This post, by OAIM tenor banjo and mandolin tutor Paddy Cummins, is a continuation of our Music Theory series. In it, Paddy explains some fundamental terms such as keys, scales and modes; why understanding them is so important, particularly for accompanists, in an Irish music session; and why you might hear a musician shouting “Galway” during a session. It’s a meaty post, but very much worth the effort to read. It will stand you in good stead as you venture out to the world of live sessions. Enjoy!

What key is this tune in?

If you’ve been playing Irish traditional music a little while I’m going to assume that you’ve at least come across the term “key” in relation to the modality of a traditional tune. You may or may not know what that means. You may or may not understand how to determine what key a particular tune is in. And, similarly, you may or may not realise how the knowledge of tune keys can aid you in your own playing, whether as a melody player or, particularly, as an accompanist. This article is written with the aim to explain all of the issues outlined above and includes further discussion and analysis on other relevant aspects of tune modality. 

What is a key?

Technically speaking, when playing traditional music, we would be more accurate if we referred to a tune’s modality (i.e. the notes/pitches that the melody centres around, the “home note”) in terms of modes, rather than keys. But understanding a key in basic terms is an essential jumping off point for exploring modes. So, let’s look at keys.

In western musical theory there are 12 major keys. That is to say, there are 12 different kinds of note arrangement that pertain to a “major scale”. These 12 variations are determined by the 12 different starting notes one can choose – A, A#/Bb, C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G and G#/Ab. You’ll notice that every sharp note has an equivalent flat note e.g. A# is the same as Bb. These are called “enharmonic equivalents”. The terminology is not important but just be aware that, in terms of the note itself, there is no difference. Different situations will require you to call them specifically one or the other enharmonic but, for now, it is not important to understand the reasoning behind this. 

To make this easier, I’m going to eliminate some of the above keys from your mind because they are, essentially, never used in traditional Irish music. The following are keys which, for the vast majority of major key tunes, will suffice to know: A, C, D and G. We can touch on other keys at a later stage but, regardless, the theory that pertains to one key will pertain to all other keys in that mode (i.e. theory and concepts relating to A major will be relevant to any other major key).

What is a scale?

Let’s look at scales now. A scale is a run of notes that, when used to create a melody line, creates a particular sound or vibe that is particular to that run of notes. Let’s take this run of notes: G – A – B – C – D – E – F#. That is seven notes. All of them are natural (i.e. not flat or sharp) except for the F# note. We can play these on our instrument as an ascending run (scale) from start to finish. We can play it descending, beginning from F# and working back or, indeed, we can play it in a million and one different variations by swapping notes around, leaving some notes out and repeating other notes several times. What are we doing when we play scales and melodies within this framework of notes? Simply, we are playing in the “key” of G major. No doubt, many of you will have begun your OAIM journey by firstly learning a C, G, or D major scale on your respective instrument. This is the best way to get familiar with the different note possibilities that your instrument affords.

Before you read on, I want you to do something. Go to your OAIM course and find, if available, a tune that is notated in the key of G major. Usually the key will be mentioned in the lesson description or, alternatively, you’ll find key information in the ABC files. When you have your ABC or sheet music file loaded up, scan through the notes of the tune and notice how they don’t vary outside the seven notes mentioned above. They are all within the range of notes ascending from G to F# with only one note that is not natural – F# itself. Do take note, however, that some tunes have “accidentals” which are exceptions to this rule but hopefully you haven’t picked such a tune! Good examples of popular G major tunes to demonstrate this are The Sally Gardens, Out on the Ocean, The Kesh Jig and Off to California.

So, different major keys (A, G, D etc) have differing rules regarding which notes are to be sharp, flat and/or natural. Once we learn these simple rules pertaining to each key, we can analyse a tune to determine its key by looking at the quality of the notes. 

I want to look at C major now. It’s not a very common key in Irish traditional music but does crop up in some well-played tunes such as The Hole in the Hedge, The Steeplechase, The Graf Spey and Hanly’s Reel/The New Line to Loughaun.

C is a good starting point because every note in this scale is natural (no flats, no sharps). As such, the notes used within the key of C are as follows: C – D – E – F – G – A – B 

You can, of course, use many different octaves of these notes. You can play them long, medium or short in timing and, indeed, you can embellish them to your hearts’ content. But once you don’t step out of this note limit, you are playing in the key of C major. That’s a fact (almost – we’ll get to modes in a minute!). 

