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Thread: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

  1. #1

    Default Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    It has been a while for me going to sessions, not only due to COVID, but in general.

    Regardless, I'm starting up a learning session, for myself, to get my "sea-legs" again, as well as to develop a more local session than the ones I've had to drive out to over the years. As I'm preparing, and gathering folks, someone asked a question that has me wondering...

    When I was going to sessions, it seemed to me that each tune was played in a pretty standard mode/key that was fairly universal. Yes, there were variations in a phrase here and there, but key/mode for each tune was fairly standard. I never heard, "The Silver Spear" played in the key of F, for example. Shoot, I never heard it in the key of G, even though I found a version of that online. The Silver Spear was always in D. Everyone played each tune in an implicitly agreed upon key and mode that seemed to me to be standard to the tune, and was the same no matter which session I went to.

    Is this impression incorrect? Have I just been lucky? Are keys and modes for these tunes widely variable, session to session?

    Thank you!

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    Registered User liestman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    I would say that 95% of the tunes are played universally in one implicitly agreed upon key. The other 5% are played in more than one key, depending on location. My guess is that these happen when a tune doesn't sit well on one instrument, so one person moves it to a key more appropriate for their instrument and their local session chums accommodate that change.
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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Thank you for the clarification!

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    I would say you are pretty much correct.

    There are some variations - but that approach has stood me in pretty good stead around the world.

    Some examples of outliers I know that are often played in different keys:
    Calliope House - original E or D? You just have to listen and see. Learn it in both.
    My Dungannon Sweetheart. Original C or D?
    etc
    Or people play both keys (e.g Flatwater Fran, G then A cos that's what Phil did on the record)

    The general tendency, if there is one, is for tunes written in non "open string" keys is for some player to revert them to G or D, if there's any change at all.

    There are also those mythical Eb sessions (tuned up a half step so that D tunes sound Eb, for extra zing) which is not very mandolin-friendly, but I've never encountered one. Sharon Shannon (for example) does it on record sometimes.
    Bren

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Thanks Bren! Very helpful!

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    Registered User John Kelly's Avatar
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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    What the previous posters have said, and I would add in that when you get round to playing sets, you will find that there are tunes which will form a set in one or more sessions but then along comes a player who has a different group of tunes. This can be fun! Who usually plays Spootiskerry followed by Willfjord, rather than followed by Barrowburn Reel? We have this in our local session especially with pipe tunes.
    I'm playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. - Eric Morecambe

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Quote Originally Posted by John Kelly View Post
    What the previous posters have said, and I would add in that when you get round to playing sets, you will find that there are tunes which will form a set in one or more sessions but then along comes a player who has a different group of tunes. This can be fun! Who usually plays Spootiskerry followed by Willfjord, rather than followed by Barrowburn Reel? We have this in our local session especially with pipe tunes.
    Spootiskerry followed by Willafjord is pretty common I think.
    I'd be wrongfooted for a second or two if it was followed by Barrowburn.

    In Orkney Flett Fae Flotta is so often followed by Gairsay that any change catches most people out.
    (Missing Orkney FF and what a great weekend it would have been with the weather last week!)

    What would you normally follow Loch Ruan with?
    Bren

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    Registered User Simon DS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    What part of the world do you play in, Phillipe? That can make a difference.
    -to keep it simple, I mostly just learn the most common key for each tune that’s posted on thesession. Probably G D C or A and their relative minors. Remember it sounds complicated but they have very similar fingerings, just shift differences.

    I do play an octave with a capo placed in different positions, but I invariably use the same fingering as the standard key so that if I’m playing mandolin I’ll already ‘know’ the tune.
    Good luck.

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Quote Originally Posted by Bren View Post
    Spootiskerry followed by Willafjord is pretty common I think.
    I'd be wrongfooted for a second or two if it was followed by Barrowburn.

    In Orkney Flett Fae Flotta is so often followed by Gairsay that any change catches most people out.
    (Missing Orkney FF and what a great weekend it would have been with the weather last week!)

    What would you normally follow Loch Ruan with?
    For me, Loch Ruan and Lochanside make a fine pair, Bren, both with strong connections to Argyll, my home county. I grew up very near Loch Ruan and now live about a ten-minute walk from Loch Loskin (the loch of Lochanside).

    I like Barrowburn Reel along with Walking on the Moon - both Addie Harper tunes.
    I'm playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. - Eric Morecambe

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    Registered User Simon DS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Photos?

