Theory Top-Up: Exotic tunes and tunes that change key

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By Tim Cummings
Piping Today #79, 2016.

For nearly two years this Theory Top-Up series has been exploring specific musical keys in our piping repertoire.  We’ve covered about 10 different specific keys, and in doing so explored the tonal foundations of perhaps 96% of our repertoire.  So what’s left?  About 3% involve tunes that fully change key partway through the tune, making use of at least two of the keys that have already been discussed in this series.  The remaining 1% or so includes tunes that use extremely rare keys, and tunes that evade capture by a particular label (so far as I can determine).  Let’s have a look at a few examples of all of these.

If you’ve been following this series with any regularity, you may have noted my habit of making food-based analogies.  In my initial delivery of what musical keys are, I served you a bowl of strawberry ice cream: a dish that has multiple ingredients, but one particular flavour stands out above the others — strawberry.  [Our pipe tunes have many different notes in them, but one note tends to stand out as the main deal — that tends to be the general ‘key’ of the tune.]  So to continue with the dessert theme, how would you describe a tune that changes key?  If you’re like me, you might now be thinking about a bowl that has two different scoops of ice cream: strawberry and something else that’s complementary — chocolate perhaps.  You might start eating the strawberry, and then when that’s done, move on to the chocolate.  Or, you might eat some of the strawberry, move on to the chocolate, and then finish with the strawberry at the very end.

Some of our pipe tunes, about 3% by my reckoning, do that sort of thing musically.  The most well-known example may be Skye Boat Song.  This tune starts firmly in the key of D-Major.  It then shifts into B-minor, which happens to be a very complementary key to D-Major, kinda like strawberry to chocolate.  And then the tune returns to the first line, to finish back in the key of D-Major (sometimes even ending on the note D).  This type of key change is distinct from the double-tonic tunes that we looked at in Piping Today issue #76, whereby double-tonic tunes shift back-and-forth between two keys more frequently and in such a way as to make it possible to hear the tune as being based in either G or in A.  In tunes that fully change key, the ‘modulation’ to a different tonality is more complete and settled, and there is no question at the end of each section which key is being presented.


•The large graph above may help readers visualize the approximate frequency of specific musical keys in our Scottish piping repertoire.  The two accompanying graphs below are included to highlight the differences and preferences of individual composer-compilers.  A quick glance at the two shows an apparent bias toward ‘darker’ modal and minor keys in Duncan Johnstone’s collection, contrasted by a much heavier emphasis of ‘happier’ major keys in Neil Dickie’s first collection.

*Percentages determined from a sampling of over 1,000 tunes sourced from Logan’s Complete Tutor for the Highland Bagpipe (1957 ed.), the Scots Guards Collections I & II (1965 & 1986 eds.), P/M Donald MacLeod’s Collection IV (1967?), Neil Dickie’s First Book (1983), Ian & Gordon Duncan’s A Few Tunes (1987), Allan MacDonald’s Moidart Collection: A Cheud Ceud (1989), Hamish Moore’s Rumblin’ Brig (1993), Duncan Johnstone’s His Complete Compositions (>1999?), Allan J. MacKenzie’s Co-chruinneachadh MhicChoinnich I (2000), Timothy Cummings’ An Ift of Efts (2009), and tunes taught by Fin Moore, Iain MacInnes, and Alasdair White at the 2014 Càirdeas [née Vermont Bellowspipe & Fiddle School].  These graphs were prepared for Piping Today magazine by Timothy Cummings (2014).

A list of additional tunes that change key and may be familiar to you are listed below; and as always I urge you to play through as many of these as possible to get a better sense of how these tunes shift keys — and thus moods and emotions — partway through:

The Atholl Highlanders  (6/8 march: A-Major > A-modal [Mixolydian] )
Blow My Chanter  (jig by G.Duncan: A-modal [Dorian] > D-Major)
The Ewe With the Crooked Horn  (strathspey: A-modal [Mix.] > D-Major)
The Ferryman’s Reel  (G-Major [pentatonic] > A-Major [pent.] )
The Goat Herd and Sheepherd  (jig: A-modal [Mix.] > D-Major )
The Idle Jig  (jig by B.Chaisson and E.MacPhee: D-Major > B-minor)
The Jig of Slurs  (jig: D-Major > G-Major)
The Keel Row (strathspey: D-Major > A-modal [Mix.] )
The Road to Lipetsk  (straight hornpipe by S.McKenzie: A-modal [Mix.] > D-Major)
Wise Maid  (reel: D-Major >E-modal [gapped] > D-Major)

