Tim Cummings: Tunes in B-minor


Theory Top-Up
by Tim Cummings
Piping Today #75, 2015.

I have a hunch that you might be familiar with something called fish and chips.  I’m also willing to bet that each time you’ve partaken of that meal, there was a fair bit of salt added, which no doubt enhanced the flavours of both the fish and the chips.  It’s a simple, successful, and very popular combination.  But how many of you have also tried a little sprinkling of coarse salt on a bar of rich, dark chocolate?  Far fewer, probably, as it’s a less obvious, less ubiquitous recipe.  But among those who’ve tried it, many claim it’s about as close to heaven as you get on this side of eternity.

How does this apply to music theory?  It is my best guess that close to 90% of the tunes making up our standard ceòl beag repertoire are based in the general keys of A and D [fish and chips].  Tunes that fall under either of these two broad umbrellas harmonize [taste] very well with A-tuned drones [salt].  That’s probably not news to anyone.  But every so often it can be refreshing and novel to play a darker tune in the key of B-minor [dark chocolate] with the same A-tuned drones [salt], despite that combination being a lot less obvious, certainly from the standpoint of many theorists of Western music.

Does that analogy make sense to you?  If not, fear not.  The point is that B-minor tunes go unexpectedly well with drones tuned to A.  What would normally be considered dissonance, or clashing, or tension — that is the A against the B — can actually be a compelling uncertainty or restlessness.  Not everyone will want to base an entire medley on B-minor tunes, but throwing a B-minor tune or two into a set of tunes is an excellent way to build tension.  (Similarly, you would not want to eat an entire meal of dark chocolate and sea salt.)  The pairing of tunes in B with drones in A is not the most obvious combination, which may explain why these tunes make up only five or six percent1 of our ceòl beag.

1. Approximately 4.5% of these are standard B-minor tunes; another 1% or so are pentatonic tunes in B-minor.

Any standard Scottish pipe tune that claims B as its foundational, home-base note, and which features a significant number of Bs and F©s on strong pulses, is almost certainly going to be in a minor key.  As mentioned in previous articles, minor keys are generally thought to invoke darker, sadder moods and emotions (e.g. The Mist-Covered Mountains).  Faster tunes in B-minor may sometimes come across as more obstinate, ranting angrily perhaps (Paddy’s Leather Breeches).  But paired with drones tuned to the chanter’s A, practically any B-minor tune will have a captivating, unresolved nature to it.

I should also mention that there are pipers, particularly those in Brittany, who daringly play B-minor tunes with drones also tuned to B.  It is an amazing, powerful, dive-headfirst-into-the-dark-deep-end-of-B-minor effect.2  It makes my skin crawl like the very first time I heard bagpipes as a young child.  Pairing B-minor tunes with drones also in B might be analogous to mixing chocolate with coffee or espresso for an especially, outlandishly dark, rich experience.

2. Breton players are also prone to playing A-minor tunes (using C- and F-naturals) with A drones, creating a similarly dark effect.

Getting back to the melodic nature of B-minor, here is the B-minor scale as we would play it on the pipes:

B minor scale

This scale forms the basis of tunes considered to be in the key of B-minor, as sampled below.3  As always, trying playing through as many of these as you can, to get a better feel for this stirring, moody key:

• The Ale is Dear  (reel)
• The Burning of the Piper’s Hut  (2/4 march)
• Dark Lowers the Night  (3/4 retreat)
• Farewell to Nigg  (6/4 march)
• The Haunting  (slow air)
• I Hae a Wife o’ My Ain  (slip jig)
• The Lion’s Den  (reel, by Ward MacDonald)
• Mairi Bhàn Og [a.k.a. Fair Young Mary]  (slow march)
• Malts on the Optics  (reel, by Hamish Moore)
• The Sleeping Tune  (slow air, by Gordon Duncan)
• The Star of County Down [a.k.a. Kingsfold]  (song, air, hymn)
• Struan Robertson  (strathspey)
• The Wee Highland Laddie  (4/4 march)
Also the Breton an dro frequently played by both Carlos Nuñez and The Chieftans when they invite Highland pipers on stage.

3. It’s worth noting that many of these tunes are technically ‘gapped’ or ‘hexatonic’ in that they may skip Gs.  But this does not change the minor flavouring of the tune, as other gapped scales might (e.g. gapped tunes in A).

A few closing tips and reminders: Smallpipers and Border pipers, if you find yourself playing a tune that is in B-minor on a standard A chanter, you can keep your drones tuned to A, and alert any accompanists that you are playing that tune in B-minor.  If you have the option, you might also try tuning your drones to B and/or F©, for that extra-rich, ultra-dark Breton effect.  But if you plan on changing keys at any point in a set of tunes, particularly any based in A or D, you’re better off using drones tuned to A.  Highland pipers, remember you are playing transposing instruments, and that a tune written in the key of B-minor, will sound in the key of C-minor — or a bit sharper — when played on a standard set of Highland pipes. •

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