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    I've occasionally been in a session where a tune is played in one key and then moved up for effect (and although it isn't traditional, we play Ashoken Farewell in C followed by G i believe), but ordinarily I haven't had to rethink anything I've already learned on the fly in sessions in half a dozen towns. Occasionally some of the players will move into two flats to mess around with the flutes (the non-keyed ones, that is) but that's just a personal dig. And since I learned it that way, I play Spootiskerry followed by Wulafjord.
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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    I guess you’ll have lots of different people at your session.
    -Everyone happily playing Spootiskerry followed by Willfjord, and then someone turns up and plays Willfjord first, followed by Spootiskerry! What a mess!!

    Are you going to ask them to leave?


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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    One session I used to go to picked a key for the night and stuck to it - something to do with alternative tunings for fiddles. One night, everything was in D and the next time it could be A. There was no logic to it for occasional visitors. They preferred tunes and seemed to be uncomfortable with one of my songs which starts off in Dm and lapses into B flat for a few bars.

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Simon, for some reason the video of Laura Carr above is reversed - in other of her videos she is playing conventionally as a right-handed fiddler. This probably explains why she plays the two Shetland tunes in the reverse order. In our session if she started off the tunes we would follow her order, and if one of us started, she would follow our order. Certainly no thought of asking her to leave!
    I'm playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. - Eric Morecambe

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    Registered User Simon DS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions


    I thought so, John, the more the merrier!

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Quote Originally Posted by Randi Gormley View Post
    I've occasionally been in a session where a tune is played in one key and then moved up for effect (and although it isn't traditional, we play Ashoken Farewell in C followed by G i believe), but ordinarily I haven't had to rethink anything I've already learned on the fly in sessions in half a dozen towns. Occasionally some of the players will move into two flats to mess around with the flutes (the non-keyed ones, that is) but that's just a personal dig. And since I learned it that way, I play Spootiskerry followed by Wulafjord.
    The "other" popular Jay Ungar tune, a wedding waltz whose name escapes me right now, is almost always started in G then shifts up to D.

    The Lovers' Waltz! That's it! Brain functioning after all!

    And I guess we can blame Phil Cunningham again for the habit of cycling through D, G, A and back to D on Fergie MacDonald's Jig Run Rig although to be fair we only do that in dances, haven't tried it at sessions.

    I've also deliberately played F and Bb tunes to lose the "snake charmers" at a session so I hope they don't read Mandolin Café.
    Bren

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    I haven't run into too many differences from the key/mode I'd expect in local Irish trad sessions. One reason is probably that recordings by famous Irish trad artists, along with online instruction in the Internet age, have somewhat standardized the more common repertoire.

    I think the main thing to watch out for, are settings in local sessions (or on thesession.org database) where the key/mode has been changed to accommodate whistle and keyless flute players that don't have the range of fiddles, mandolins, or other chromatic instruments.

    Typically these would be tunes originally written (probably) by fiddlers in D dorian, G dorian, or F# dorian. Very easy to play on fiddle or mandolin, but not so easy, or even possible in some cases on a D whistle or keyless D flute. You probably won't run into many Gdor or F#dor tunes in sessions, but Ddor tunes like "Julia Delaney's" or "The Porthole of the Kelp" are fairly common. Be aware that some sessions may play those tunes kicked up to Edor to make it more whistle/flute friendly. A whistler can play in Ddor easily by switching to a C whistle, but it's not so easy on a keyless D flute.

    Another thing I've run into with mixed Irish/Scottish sessions with smallpipes or border pipes, are settings of "Irish" tunes moved up into pipe-friendly keys like A or Amix. You probably won't run into that if it's a more Irish-focused session.

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Cmaj and Gmix are more esoteric in Irish trad, and you probably won't run across them much in sessions unless they're only fiddle and concertina/box players, but they're definitely worth being comfortable in. There are some great tunes out there in those.

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    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Quote Originally Posted by Bren View Post
    I would say you are pretty much correct.

    There are some variations - but that approach has stood me in pretty good stead around the world.

    Some examples of outliers I know that are often played in different keys:
    Calliope House - original E or D? You just have to listen and see. Learn it in both.
    My Dungannon Sweetheart. Original C or D?
    etc
    Or people play both keys (e.g Flatwater Fran, G then A cos that's what Phil did on the record)

    The general tendency, if there is one, is for tunes written in non "open string" keys is for some player to revert them to G or D, if there's any change at all.

