Types of Tunes and Songs

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Types of Tunes and Songs Powered By Docstoc
					Irish Music

Airs: Are instrumental, usually slow pieces (the melody of a song, without the
words). The rhythms are often very subjective, and airs bubble along freely at
the pace of the soloist, sometimes faster and slower within the same phrase.
Even if you know the air, you also have to know the soloist if you want to

Reel: In 4/4, 2/2 or 2/4 time (depending on the source you believe), quick
paced dance tunes. The words 'animated alligator' give you an idea of the
rhythm of a reel.

Jig (Double Jig): In 6/8 time, quick paced dance tunes. The words 'edible
elephant' or „rashers and sausages‟ give you an idea of the rhythm of a jig.

Jig (Single Jig): In 6/8 time, played at the pace of a double jig, but with a
simpler rhythm. The words 'humpty dumpty' give you an idea of the rhythm of
a single jig.

Slide: In 12/8 time, played quicker than a double jig, with the 'humpty dumpty'
feel of a single jig, but with longer phrases. These are from County Kerry,
often used to accompany set dancers.

Slip Jigs: In 9/8 time, pace varies, think of the words ' elegant elegant
elephant'. Being able to accompany a slip jig is the sign that you have moved
from apprentice to journeyman status. Step dancers like these for soft shoe
dances (that is why our elephant is elegant, she is dancing on her toes).

Hop Jigs: In 9/8 time, but quicker than a slip jig, and with the „humpty‟ feel of
a single jig.

Polka: In 2/4 (or 4/4) time, quick and bouncy dance tunes, heard a lot at
ceilidhe dances, especially where set dancing is done. Simpler than reels, and
designed to be played more quickly. Common in County Kerry.

Strathspeys (or Highlands): These are in 2/4 time, usually little slower than
reels, and with a lot of syncopation (especially „Scottish snaps‟ which are
sixteenth notes followed by a dotted eighth note). They come from Scotland,
but are also played in County Donegal (which is where they are called

Hornpipes: These are in 4/4 time, they are dance tunes, but usually played a
bit slower, and use a lot of swing (almost to the point of dotted notes), triplets
and a steady, thumping rhythm. They are dance tunes that come from
England, and are often associated with sailors (Popeye the Sailorman‟s
theme is a hornpipe).
Mazurkas: These are slower tunes written in 3/4 or 6/8 time, bouncier than
waltzes, slower than reels. More common in Donegal than elsewhere.

Marches: These can be in 4/4, 2/4 or 6/8. These were once more common
than reels in sessions in Ireland, but in recent years have been supplanted by
the reel. Because of the bagpiping tradition, marches are still heard often in
Scotland, and some Scottish ceilidh dances involve marches (like “The Gay

Waltzes: In 3/4 time, you don‟t hear them much at sessions, but very much
loved at ceilidh dances as a chance to dance as a couple, instead of in a set
or line.

O’Carolan Tunes: O‟Carolan was an itinerant Irish harper from the 18th
century who wrote a lot of pretty harp tunes in a very baroque/classical style.
They are played in all different meters, but unlike other airs, are played with a
steady rhythm, which lends itself to unison playing. They are often called
Planxty (which means song) followed by the name of the patron who offered
him food and drink for a few nights (Planxty Irwin, Planxty Fanny Power, etc).
O‟Carolan had such a profound impact on Irish music that his name is
instantly recognized by session players, and most will have a few of his tunes
under their belt that they can play to slow things down between the dance

Structure of Tunes

Tunes are generally divided into eight bar segments, which are generally
repeated. Dance tunes are generally made up of two sections (A and B), each
of which is repeated twice (AABB). Some have more sections, but each
section is still repeated (AABBCC). Some do not repeat, or do not repeat
exactly. The structure of airs is often AABA. There are also strange
combinations, so be careful. The eight bar structure is common because the
dance steps that go along with the tunes are usually broken up into eight bar
patterns. That way, you can use the same dance steps with different tunes.
Chord Structures

