Theory Top-Up: Double Tonic Tunes

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By Tim Cummings
Piping Today #76, 2015.

Imagine for a moment that it’s February in the North Country, and you’ve been invited to a friend’s sauna.  You enter into the thick, steamy, blanketing air of the sauna, which in midwinter feels absolutely wonderful, rapidly softening petrified muscles that have been tensing against the biting cold for months.  It feels wonderful initially, anyway.  But after 15 minutes or so, the heat and humidity become increasingly oppressive, and your eyeballs and teeth begin wishing they could sweat, too.  

And just when you’re nearing the point of crawfish étouffée, you burst outside, run barefoot through the snow, and throw your steaming, pinkened body straight into a hole cut into a frozen pond.  The relief is tremendous.  

A minute later you clamber out and re-enter the sauna to repeat the experience again.  It’s a fun, funny, and extreme form of therapy, and after a few repetitions, it’s hard to know which part of the experience is more important, the hot or the cold.  The intense combination of the two really gets the blood flooding through every layer of the body.

The above is not only extreme therapy but also an extreme analogy for pipe tunes that are often described as having a “double tonic” — tunes that start out by creating tension or pressure, and then offer quick relief midway, and/or at the end of each part.  Cabar Feidh might be one of the best known examples of this type of tune, and before we go any further, I urge you to play or hum through the tune to see if you can figure out where I’m headed with this sauna/frozen-pond analogy.

Have you figured it out?  Cabar Feidh and other tunes with a similar tonality could be thought of as having a complementary pairing of pressure (dissonance or musical tension) followed by relief (harmony, consonance, musical release).  Cabar Feidh begins with a good dose of Gs, Bs and Ds all landing on strong beats. 

As it happens, G, B and D are the three notes which make up a G-Major chord, and so the beginning of this tune strongly implies the tonality or key of G.  G-Major in and of itself is not dissonant — quite the opposite — but when it is placed against drones tuned to the usual A, it produces some dissonance, which in turn evokes feelings of tension or unsettledness, much like tunes in B-minor.

In the Cabar Feidh example, the release comes in both at the middle and at the end of each part.  At these moments, the tune shifts away from Gs, Bs and Ds, and instead immerses the ear in a cool mixture of As, C#s and Es.  These notes harmonise easily and pleasantly with drones tuned to A, and thereby provide a release of the tension that had been building up between the G tonality and the A drones.  To help you make more sense of this, examine the below excerpt of Cabar Feidh, sans grace-notes, for clarity:

Cabar Feidh excerpt

The notes which make up the G-Major and A-Major chords

The word tonic, as you may remember, is the music theorist’s word for the home-base, ‘root’ note of a musical scale, chord or key.  It is related to the word tone.  A is the tonic of an A-Major scale, D is the tonic of a D-Major chord, B is the tonic of a tune in the key of B-minor, and so on.  Any tune that has a “double-tonic” is one that has two notes that could be considered home base.  This is very unusual in most genres of music and my best guess is that these tunes represent only two or three per cent of our ceòl beag repertoire.  T’aint much but I’m willing to bet most of you already have at least one or two double-tonic tunes in your repertoire.

There’s more to this double-tonic story, however.  While there are plenty of tunes which feature a back-and-forth between a G tonality and an A tonality, in the case of double-tonic tunes, the G aspect is so prominent as to equal or possibly even surpass that of the A.  By the end of the tune, the ear often doesn’t know which home base to land on. Someone accompanying on the guitar could top it all off with a final, triumphant G chord and it would make sense to the ear.  Ditto for finishing with an A chord.  That unique duality creates a wonderfully disquieting, stirring effect.

Does the sauna analogy make a little more sense now?  And not just the tension/release aspect but also the process being repeated throughout the tune?

The tunes listed below are examples of tunes that could be considered to have a double tonic.  As always, take a moment to play through as many of these as you can, preferably with the backing of a drone tuned to your chanter’s A.  Note the back-and-forth between the G and A tonalities, how the G creates tension and A provides relief:

Bob of Fettercairn  (strathspey, reel)
Bowmore Reel*
Brae Riach  (jig)
Ca’ the Ewes*  (reel)
Cabar Feidh  (march, strathspey, reel)
The Cameronian Rant  (strathspey, reel, jig)
East Wood Cottage  (reel)
Eileen MacDonald  (jig)
The Geese in the Bog  (jig)
John Patterson’s Mare  (jig)
The Night We Had the Goats*  (reel)
The Shaggy Grey Buck  (jig)
The Sheepwife*  (reel)

Closing reminders and tips: Smallpipers and Border pipers, if you find yourself playing a double-tonic tune on a standard A chanter, you can keep your drones tuned to A and alert any accompanists that the tune is “double-tonic”, oscillating between G and A.  And for Highland pipers who find themselves accompanied by a guitar or piano etc, remember you are playing transposing instruments, and that a tune written in the G/A double-tonic will sound in Ab/Bb — or a little sharper — when played on a typical modern set of Highland pipes.

*Parts of these tunes are arguably in E-minor — or E-modal or gapped — a key very closely related to G-Major.

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

Theory Top-Up articles published on Bagpipe.News so far:

  1. Tunes in the key of D-Major
  2. Tunes in the key of A-Mixolydian
  3. Tunes in the key of A-Major
  4. Tunes based on a ‘gapped’ A scale
  5. Tunes based in A-pentatonic major
  6. Tunes in B-minor