Tunes in the key of A-Major

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Theory Top-Up
by Tim Cummings
Piping Today #72, 2014.

This article is the third in an on-going series focusing on specific musical keys found in our Scottish piping repertoire.  Having already looked at the two most common musical keys in our light music, D-Major and A-Mixolydian, we’ll now put a magnifying glass to what I believe is the third most common key for us: A-Major, representing perhaps 21% of our light music repertoire.

If you’ve been following the Piping Today articles dealing with music theory and musical keys, you may already be concluding that A-Major is an easy key to spot.  If a tune features a lot of low- and/or high-As on strong beats, ends squarely on an A, and most tellingly, if A seems like the foundational, home-base note of the tune, it’s probably in the general key of A, right?  Correct.  And if a tune sounds optimistic, bright and happy overall, it’s probably in a “major” key, right?  Also correct.  So if we have a happy sounding pipe tune based on A, then it must be in A-Major, right?  Well, sort of.  For us pipers it’s a little more complicated, but not terribly so.

Before jumping into A-Major with both feet, I’d like to remind you that specific musical keys are based on specific, corresponding musical scales, meaning that a tune in A-Major would be based on an A-Major scale.

You’ll recognise that all those notes look like the notes we play on our pipes, with one exception: that G with the hashtag.  You might be used to the idea that when we play C and F on our chanters, they are actually sounding as C# and F# — the hashtag meaning “sharp”, i.e. sounding higher by a semitone.  It’s normal for these two notes to be sharp for the vast majority of our piping music.  But a G# is not something we play, certainly not on the Highland pipes or Scottish smallpipes.  By using unusual cross-fingerings, Border pipers can often produce G#s, but Highland pipes and smallpipes are pretty well limited to our usual G-“natural”, that is G without any sharp or flat attached to it.

So if the key of A-Major includes a G#, and most of us can’t play G#, how is it that we have so many tunes that are in A-Major?  That’s a good question.  Technically speaking, if we don’t play a G#, we don’t play anything wholly in A-Major, but we can definitely pretend to.  When it comes to the key of A-Major, we’re fakers, more or less implying that key in two ways.  One way is to play our Gs as we normally do (not sharpened), but only very briefly and in passing — not on any strong, prominent beats and not as any crucial element to the melody. 

Bonny Dundee is a classic example of this.  It’s a bright A-based tune that contains two high-Gs in the first [A] part, but they are insignificant “passing notes” between the high-A and F#.  They roll quickly by without having any great melodic importance and without affecting the overall tonality of the tune.1  Ask an experienced accompanist to back this tune without being told its key, and they will rapidly gravitate towards chords that are appropriate to the key of A-Major — chords which use G# instead of G-naturals.

1. The same goes for the low-G pick-up note in the 2nd [B] part, which other instruments would play as a low-E.

Other implied A-Major tunes that briefly feature Gs in passing (and without harmonies, which often include prominent Gs inappropriately:
• The Bloody Fields of Flanders [a.k.a. Freedom Come-All-Ye]
• The Fiddler
• Highland Wedding
• Leaving Port Askaig
• Lord Lovat’s Lament
• The Prince of Wales
• Mrs. MacLeod of Raasay

The second way we fake A-Major is to just avoid playing Gs altogether.  You could argue in this case that we are technically playing something based on a “gapped” scale because it’s missing a note (the G#).  By not playing any Gs at all, we’re just glossing over the fact that we can’t ordinarily play a G#.  Alick C. McGregor is a fine example of a jolly A-based reel that avoids Gs completely.  Again, accompanists will support this tune with chord progressions appropriate to A-Major.

Other examples of implied A-Major tunes that skip Gs completely (again, without harmonies):
• The 79th Farewell to Gibraltar
• The Glasgow City Police Pipers
• Molly Connell
• Rocking the Baby  [this tune also skips F#s]
• The Scotsville Reel
• The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow [Scots Guards setting]

Then there are major-keyed tunes that may have started out as songs or fiddle tunes, with fairly prominent G#s when played in the key of A.  But at some point well-meaning pipers got a hold of them and tried to force the melodies on to our chanter, automatically turning any and all G#s into G-naturals.  Tunes like these can sometimes be a little difficult to categorise as being A-Major or A-Mixolydian.  Take The Green Hills of Tyrol, for example.  The second part has a pretty prominent high-G near the beginning of each line, a G that lands on a relatively strong beat.  Singers, fiddlers and other musicians who have the option of a G# will sing or play a G# there, and it sounds just fine.  Pipers generally don’t have that note, however, with only the chanter’s G-natural at our disposal.  And frankly, in most of these cases I’m not at all convinced the G-natural substitute succeeds.  These tunes often sound a little “off” to me, and can cause some confusion as to whether or not this tune is major or modal (Mixolydian).

Other examples of tunes that would ordinarily be in A-Major, with prominent G#s that have been compromised:
• Going Home [a.k.a. the ‘Largo’ theme from Dvořák’s 9th Symphony]
• Scotland the Brave

And then there are tunes where the passing Gs could arguably succeed either as G#s or G-naturals.  Some examples:
• Arniston Castle
• Editor’s Favourite

In closing, I offer two reminders: Highland pipers, remember that you are playing transposing instruments, and that a tune written in the key of A-Major, will actually sound in the key of Bb-Major 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.  You can tell any chord-playing accompanist that you are playing in “A” (or “A-Major” if you want to be completely clear).  And as suggested previously, if you are playing a medley of tunes in various keys, it’s best to stick with just your A drones. •

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.