As stated, session music was originally played in unison, with unaccompanied
melody instruments. Chord structures are implicit, as in the past no one ever
wrote harmony parts, or identified which chords go where. So there is some
freedom to decide what goes best. The music is simple, so a simple
accompaniment works well. If you can play by ear, hear the harmonies as the
tunes are played, and have a good sense of rhythm, basic session
accompaniment can come pretty quickly. But while you can quickly master a
basic accompaniment pattern for a standard D major or E minor tune, coming
up with chords that fit a particular tune, and strumming or picking patterns that
complement the melody, and provide some variety, can be the work of a
Basic instruments in Celtic regions were often diatonic instruments that could
not play sharps and flats. Instruments with the home keys of D and C were
predominant, so most tunes use those scales. But by skipping around certain
notes, playing in related minor keys, and by playing tunes that use modal
scales, musicians are able to play in a surprising number of keys. The notes
you generally hear in this type of music are D, E, F#, G, A, B, C, C#. You also
sometimes hear F and G#. In Scottish music, because highland pipes are in B
flat, you will also hear things in the keys of B flat or E flat. Generally, the tunes
you hear in this music fall into four modal scales, each with their attendant
harmonic structures. Musical modes can share the same scale, but by starting
the scale on different notes, a whole different feel results. For example, using
the D major scale, with its two sharps (F# and C#), and start your scale on the
D, and you are in the mode of D major. Start your scale on E and you are in E
dorian. Start your scale on A and you are in A mixolydian. And start your scale
on the B, and you are in B Aeolian (or natural minor). The four modes all
share the same notes of the D scale, but have different root notes or tonal
centers, and have very different feels. Here is a discussion of the four modes
you will most commonly find in session music:


Major key session tunes are usually built around the bedrock I/IV/V chord
pattern that most rock and folk accompanists know so well. For example, if
your root chord (I) is D, the other chords you will hear the most are the chord
based on the fourth (IV) note of the D scale (G), and the chord based on the
fifth (V) note of the D scale (A). A basic progression you will hear (within an
eight bar section) is to start on the root (I) chord (these tunes almost always
start out with the root chord), move to either the IV or V chord depending on
the melody, back to the I chord, and then end with quicker use of the IV and V
chords. Sometimes you return to the root chord, but session tunes don‟t
always resolve at the end of a section. They are designed to go around and
around in repeating circles. If you are playing a tune that doesn‟t resolve, the
musicians generally throw a sustained root note (and root chord) at the end to
keep things from hanging in midair. Major keys used in session music, and
the chords you will encounter (from more common to least common):
D major: D, A, G, Em, Bm, A7, C
G major: G, D, C, Am, Em, D7, F
A major: A, E, D, Bm, F#m, E7, G
C major: C, G, F, Dm, Am, G7, F


These tunes are built around a traditional major scale, but with a flatted
seventh note. This is known as the mixolidian mode. The basic chords here
are the I/VII/IV chords. A lot of people try to play these with major chords, but
one trick to tell that a tune is modal is that the V chord (which includes that un-
flatted seventh note) does not seem to fit. In my experience, sticking to the
three appropriate major chords usually works best for modal tunes, but you
can add some minor chords as well. Modal keys used in session music, and
the chords you will encounter (from more common to least common):

A mixolidian: A, G, D, Em
D mixolidian: D, C, G, Am
G mixolidian: G, F, C, Dm

Aeolian, or Natural Minor

Many tunes in sessions are based on a modal scale that has flatted third,
sixth and seventh notes, which is known as the Aeolian mode, or the natural
minor scale. The most predominant chord pattern in minor tunes is I/VII/VI,
with the I chord being minor, and the VII and VI chords being major (for
example, Em, D and C). Aeolian keys used in session music, and the chords
you will encounter (from more common to least common):

E minor: Em, D, C, Am, Bm, G
A minor: Am, G, F, Em, Dm, C
B minor: Bm, A, G, F#m, Em, D


Unlike other western music, where the classical minor mode is the most
common, in sessions, the most common „minor‟ tunes are usually based on a
modal scale that has a flatted third and a flatted seventh (Dorian Mode). The
most predominant chord pattern in minor tunes is I/VII, with the I chord being
minor and the VII chord being major (for example, Em and D). Note that,
instead of three „safe‟ chord choices, there are only two. One of the biggest
mistakes a beginning accompanist can make in accompanying session music
is apply the aeolian chords listed above to a dorian tune. For example, when
in E aeolian, the C chord sounds very appropriate. But in E dorian, it clashes
with the C# notes you will hear in the melody. One can do a fairly credible job
of accompanying dorian tunes by going back and forth between these two
chords at the appropriate moments, although if you do that for every minor
tune all evening, you will probably get asked to do something different. The
trick is that the extra chords in this mode are not as obvious as they might be
in other modes, and it is more important to know where the melody is going.
Dorian keys used in session music, and the chords you will encounter (from
more common to least common):