    There are also those mythical Eb sessions (tuned up a half step so that D tunes sound Eb, for extra zing) which is not very mandolin-friendly, but I've never encountered one. Sharon Shannon (for example) does it on record sometimes.
    Bren,
    I was looking through Graham Townsend tunes on YouTube to try to find him playing "My Dungannon Sweetheart," with no luck. However, for your interest, here's Patti Kusturok playing it. I would be very surprised if she didn't learn it off a Graham Townsend record, so you can figure out the original key from her. Also, his version is printed in a book called "Graham Townsend's Thirty Canadian Fiddle Tunes."
    I understand that you were making a point and may not care what the original key was. Still, if you're curious...
    By the way, I had the pleasure of taking fiddle lessons from Eleanor Townsend, Graham's Dungannon Sweetheart, and sitting in their kitchen with him, discussing music, fatherhood (we both had small children), and life.

    book: (https://www.musicfromcanada.com/stor...MBF_552).html)

    If the video links don't work search, google "My Dungannon Sweetheart - Patti Kusturok's 365 Days Of Fiddle Tunes".


    https://www.musicfromcanada.com/stor...(MBF_552).html "
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVI6...=PattiKusturok

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    There are a good number of good 18th and 19thC Scottish fiddle tunes written in Bb and Eb, but in deference to melodeons and other folks for whom that makes life more difficult (and fiddlers who don't like using their 4th finger), I don't hear them often at sessions. I used to occasionally encounter Irish music sessions in London (rarely those run by Irish nationals) which were deliberately exclusive, in that they played obscure tunes at blinding speed among a group of friends who all knew them - more in the way of a performance. A fiddler acquaintance told me of a London Irish 'session' where a group of friends were covering all the usual Irish session tunes - but one was a Bb/Eb melodeon player, and they'd all tuned to suit. It doesn't happen often.

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Hi Rnald,
    I first heard Dungannon Sweetheart from Shetlanders at a session, in C.
    (Graham was very popular in Shetland)
    When I first went to play it in a local session, I started off in C, and a very fine whistler joined in D.
    Subsequently I decided to learn it in both keys.

    When I was working in Halifax, NS in 1999, I bought the book "Canadian Fiddle Music Vol 1" by Ed Whitcomb (1990) at Halifax Folklore Centre and My Dungannon Sweetheart appears there in C.

    The Graham Townsend tunes in that book are:
    Cheryl Susan's Waltz
    Debbie's Waltz
    Dungannon Sweetheart
    Gray's Second Change
    Harvey's Tune
    Maytime Swing
    Murray River Jig
    Trailblazer's Two-Step

    plus 3 by Eleanor.

    the other GT tunes I've heard in sessions in Scotland are Murray River Jig (originally in A but many locals play it in G) and Rocking Chair , only in C (at least, I play it, based on Sean Maguire's version on A Man Apart)

    I should mention another fond memory of Halifax was learning Mouth of the Tobique from a fiddler in O'Carroll's Bar (now gone) near the waterfront.
    I got back to Aberdeen brimming with this new Canadian tune I'd learnt on my travels only to find it was old hat to everyone already.
    I didn't frequent sessions so much at the time, so it was new to me!
    Bren

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    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    Speaking of keys, some of the flat keys like F can be mandolin friendly.

    Here is a version of Golden Eagle Hornpipe, normally in G, played by accordionist Paddy O'Brien in F.

    Which I find falls easier on mandolin for this tune than G , once you get used to it.

    https://youtu.be/xcPWpv18Qv8
    Bren

  29. #23

    Default Re: Key/Mode for Irish Sessions

    It's interesting that the common key for a tune is not always the most suitable key for a particular instrument. Also, even playing the same notes in a different key can change the feel of the tune. On mandolin, the obvious thing is that register of the tune will change to become lower or higher, but also the mix of open strings versus fretted strings changes. A more subtle change I feel is that this different mix of open strings vs fretted strings encourages a different performance - perhaps more or less trebles, or the inclusion of more slides.

    Fairly recently I relearned Dungannon Sweetheart in C, so I thought it might be interesting to record it in both keys to see how it differs. And while I was at it I had a go at playing The Silver Spear in F and in D.

    I don't think any of the keys here are more difficult than any others - stumbles of mine are not due to the key, they're just everyday stumbles (though unfamiliarity with playing a tune in an unfamiliar key prob make mistakes more likely).

    Silver Spear in F, then in D



    Dungannon Sweetheart in C, then in D


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