The Circle of Fifths (at a glance)

Now, we’re going to explore some very useful phenomenon called “The Circle of Fifths”. I’m not going to explain every detail of it. You’ll find enough literature online. But, for the purposes of understanding keys in layman’s terms, let me explain. Using C as a starting point with no flats or sharps, let’s move up a fifth i.e. 5 notes to “G”. When you move up a fifth, you add one sharp to the key. So, in this case, we see that the key of G major has one sharp. However, where is that sharp located? Easy. It is located one note before the new key, if that makes sense? Basically, the new key is G. One note before G is F. So F is sharp. Writing out the key of G again will make this clearer: G – A – B – C – D – E – F#

Let’s go one further. Moving up a fifth from G we arrive at “D”. We now have to add another sharp to the key signature. The F# from G will remain so now we’ll accumulate a total of two sharps. Much like G, we find the new sharp by going to our new key “D” and working one note back i.e. C, so C is now C#. The scale of D major looks like this: D – E – F# – G – A – B – C#

This “Circle of Fifths” is used for a myriad of other useful theoretical techniques and concepts and can be continued on in this manner for the further sharp keys of A major, E major and so on. Similarly, using a “Step down fourth, flatten fourth” method we can figure out flat keys. Starting from C again, let’s step down a fourth. We arrive at F. The key of F major has one flat but where? Using the “flatten fourth” pattern which implies that you flatten the fourth degree of F i.e. B, you get the following notes in the F major scale: F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E

The heavy theory is not necessary to understand in order to follow this article. If you simply know that a key is a run of notes with which the note quality (natural, flat, sharp) determines the kind of key we are in, that is enough for the purposes of Irish traditional music. From analysing notes in a tune, you can determine which key we are in. Simpler still, if you read staff notation, the “key signature” at the beginning of the stave will also give you information pertaining to the key. One sharp symbol tells us you are in G major. Two sharps implies D major. One flat implies F major and so on. Except, there is one important discrepancy. This is all true if the tune is within the “major” mode. But not all tunes are within the major mode (or, to call it more accurately, the Ionian mode). Let’s look at modes so.

What is a mode?

A mode is very similar to a scale in that it is a run of notes with which the quality (natural, flat, sharp) determines the kind of mode we are in. I’m going to put this an easy way. Think of the key of C major: C – D – E – F – G – A – B

As mentioned above, if we play a piece of music within this range of notes we are playing in the key of C major. But that is also provided that our “home note” is centred around C. If we are playing in C major, yes we want to only use the notes above but, also, our ear wants to hear us finish on a C note so that there is a sense of completeness to the music. 

Backing chords used for tunes and songs in C major would also be centred around the C major chord. Now, let’s suppose we come across a piece of music whereupon musical analysis (and even a peek at the key signature) we determine that there are no naturals or flats in the melody line. Surely, that would imply C major, right? Well, no. Because now let’s suppose the melody line centres around the “D” note instead of C. The ear wants to hear you “coming home” to D at the end of the tune. Even though we have written a melody line within the notes of C major, it doesn’t “feel” like C major. Major keys (or, Ionian modes if you want to keep consistent with this section) are happy sounding to the ear. Centring the C major scale on a “home note” of D doesn’t create a happy sound. It creates an ambiguous, almost minor (sad) sound. And here is where modes come in.

Taking the example above, by playing the C Ionian (major) notes but centering them on D, we now have a scale to play with that looks like this: D – E – F – G – A – B – C

Of course, this is not a D major scale because that would require two sharps. Nor is it D minor as that would require one flat. So what the heck is it then? This is the D Dorian mode.

The Dorian mode is found when we take the second degree of a major scale and base our melody line on it. So, similarly, if we take the G major scale but base our melody around A we get the scale of A dorian: A – B – C – D – E – F# – G

The Dorian mode is close to the minor key of the note name i.e. A dorian is very close to A minor.  The only difference between the Dorian mode and the minor mode of the note name is the 6th degree which is sharpened in the Dorian version. 

Every scale degree can be used for creating a mode but in Irish traditional music we are mostly concerned with four:

  • Ionian: This is the major key. In “mode language” we refer to the major scale/key as Ionian. So, the scale and key of G major is known as G Ionian. Don’t be put off by the language. There is no difference musically and, in practice, Irish traditional musicians simply refer to this as “major” or, more commonly, drop the “major” altogether and just use the home-note name. So when someone says, “This is in the key of G”, they are almost definitely referring to G major/G Ionian.
  • Dorian: As discussed above, the Dorian mode is built off the second degree (note) of a major key. Base your melody around this note but use the same key signature as the Ionian. So A Dorian is based around the A note but uses notes off G major. Dorian mode tunes sound close to minor but not quite as dark and melancholic.