Now for the tunes that dwell in exotic realms.  The first one that comes to my mind is Gordon Duncan’s The Bellydancer.  In the tune book, Gordon Duncan’s Tunes (2nd ed.), The Bellydancer is printed with F-flats and B-flats.  Because an F-flats is technically the same note as an E — there is no semitone between an F and an E — a more accurate setting of this tune would instead feature F-naturals, and include C-sharps in the key signature at the beginning of each musical line.  (Remember that when we play our usual C, it is technically a C-sharp.)  All this to say, a tune that is based on A, as The Bellydancer is, and which also utilises a B-flat and F-natural, can be said to be in the key of “A-Phrygian dominant”.  Impressive sounding, huh?  Phrygian dominant scales form the basis of a significant portion of music from the Middle East, hence the title conjuring up an image most of us place in a Middle Eastern context.  Phrygian dominant scales are also not in the least bit part of the traditional Scottish piping repertoire, hence this key, and those listed below, being grouped in the “other” 1% mentioned above.

The Flying Inchworm  (jig by the author: D-modal [Mixolydian])
The New Way to Morpeth (3/2 triple-time hornpipe: B/A double-tonic)
Rob Shear’d in Herst  (3/2 triple-time hornpipe: G-modal [Lydian])

Lastly, in all my digging around of various tune books, I have found a tiny handful of tunes that just seem to not want to dwell in any specific key, or might even seem confused and lacking a ‘centre’.  Or, in the case of Neil Dickie’s Musicwriter’s Block, we have a ‘lament’ that doesn’t contain a single note.  (I’ll let the philosophers decide if that’s actually a musical work or not.)  Several of the more jazzy items found at the back of Hamish Moore’s The Rumblin’ Brig collection stumped me in terms of what key they might be in, other than in the general realm of A.  [Full disclosure: I am no jazz theorist.]  There are even some more standard tunes that also left me scratching my head, Willie Cameron’s quickstep (as recorded by Seudan), for example.  It’s possibly in G-modal [Lydian], and certainly flirts heavily with E-modal [gapped] in the second part; but neither of those keys convince me fully.

Before closing, I’ll offer some of the usual practical tips and reminders: if you are playing with any accompanist(s) and are presenting a tune that changes key, be sure to tell them in advance.  Also, Highland pipers, never forget that you’re playing transposing instruments, and that a tune written in a specific key (or several), will sound a semitone higher.  For example, if you were to play Skye Boat Song with a brass band, for example, they’ll want to know that the tune, when played on a standard set of Highland pipes, will sound in the keys of Eflat-Major and C-minor, probably a bit sharper.  Smallpipers and Border pipers, if you find yourself playing a tune or tune set that changes key, your safest bet is probably to keep your drones tuned to the standard A tuning, muting any baritone or alto drones tuned to something other than A.  Ditto if you’re playing any tunes that seem to shun any labels of any specific key.

So there, at long last, I think we have finished our very in-depth discussion of specific musical keys in our Scottish piping repertoire.  As mentioned in one of my introductory articles on this topic, I believe strongly that having a functional knowledge of musical keys is an extremely worthwhile tool for any piper.  Knowing what keys certain tunes are in, and thus what moods and emotions they convey, and how certain keys interact with the drone (building and releasing tension), will not only help you appreciate your music more, but also help you when playing music with other musicians.  I also believe this knowledge can be used to give competing pipers a genuine advantage when crafting tune sets and medleys.  I have previously quoted Roddy MacLeod in his editorial in issue #62, and I will do it again: “It is not enough just to bolt tunes together because they have the same time signature.  Cognisance has to be taken of the feel and mood of the tunes and how they might work together in terms of technique, flow and key changes and how they can be ordered to build the set to a climax.” [emphasis added]  I couldn’t agree more.

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
  8. Tunes in the Dorian mode
  9. Tunes in G-Major