Tunes in the key of D-major


Theory Top-Up
by Tim Cummings
Piping Today #70, 2014.

Piping Today published a series of articles in issues 57, 58, 63 and 64 that addressed the topic of musical keys and how they relate to our music. I understand that some readers have enrolled in therapy since trying to digest the unusually thick milkshake of major keys, minor keys, Mixolydian and Dorian modes, ‘implied’ keys and ‘gapped’ scales and all the rest. Music theory can indeed be a quagmire for many. But as has been argued before, it is unquestionably worth having a basic working knowledge of the theory that applies to our music.  

With this in mind, as well as knowing that some people recover from trauma with the aid of small, safe exposures to what had originally traumatised them, it may make sense to submit small doses of theory, one gentle key at a time.

As a reminder, the term ‘key’ refers to the predominant note or mood of a particular piece of music, not unlike some paintings feature a predominant colour, or some recipes feature a predominant flavour, despite other colours and flavours coinciding.

So without further ado, I re-present to you the key of D-Major:

In terms of light music, at least, D-Major may actually be the most common specific key in which we Scottish-style pipers play, representing perhaps 28% of our tunes. There is certainly a higher percentage of tunes based on A in general, but there are several different versions of A in our standard repertoire which we will re-examine another time. There are not so many different versions of D in our repertoire: only the keys of D-Major and D-pentatonic are regularly heard in our music.

As described in the previous articles on this topic, a major key is one that is based upon a major scale.  If you need a reminder, a D-Major scale would be written for pipers as shown below.

Also, as described in previous articles, major keys tend to evoke bright, positive, happy, optimistic emotions, particularly at brisker tempos. (Slower tunes in major keys can often feel a little more nostalgic, but rarely, if ever, are they sad or sombre in their overall nature.) For this reason, tunes in D-Major are often good choices for weddings and other celebratory occasions, and also for soloists or bands wanting to finish a medley with a sunny tune.

In terms of identifying a particular tune in D-Major, if you come across a chipper tune that features a fair number of Ds on strong beats, that may begin or end on a D, and above all, which makes you feel like D is the predominant ‘flavour’ and ‘home base’ note, then more than likely it is going to be a tune in the key of D-Major.  This will be particularly true if the tune includes all the other notes of the scale.

Below is a sampling of common tunes that are firmly and entirely in D-Major. Try playing through several of these to gain a better sense of this key and its associated moods:

Aspen Bank (strathspey)
The Barren Rocks of Aden (2/4 march)
The Battle of Somme1 (2/4 march)
The Black Bear (2/4 march)
The Boy’s Lament for His Dragon/72nd’s Farewell to Aberdeen (2/4 march)
The Calliope House (jig, originally written in E-Major*)
Crossing the Minch/McNabb’s Hornpipe (hornpipe)
The Duck (jig)
The Gold Ring (jig, normally played in G-Major in Irish sessions*)
The High Drive (hornpipe)
Highland Laddie (2/4 march)
Jenny Dang the Weaver (reel)
Lochanside (3/4 retreat march)
Moving Cloud (hornpipe or reel, originally composed in F-Major*)
Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran (reel)
The Orange and Blue (strathspey)
The Piper of Drummond (reel)
The Road to the Isles (2/4 march)
Hey Tuttie Tatie/Scots Wha’ Hae (march or slow march)
Troy’s Wedding (jig)

*In order for Scottish-style pipers to play these tunes, they had to be transposed to D-Major.  We cannot play them in their original key unless we were to use chanters made to sound in different keys.

1. It often seems strange to me that a tune in such a ‘happy’ key would be used for a tune named after such a horrific event!

Of course there are always tunes that dodge specific categories. The Sound of Sleat, for example, uses every note in the D-Major scale except for the 7th, the C#. Technically speaking, the tune is based on a ‘gapped’ or ‘hexatonic’ [6-note] D scale, but because the tune projects such a warm, blissful feeling, most everyone would be content to say this popular reel is in D-Major. The same is true for Captain Horne (strathspey), The Braes of Mar (strathspey), Mairi’s Wedding (2/4 march), and The Silver Spear (reel), among others.  Guitarists, pianists and other accompanists would invariably back these tunes up using an array of chords appropriate to D-Major (e.g. D, A, G, Bm, etc.).

So that’s D-Major in a nutshell — not so traumatic, huh? Of added interest to you may be that D-Major tunes seem to be especially favoured by composers such as Gordon Duncan and Neil Dickie, gauging by the number of original D-Major tunes published in their tune books. D-Major seems to be more popular in recent times than in the past, when pentatonic [5-note] melodies and A-Mixolydian tunes were apparently more predominant in our repertoire.

Two final notes: Highland pipers, remember that you are playing ‘transposing’ instruments, and that a tune written in the key of D-Major, will actually sound in the key of Eb (E-flat)-Major when played on a standard set of Highland pipes. This bit of information is of utmost importance if you are playing with other musicians such as church organists, guitarists, pianists, fiddlers, etc. Smallpipers, consider tuning your drones to D and/or A when playing tunes in the key of D, as drones tuned to E will clash like a pair of brown shoes with black trousers (i.e. not disastrously, but you can do better). If you are playing a medley of tunes in various keys, it’s best to stick with just your A drones. •

• From Piping Today #70, 2014.

Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe music. His Theory Top-Up series has been running in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.