIC MUSIC

 

The Idea here is to find the classification that the tune you are hearing/learning/reading comes under. Then, starting from the top, find the key. Then go down vertically. From the top row to the bottom are the most-often-found accompanying chords to the least-often-found accompanying chords. The first three or four in the column will often suffice, and the rest can be added to spice up the tune AFTER LEARNING IT. My best advise to the accompanist is to actually learn the tune on whatever instrument you are using. After the fourth or fifth tune you will notice that backing chords come more easily, and the flow of the chord changes becomes more evident. The "position" on the instrument will often suggest a chord - for example, on a guitar in "standard" tuning, if the notes of a phrase fall on open G and B strings and on the third fret on the high E string, it would be a pretty good bet to use a "G" chord for this spot. Etc.

 

KEY SIGNATURES CUSTOMARY FOR IRISH MUSIC:     No #/b      One #      Two #  Three #     One b   Two b

 

Tunes in Major Keys (Usually ending in Doh - Ionian Mode – often called “one, four, five” tunes)

 

Sharps/flats:              0              1#             2#       3#       1b        2b

Key of (Tonic – 1st):      C              G              D         A         F         Bb

Fourth Chord:              F              C               G         D         Bb       Eb

Fifth Chord:                G              D              A         E         C         F

RELATIVE MINOR(6): Am            Em            Bm       F#m     Dm       Gm

"Second" Minor:           Dm            Am            Em       Bm       Gm       Cm

"Third" Minor:             Em            Bm            F#m     C#m     Am       Dm

"Third" Seventh:          E7            B7             F#7     C#7     A7       D7

 

 

DOUBLE TONIC 1 - DORIAN/ AEOLIAN MODE

 

Sharps/flats:              1#            2#            3#       4#       0         1b

Last Note(s):              G,A           D,E           A,B      E,F#    C,D      F,G

One Tonic:                  Am            Em            Bm       F#m     Dm       Gm

Two Tonic:                  G              D              A         E         C         F

Major Chord:               C              G              D         A         F         Bb

"Third" Minor:             Em            Bm            F#m     C#m     Am       Dm

"Fourth" Major:           F              C               G         D         Bb       Eb

Resolution:                 D              A              E         B         G         F

 

 

DOUBLE TONIC 2 - MIXOLYDIAN MODE

 

Sharps/flats:              0              1#             2#       3#       1b        2b

Last Note:                 D              A              E         B         G         C

One Tonic:                  Dm            Am            Em       Bm       Gm       Cm

Two Tonic:                  C              G              D         A         F         Bb

Relative Minor:           Am            Em            Bm       F#m     Dm       Cm

Fourth Major:             F              C               G         D         Bb       Eb

Seventh:                     Bb             F               C         G         Eb       Ab

 

 

 

By "Last Note(s) is meant not necessarily the last note on a sheet of written music, but the final note of "rest" or "repose" on which the melody can be brought to a close - to the ear of a traditional player, however, not necessarily that of an "art" musician. [Breathnach]

 

These are the six most frequently encountered key signatures in Celtic (and American, for that matter) traditional music, and the chords that usually go with them. Of the six, the ones you'll encounter most are one, two, and three sharps (D, G and A and their related "double tonic" modes, Bm/A, Em/D and Am/G). A relative minor is a scale which starts one-half plus one whole step down from the "tonic," or doh note of the scale, or, more properly, on the sixth note up. It has that "minor" sound because the third note up in the scale is flat, or one-half step lower than the scale we consider "normal." It's called "relative" because a minor scale starting on that note has the same number of sharps and flats as the "normal" “doh-re-mi” scale. A third interval is two whole steps up from the “doh” note (e.g., from C to E). A fourth interval is two whole steps and one half-step up from “doh” (e.g., from C to F). A fifth interval is up one whole step higher than a fourth (e.g., from C to G). A seventh interval is one whole step down from “doh” (e.g., from C to Bb).

 

The chords in the columns below the Key Signatures are for playing backing or arrangements. Start by looking at the key signature. Then look at the last note of the "A" and "B" parts. Let's say the tune you are looking at has one sharp (key of G). If the last note of the tune is a "G," the tune is probably in the major key (Ionian mode) and uses the G (or "tonic"), the C (or "fourth"), the D (Or "fifth"), and the relative minor (E minor) chords in the set of backing chords, then also sometimes A Minor. A good example of this type is The Kesh Jig. About 60% of Irish tunes are in this mode.

 

If the last note of a tune with one sharp is D or E, A or G, we're into the realm of Double Tonic. Corresponding to the Dorian or Aeolian modes, these tunes use E-minor, D, G, and B-minor, sometimes C and A. Good examples of this type of tune are the Monaghan Jig and The Butterfly. Use the Double Tonic - Dorian/Aeolian chart. If the last note of the one-sharp tune is an "A," it is probably a "Double Tonic - Mixolydian" mode tune, and use that chart. A good example of this type of tune is Star of Munster, or The Congress Reel. Use A-minor, G, E-minor, sometimes C and F. Some of these double tonic tunes owe their origins to the bagpipes, one of the earliest instruments in the traditional music of many lands, whose nine-note scale has a flatted seventh.

Also, while we're on the subject, two more points. Irish music has only recently acquired harmonic accompaniment - in the last part of the last century, so the rules are flexible. And note that many Irish tunes go no lower than "D" above "middle C." This is probably due to the uilleann pipes, flute and tin whistle, which only go this low. Tunes that go down to "G" below "middle C" were likely written for/by fiddlers, banjo or accordeon players.

 

(Confused about modes? So am I, often! See: Breandán Breathnach, Folk Music and Dances of Ireland - ISBN 0 85342 509 4, and Trip to Sligo, by Bernard Flaherty - ISBN 0 9516407 0 4, for more discussion.)

 

David James

Tiompán Alley Music

574-276-7822

tiompanalley.com

"Have Dulcimer, Will Travel"

 

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