By Tim Cummings
Piping Today #78, 2015.
In this Theory Top-Up series, we have already explored the nine specific musical keys that are most commonly found in our Highland pipe repertoire. My best guess is we’ve covered approximately 95% of our repertoire in this way. There’s not much left but the dregs.
But these dregs aren’t sour, and among them is a small handful of additional musical keys found in our repertoire, including the last remaining specific key that I think is important to know about in our piping world: G-Major (and its derivatives).1
Followers of this series may already be able to make some accurate conclusions about this key, namely that tunes in this key are ones based upon the G-Major scale and its foundational, home-base note of G. Also, you may remember that “major” tunes tend to be associated with brighter, happier, more optimistic feelings and emotions. Since we have both low- and high-Gs available to us, and brighter-sounding tunes often seem like a good idea, it makes sense that we would have some G-Major tunes in our repertoire. But then why do they make up only 1% of our current repertoire?
There are three reasons, I believe. One is that a full and proper G-Major scale requires a C-natural, a note we normally do not play. Our Scottish chanters automatically produce a C# [sharp], a semitone higher than a C-natural, and so in order to be fully immersed in this key, we need some way to change the standard tuning of our C, be it forked-fingering, a big piece of tuning tape, an additional sound hole for the bottom thumb, or clip-on pastilles such as those used by les Bretons.
Another probable hindrance is that our drones are typically tuned to A, a note that is close enough to G to create some dissonance or tension, thus preventing the key of G from ever sounding ‘resolved’. It’s a bit like playing in B-minor with drones tuned to A, but somehow the tension from the G seems to be a bit less palatable. The third reason is a bit more complex, but it has to do with our very particular manner of tuning our pipe chanters — it’s a case of just intonation versus equal temperament, a meaty topic in itself that deserves a separate in-depth article. Suffice to say that tunes in the key of G are a little out of tune with themselves when played on our standard Scottish chanters. This is true even if you don’t use any drones at all.
Some tunes in G get around the C-natural obstacle by avoiding the C altogether. The G scale missing that note could be referred to as a ‘gapped’ scale, much like other gapped scales we have already looked at in previous articles. And then there are also tunes in G that skip the F# in addition to the C, leaving us with a five note, or pentatonic scale. All of these scales could be considered to be ‘major’, with the usual emotional associations that go with major keys.
As with B-minor tunes, tunes in G can be inserted into medleys in such a way as to create some tension. You would probably not want to play an entire set of tunes in G, especially with drones tuned to A; but inserting a G-based tune will create dissonance, and thus build tension. To follow that with a tune in some version of A or D will bring about a pleasing release.
A graphic of the G-Major scale may help you become more familiar with this rare piping key:
Remember that a gapped G-Major scale will not include the C, and a G-Major pentatonic scale will skip both the C and the F#, as indicated by the parentheses.
A sampling of tunes based in some version of G-Major is listed below, and I would urge you to play through as many of these as possible to get a better sense of this key:
(Miss) Ann McKechnie (reel)
The Ballerina Tune (slow reel/air by Ward MacDonald)
The Bowmore Reel
Captain Byng (reel by Nathaniel Gow)
Culcairn’s Strathspey / Fear Chùl Charn / The Maid of Islay (strathspey)
Loch Fyne (reel)
Margaret M. Duncan (2/4 march)
Munlochy Bridge* (strathspey)
Piper’s Hill (2/4 march by Allan J. MacKenzie)
*Some fiddlers consider this tune to be in G [gapped], but it could also be argued that the Scots Guards version is in E-modal [gapped], or conceivably even G/A double-tonic, given that most of us would be playing the tune with drones in A.
In closing, I offer some tips and reminders: Smallpipers and Border pipers, if you find yourself playing a tune that is in G on a standard A chanter, you can keep your drones tuned to A and advise your accompanist(s) that you are playing that tune in G-Major. If you are playing a set of tunes solely in G and have the option to do so, try tuning your drones to G and/or D. (In this scenario you may also want to ‘soften’ [flatten] your chanter’s B a bit with tuning tape.) But if you plan on changing keys at any point in a set of tunes, particularly those based in A, 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 G, will sound closest to the key of A-flat when played on a standard set of Highland pipes.
1. There are a few others, such as the obscure, Middle-Eastern sounding “A-Phrygian dominant” (think Gordon Duncan’s The Belly Dancer), but they are so rarely used, I’m going to let curious readers follow that scent independently.
Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe music. His Theory Top-Up series ran in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.