Tunes in the key of A-Mixolydian

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Theory Top-Up
by Tim Cummings
Piping Today #71, 2014.

In the last issue of Piping Today, we took a close look at the key of D-Major.  That article was the first of what will be a series designed to supplement previous articles1 that painted broader pictures of multiple musical keys2.  The hope is that after that initial, possibly dizzying introduction to musical keys, these shorter, more focused articles will begin to strengthen your understanding of the music you enjoy.

1. See Piping Today issues 57, 58, 63, and 64
2. As a reminder, the term “key” refers to the predominant note or mood of a particular piece of music, not unlike how some paintings feature a predominant colour, despite other colours coinciding.

I chose to start this particular series with D-Major, a key that I believe may be the most ubiquitous specific key in our common Scottish repertoire, representing maybe 28% of our light music by my reckoning.  But it is barely in the lead.  A-Mixolydian [pronounced “MIX-oh-LID-ian”] may actually be the second most common specific key in which we pipers play, representing perhaps 27% of our light music.

Tunes that are Mixolydian are those based on a musical scale that is similar to the more familiar, ‘happier’, ‘brighter’-sounding major scale, but with one difference: the seventh note of a Mixolydian scale is a semitone lower.  For example, if you were to play a standard C-Major scale on a piano and lower the seventh note by a semitone — i.e. change the B to a Bb (B-flat) — then you would create a C-Mixolydian scale.  On the Scottish bagpipe chanter, we automatically produce a Mixolydian scale simply by going note by note from low-A to high-A.

It is the most natural seven-note scale we pipers play, not only because it can be played in one uninterrupted run with standard fingering, but also because our drones are typically tuned to reinforce the ‘root’ note of the scale (A).  It makes a lot of sense that this key would form the basis of so many of our tunes.

The Mixolydian scale belongs to a group of scales that are often called “modes”, all of which have impressive-sounding Greek names like Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, etc.  The related term “modal” is often casually used to refer to these scales — and by extension, tunes — which are a little different from the ubiquitous major and minor scales.  The modes that we use the most in our piping repertoire tend to feature a mix of both major and minor elements, and can sometimes seem more emotionally complex and rich in the way that they affect us.  They may also convey a sense of the ancient.

Because it is so similar to a major scale, the Mixolydian mode has a lot of optimistic qualities to it.  But again there is that lowered, or minor-7th which introduces a hint of darkness, which affects several of the chords that an accompanist would add, and which brings about a slightly more serious mood to a piece of music.  It’s remarkable that slightly altering a single note in a scale can influence so much.

It can be a bit more difficult to describe the flavour or mood of the Mixolydian mode.   To me, the combination of major with a little taste of minor projects a feeling of increased seriousness, nostalgia, and/or a sort of heroic nature in tunes that are slower-paced.  And for Mixolydian tunes that are at faster tempos, I tend to regard them as being more wild and audacious in nature.

In terms of identifying a particular tune in A-Mixolydian, if you find a bold, confident-sounding tune that features a fair number of As on strong beats, that may begin or end squarely on a A, and above all, which makes you feel like A is the predominant ‘flavour’ and foundational note, then more than likely it is going to be a tune in some version of the key of A.  But there are several incarnations of the key of A, so to narrow things down to A-Mixolydian specifically, you’ll need a tune that also includes the other notes of the scale, in particular the C# and that characteristic minor-7th: the G.  If a particular tune is based on A but is missing the C# and/or the G, chances are it’s a different type of A scale.  (More on those other A scales in coming issues.)

Below is a sampling of common tunes that are firmly and entirely in A-Mixolydian.  Try playing through several of these to gain a better sense of this key and its associated moods.  Are there any particular emotions or feelings that you consistently associate with these tunes?  If so, take note of them as a guide to help you recognise other Mixolydian tunes in your repertoire.

The ’98 Jig
Arniston Castle (strathspey)
The Balmoral Highlanders (2/4 march)
The Battle of Waterloo (4/4 march)
Campbell’s Farewell to Redcastle (2/4 march)
Dinky’s/Dinky Dorian’s (reel)
Donald, Willie, and His Dog (slip jig)
Dr. Ross’s 50th Welcome to the Argyllshire Gathering (6/8 march)
Duncan MacRae of Kintail’s Lament/March of the Kings of Laois
Ghillie Callum (sword dance)
Good Drying (reel)
Lochaber No More (air/lament – Scots Guards setting)
Lough Erin Shore/Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore  (3/4 waltz/air)
Miss Proud (reel)
Pressed for Time (reel)
The Red-Haired Boy/Jolly Beggarman (hornpipe)
The Shepherd’s Crook (strathspey)
The Spice of Life (jig)
Thompson’s Dirk (reel)

You may be interested to know that Allan MacDonald’s Moidart Collection: A’ Cheud Ceud (The First Hundred) strongly favours A-Mixolydian tunes.  The same is true for several of Donald MacLeod’s books, leading me to wonder if perhaps older piping repertoire featured a higher percentage of this key, compared to a higher prevalence of D-Major tunes in tune books that feature more contemporary fare.  A lot more research would be needed to solidify that claim, but it’s food for thought.

Two final comments: Highland pipers, remember that you are playing ‘transposing’ instruments, and that a tune written in the key of A-Mixolydian, will actually sound in the key of B¨-Mixolydian when played on a standard set of Highland pipes.  Knowing this is particularly important if you are playing with other musicians such as church organists, guitarists, pianists, fiddlers, etc.  Smallpipers, tune your drones to A and/or E when playing tunes in any version of the key of A.  If you are playing a medley of tunes in various keys, it’s best to stick with just your A drones.  You can tell any chord-playing accompanists that you are playing in “A-Mixolydian”.  (If they look at you cross-eyed, “A-modal” should get the message across well enough.) •

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.