By Tim Cummings
Piping Today #77, 2015.

Having already investigated tunes in the keys of A-Major, D-Major, B-minor, A-Mixolydian, as well as tunes that are pentatonic, “gapped”, and those considered to have a “double-tonic”, we have now covered approximately 90% of the Scottish pipe tune repertoire in this Top-Up series.  

Of the remaining 10% or so, about 1 or 2% involve tunes based on E, and a similar amount are based on A but use a C-natural (as opposed to the usual C# [sharp]).  It would be easy to brush aside these rarely-heard tunes, being so uncommon.  But I think that would be a mistake since they have such a wonderful, alluring quality to them.

Those of you who have been following these articles on theory may recall the basics of what musicians refer to as the “minor” scale.  Put simply, it is a musical scale that has a particular pattern of semitones and whole tones that typically conjures up emotions associated with sadness, forlornness or possibly even depression.  Tunes based upon that scale are also considered to be “minor” and contrast happier, more optimistic “major” keys.  When we Scottish-style pipers play tunes based on B, we are playing in a minor key.  There is a certain darkness to these tunes.

What you may not remember is that there is another, rarer tonality that is mostly minor, but with one major interval in it — the 6th note, or 6th ‘degree’ of the scale.  As a whole, this tonality, or mode, is called Dorian, not to be confused with DeLorean, which is something powered by garbage scraps and once took Michael J. Fox back to the future.

Of all the scales and modes in our music, Dorian is my favourite.  It is mostly minor, mostly forlorn, but with that one major interval, which to me represents a ray of hope, a single beam of sunshine piercing through low, dark clouds.  I try not to think about why I resonate so much with this particular mode but the fact is I can’t get enough of it.  But along with the sadness and ray of hope, it also has a magical, ethereal quality to it, with a little Scandinavian flavouring, perhaps.

As you might have guessed from the top paragraph, there are not many pipe tunes that make use of the Dorian mode.  So let me instead reintroduce to you the well-known English folk song, Scarborough Fair.  I first heard this song on Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits album, and recall my teenage self putting their Scarborough Fair/Canticle track on repeat for disturbingly long stretches of time.

“Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
Remember me to one who lives there,
She once was a true love of mine…”

Everything about the melody is regular ol’ minor until you get to the “-y” of “rosemary”.  At that moment, the major-6th interval is heard.  That’s the ray-of-hope note.  Try singing the song to yourself to see if you can hear that curious note, which occurs only once in each verse, always on the last syllable of “rosemary”.  (If you don’t know the song well enough to sing it, it’s easily googled.)  There are other fairly popular examples of the Dorian mode, but not many.  Those of you who enjoy Miles Davis may want to revisit So What.  Classical music fans, try Vaughan Williams’  Fantasia on Greensleeves, which, incidentally, is based on another traditional English folk song.

E-Dorian scale

On Scottish pipe chanters, when we play tunes based on E, and which use all the notes of the scale, we are automatically producing the Dorian mode as shown in the E-Dorian scale graphic above.

That’s simple enough, but the thing is, there are very, very few of these tunes in our repertoire, no doubt due to the fact that drones tuned to A don’t reinforce the E foundation very well.  Here are the only two fully E-Dorian tunes I know of:

Breton Air  [as recorded by the Manawatu Scottish Pipe Band]

The Owl Swooped Down (quickstep, by the author)

More often, when we play something based in E, we tend to play a ‘gapped’ version of the E scale, meaning that a note is left out.  Normally the unlucky note is the C#, which unfortunately is that crucial ray-of-hope note.  Nonetheless, many accompanists will back these tunes up with chords that include that C#, thus completing the Dorian effect.  Below are some examples of gapped tunes which to many imply the Dorian mode:

Bundle and Go  (6/8 march)

Calanish  (air, by Hamish Moore)

The Calling  (straight hornpipe, by Stewart McKenzie)

Chloe’s Passion  (slip jig, by Dr. Angus MacDonald)

Chrissie Smith’s Jig  (by Duncan Johnstone)

The Delaware Connection  (jig, by Neil Dickie)

The Gael  (jig/march by Dougie MacLean, as recorded by Manawatu)

The Gavotte  (6/8 march, by N. Dickie)

The Little Cascade (reel, by G. S. MacLennan)

Maol Dònaidh / The Fisherman’s Song for Attracting the Seals  (jig)

Tar the House  (crooked reel by Allan MacDonald)

We have another way of producing the Dorian mode.  If we play a tune based on A, and either tape or cross-finger the C# to produce a C-natural (often mistakenly called a C-flat), we are most likely playing in A-Dorian.  Have a look above at the Dorian scale when based on A.

This time the major-6th, the ray-of-hope note, is our standard F#.  Like E-Dorian, A-Dorian is also a rarely heard tonality in our piping circles, but there are a few living specimens, including:

Andy Renwick’s Ferret  (reel, by Gordon Duncan)

As I Was Kissed Yest’reen  (jig, arr. G. Duncan)

Gog & Magog  (jig, by the author)

Sleive Russel  (jig, by H. Moore)

The Torment  (slow air, by H. Moore)

A-Dorian scale

I can’t help but point out that despite Dorian being an ancient mode used centuries ago in plainsong chant, the vast majority of the Dorian tunes in our piping repertoire have been written only in the past 30 years or so.

A few closing tips and reminders: Highland pipers, remember that your instrument is transposing and sounds a little more than a semitone higher than the note you are reading.  Thus, a tune written in E-Dorian (gapped or otherwise) will sound as F-Dorian; and a tune written in A-Dorian will sound as Bb-Dorian.  This information matters particularly if you are playing with other melodic or chord-based instruments.  Smallpipers and Border pipers, if you are playing a tune based on any version of E, you may want to experiment with tuning your drones to E and/or B, if possible.  Drones tuned to the usual A won’t clash terribly against tunes in E, but also won’t sound completely convincing.  For tunes in A-Dorian, however, you should tune your drones to the usual A (and/or E).  For any Dorian tunes, tell your accompanist(s) that the tune in question is “modal” (specifying E or A), and if they really know their stuff, you can impress them with the word “Dorian”.

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
  7. Double Tonic Tunes