  • Mixolydian: This is built off the fifth degree of the scale. Sticking with G major, if we use the same notes again but use our tonal centre around the “D” note, we are playing in the mode of D Mixolydian. Mixolydian tunes (particularly those in D and A Mixolydian) are often found in the uileann piping repertoire and very old tune collections. It is similar to the major key of the note name but has a flattened seventh note which creates a kind of haunting quality. An ancient quality even. By that I mean, taking the key of D major, we can find D Mixolydian by dropping the seventh degree (C#) down a semitone to C natural. 
  • Aeolian: Much like Ionian above, the Aeolian mode is the same as what we call “natural minor”. It is built off the sixth degree of the major scale. Going back to G major, we find “E” as the sixth degree. Building a tune out of this tonal centre creates a very minor feel hence why the vast majority of people will simply refer to this mode as “E minor” rather than “E Aeolian”. Also worth noting is that the “harmonic minor” and “melodic minor” is seldom used in Irish traditional music except when it occurs in variations as chosen by individual players. We’re not going to delve into those versions of minor keys here. Let’s just stick with natural, unaltered minor scales. This can also be referred to as the “relative minor” when talking in relation to the major key notes that its built off e.g. G major’s “relative minor” is E minor – same notes, different tonal centre.

On the last point, you could refer to the Dorians and Mixolydians as “relative modes” too though we never, in practice, say things like, “A dorian is the relative dorian of D mixolydian”. It’s only ever referred to as such in reference to major/minor and vice versa.

Why is all this important?

If you’ve taken the time to digest the above information, firstly, thank you and well done. Secondly, I assure you it will benefit you, particularly if you are an accompanist or, equally, if you play with accompanists regularly. Let’s take a simple scenario.

You’re at a session and you’re flying through a classic G major tune The Galway Rambler. There’s a wonderful guitar backer keeping the buzz going and you’ve decided that you’ll put The College Groves (a D Mixolydian tune) into the set next. You want the guitarist to keep that momentum up so you need to provide them with the key of the upcoming tune so that they’ll create a solid, dynamic change. Otherwise, they’ll spend a few bars trying to listen to the new tune before determining what the key is and the set may lose a little bit of body. But how can you tell them the key? It seems like D, right? It’s full of D notes. It ends on D. But, wait. D major doesn’t have C naturals….oh dear. Well, this is where, when armed with the above knowledge, you’ll know what do to. You’ll shout “D Mixolydian” or “D mix” and, if the backer is worth his/her salt, they’ll know what to do from there.

If you are playing with a very experienced accompanist, I will add that simply knowing that The College Groves is centred around D will typically arm you with enough information to relay to the accompanist. Even though the tune is in the mode of D Mixolydian, shouting “D” will suffice as, often, a backer will play some form of open chord on the change of a tune giving them the scope to spend a couple of bars determining if they have been provided with accurate knowledge of the key and then making the specific changes as necessary without impacting the mood of the tune. So if, for example, you called out “D” when, in fact, the tune was in D minor, an experienced accompanist will cop this difference very quickly and use his chords suitably.

Watch out for the shouting of modes in your next Irish pub session!

A few things that we shout

Although “mix” is commonly heard to refer to tunes in the Mixolydian mode, another common term we use is “modal”. Modal generally means that the tune doesn’t fall into the major or minor bracket and, essentially, this is what Mixolydian is. It’s got a flat seventh note which takes it away from the major “feel” but it still has a sharp third note that stops it from falling squarely into minor territory. Some tunes under the “modal” banner may also fall under the Dorian mode.

Also important to note is something in reference to tunes in the dorian mode. It can often be hard to tell the difference between a dorian and minor/aeolian tune unless you are very steeped in the music and the theory behind it. Many professional Irish traditional musicians don’t understand the distinction either and, in practice, it isn’t necessary as a melody player. That’s why you will rarely here a melody player shout “A dorian” or “D dorian” as a key to change to. Rather, they will simply throw it in with the minor brigade. The Bag of Spuds and The Sligo Maid are both tunes in “A dorian” but, because an accompanist will often use “A minor” chords in this key anyway, shouting “A minor” suffices just as well. If you are a melody player, in practice, knowing that it’s simply minor OR dorian is enough to constitute a shout of “minor”.

Lastly, with regard to major keys, you needn’t necessarily shout the “major” signifier. Shouting the letter alone such as “G” or “D” implies that it’s going to be major anyway. One thing worth noting here, though, is the similarity in sound between letters like “G”, “D” and “E”. Often, we use phrases like Irish counties to determine the different keys. A tune in G major might be shouted out as “Galway” and one in D is commonly shouted as “Dublin”. I’ve even heard one fiddler friend kindly tell me “Galway minor” on several occasions when gigging whilst I’ve often taken liberty (and a spoonful of sarcasm) in shouting “Edenderry” when going into an E major tune!

That’s it! Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you would like more clarification either via the forum, through email or in the comments below.

Paddy Cummins, OAIM tenor banjo, mandolin tutor and Music Theory maestro!


3 responses to “Keys and Modes and Shouts, Oh My!”

  1. Nreachmack Avatar

    Good information, but give two examples before moving on. The second would help confirm that the concept has been properly understood.

    1. OAIM admin Avatar
      OAIM admin

      Good advice, thank you!

  2. Marge Avatar

    You are brilliant!

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