E Dorian: Em, D, Bm, A, G
A Dorian: Am, G, D, Em, C
B Dorian: Bm, A, E, F#m, D

Other Chord Structure Information

Of course, not all tunes fall into one mode throughout the entire tune, or fall
comfortably into any one mode. And there are alternatives to the basic chords
listed above. Here are some „tricky bits‟ to watch for, and other techniques
that you can use to liven up your accompaniment.
Relative Minors: You can use minor substitutions, replacing a major chord
with its relative minor chord. To find a relative minor chord, you play the minor
chord rooted on the note six steps above your major chord. For example, the
relative minor of D is Bm, the relative minor of G is Em, and the relative minor
of C is Am (these are relative because of the notes they share in common,
and if you look at the minor keys played in session music, you will note that
they are all relative minors of the common major keys). You can also use
minor substitutes as a passing chord. For example if you are in D major, and
you go from your D chord to a G chord, and then to an A, you can put an Em
chord between that G and A chord. Minor substitutes work well for IV chords
in major tunes, especially when passing from the I chord to the V chord. You
can also sometimes use a “major substitute,” replacing a major chord for its
relative minor in a minor key tune. For example, a G major chord often fits into
spots in an E minor tune.

Seventh Chords: There are some who argue that seventh chords are not
traditional to Irish music, and constitute a musical version of an “American
accent.” But I myself like the sound of a seventh when I am playing a V chord
(like an A7 chord in the key of D), and using a seventh chord as a passing
chord when moving from the I chord to the IV chord (like a G7 between the G
and C in the key of G). If you use them sparingly, seventh chords can add
nice variety to your playing.

Mixolydian Chords in non-modal tunes: Sometimes a modal chord will pop
up in a tune that is otherwise in a major key. In fact, if you find a spot where
the most common chords don‟t work, try the VII chord, and you will find that it
often does the trick (for example, a C chord in a tune that is in D major).
Different Sections in Different Keys: Not every part of every tune is in the
same key. There are tunes where the A part is in the key of Bm and the B part
is in the key of D. Or the A part is in the key of G and the B part is in the key
of A minor. Also, while A parts almost always start on the root chord, B parts
sometimes are in the same key, but start on another chord, like the V chord
(for example a tune in the key of D could have a B part where the first chord is
an A chord).

Droning Notes: Often in traditional music, you will hear the same harmony
note throughout a long stretch of a tune, or even through the entire tune. This
is known as a drone, and some attribute it to bagpipes, which usually have
one or more drones that play the same note as long as the bagpipe is playing.
You can use this effectively in tunes. For example, in a D major tune, you can
leave your finger on the third fret of the B string throughout the tune, playing
the D normally, but using Em7 chords instead of G chords, and Asus4 chords
instead of normal A chords. This is especially effective if you tune your low E
string down to a D, and let it sound without damping throughout, as you have
the root note of the tune droning in two different octaves.

Tricks and Alternative Chords for Standard Tuning: One trick to remember
when shaping your chords, is to use shapes that de-emphasize or eliminate
thirds. This music favors open chords, consisting of roots and fifths, which can
fit either major or minor modes. For example, when using the traditional D
chord shape, damp the high E string instead of pressing the second fret. And
using a finger on the third fret of the B string in G chords instead of leaving the
B string open helps reduce the strength of the third in that chord.
Sometimes little repeated two or four bar vamps will work in tunes. For
example, in A minor, the vamp Am to F to G to Em often works nicely on a
guitar (although in an A dorian tune, that F chord wouldn‟t sound as well,
clashing with the F#s in the melody). You will notice that as you move from
key to key, some progressions that sound good, or play easily, in one key, do
not work as well in another key, because of the way your fingers fall on the
frets. For example, in B minor, you will find it difficult to sound good without
barring your chords, so you may want to stick to the Bm, F#m and A chords,
and keep the accompaniment simple.
Another trick is to let the bottom string and top two strings drone throughout a
tune in E minor. If you finger the seventh fret of the A string, and the ninth fret
on the D and G strings, it makes a nice open E chord. Slide all these fingers
down two frets, and you have an open D chord in the middle of your droning
strings. Slide them down two more frets, and you have an open C chord in the
middle of the drones. With these three chords, you can accompany many E
minor tunes, with a very interesting variety to your sound (again, remembering
that with a dorian tune, that C natural chord will clash with the C#s in the
melody). And you can also slide this shape up three frets, and then back
down one before you return to the home position, it offers some other color to
the tune.
Another nice chord shape that slides up and down the neck is the A chord that
starts with one finger on the fifth fret of the B string, another on the sixth fret of
the G string, and another on the seventh fret of the D string. Damp the top
and bottom E strings, and you have a nice A major shape on top of an A bass
note. Slide this shape down two frets and you have a G major triad on top of
that A bass note. And then slide it up to the top of the neck (10 th fret of the B
string, etc), and you have a D major triad on top of the A. This works really
well on an A mixolydian tune, like the High Reel, which uses the A, G and D
chords, with the droning A in the bass adding nice color to the tune.


Don‟t let all the discussion of chords above fool you, keeping a good rhythm is
the most important function of an accompanist, so give it appropriate
attention, and above all, keep it steady!

Speed: The pace of tunes varies. In modern sessions, reels are often played
at about 120 beats (each beat is two eighth notes) per minute. Jigs are also
played about 100-120 beats per minute (but in a jig, each beat is three eighth
notes). Historically, the tunes were played slower, about 80 beats per minute.
In a good session, the pace will vary, and there is nothing wrong with slowing
a dance tune down so you can hear the beauty of the melody (fiddler Martin
Hayes has built his career around this).

Strumming Patterns: You can use fingerpicking on dance tunes, but
strumming usually works better for the fast stuff. The “Holy Grail” of session
accompaniment is to be able to produce a steady string of strums, one for
each eighth note. But this involves very fast strumming. So especially while
you are learning, you will probably have to strum less. You can strum half as
fast, or you can use other patterns. You want to avoid too much use of
backbeats, however, since Irish music is based more on traditional rhythms.
Excessive backbeats can make the music sound too jazzy, or make an Irish
tune sound like its bluegrass descendents. For reels, your strums should go
down/up/down/up. You want to accent the first and third of the four eighth
notes of a measure-the down strokes. For jigs there are two schools of
thought. In a jig, you accent the first and fourth note of the six eighth notes in
a measure. If you go down/up/down/down/up/down, that allows you to put
both of your accents on the down stroke, but puts two down strokes back to
back, which is hard to do quickly (although this is the most common jig pattern
you see people playing). If you go down/up/down/up/down/up, you don‟t have
two down strokes back to back, but you have to put your accent of the fourth
note on an upstroke, which some people find difficult. You can also use a
syncopated two stroke approach to jigs, replacing the three eighth note
strokes with a down stroke filling a quarter note length, followed by a quick
eighth note length up stroke (the „humpty dumpty‟ feel of a single jig). For slow
tunes, using the thumb to play bass notes on the top three strings, and the
first three fingers to play chord notes on the bottom three strings usually
works well. Playing arpeggios can help you adapt your sound to the free pace
of a ballad singer or slow air. Hornpipes sound nice by alternating the thumb
bass with the three fingers all playing a chord at the same time, creating an
oom-pah-oom-pah kind of sound. In fact, there are some fun things you can
learn from Irish piano players, and you can use your thumb to play the bass
notes they play with their left hands, and fingers to play the chords they play
with their right hands—don‟t just get your ideas from strummers.
Dead string rhythm: When you are first learning to strum along with session
music, and don‟t want to work on chords and strumming at the same time, bar
across the neck with your finger, but don‟t squeeze hard enough to fret the
note. This produces a “chunk” sound, which is called dead string rhythm. This
creates a percussive sound that doesn‟t really have notes or a chord involved.
So you can just concentrate on the rhythm. This technique is sometimes used
even by experienced accompanists just to do something a little different.

Guitar tuning

From my experience, about half the guitarists accompanying traditional music
use alternate tunings. One of the most common is “dropped D,” where you
drop the tone of the low E string by one whole step. This can create a nice
drone on some tunes, but if you want to use it throughout your playing, it can
require some tricky stretches with your hand, and a new approach to shaping
your chords. The other common tuning is DADGAD, which describes the
tuning of the strings from lowest to highest. Some people think this tuning is
made for Celtic music, although it has its limitations, and it can make some
keys that are straightforward in standard tuning (like E minor) to become
pretty tricky.

                                                                   Alan Brown

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