Harmony Writing Part Four.

Piping Today #88, 2017.

In part three of this mini-series on Harmony Writing, we looked at the most common basic chords used to accompany Celtic music, in particular Scottish pipe tunes.  A chart of the nine most common chords, most of them consisting of three-note ‘triads’, is again available for your inspection below.  The chart was then used as a reference for determining which chords might best accompany a given tune (specifically the first part of Gordon Duncan’s The High Drive); and in turn, the chords provided immediate clues for a simple but successful harmony line.

This tactic can ultimately be very effective in harmony-writing, but it’s not something learned overnight; so if you can bear with me, I’d like to try a couple more quick examples to help you become more accustomed to this process.  But if at any point you find the whole chord-figuring-out-business too complicated or unpleasant, fear not, you can always ask a favoured accompanist or music theory student to do that task for you, and offer them a cuppa or pint in gratitude.  (Skilled accompanists and music theorists are capable of eating pipe tune chords before their morning tea is ready.)

Without further ado, je vous présente The Korgi (by John Walsh, a reel in the key of A-modal [Mixolydian]).  Take a brief moment to look more closely at the notes featured in each bar, and see which of the chords in our chart best match the notes in those bars:

Ready to place your bets?  

Here’s what I got:  Bar 1 = A-Major chord; Bar 2 = G-Major; Bar 3 = A-Major; Bar 4 = G-Major, then E-minor (or you could combine the two into a four-note chord, the less-common ‘E-minor 7’ chord)

Now let’s construct a very basic harmony line based on the ‘root’ or ‘tonic’ (or bottom note) of each chord:

And just for kicks, let’s try the same with the ‘third’ (middle note) of each chord:

And for giggles, the same again with the ‘fifth’ (top note) of each chord:

Find another piper to try the above with, or record yourself and play along with the recording.  What do you think?  To my ear, all of the above harmony parts are successful, if a little basic.

Now for our second example of the day — something a little less obvious — the second part of Malts on the Optics (by Hamish Moore, a reel in the key of B-minor):

Do your results match mine? Bar 1 = B-minor chord; Bar 2 = B-minor; Bar 3 = B-minor;
Bar 4 = G-Major, then A-Major

If your chords aren’t the same, nae bother.  It’s not only possible, but it is perfectly acceptable for two people to choose different chords for any given tune.  Chord beauty is in the ear of the beholder.  But since I don’t possess the ability to predict what chords you will have chosen, let’s base our initial harmony lines on the above results.

A very basic harmony line based on the root of each chord:

The same with the third:

And with the fifth:

Note how in this tune in particular, a ‘pedal point’ (or drone) harmony is created in the first three bars of the harmony part, by virtue of the fact that the chord is exactly the same throughout those three bars.  By tying all three Bs together — not separating them with grace notes — you will further enhance the pedal point effect.  [If you’ve forgotten about pedal point harmony, please see Theory Top-Up: Harmony Writing (Part 1) in issue #85.]  Also of note, the harmonies featuring the ‘third’ in the above example, happen to produce a simplified version of ‘harmony-of-thirds’ [discussed in Harmony Writing (Part 2), issue #86].

I’d be curious to know how you feel about all of the above harmonies, and even curiouser to know if you’ve already had the notion to mix and match roots, thirds and fifths to make custom harmony lines, and/or add another piper or two for combined harmonies.  If you’ve already begun to think that way, I have good news: you’re ready for the next step in constructing artful harmony parts that I’ll explore in the next article.  (Of course there’s no reason not to venture out on your own in the meantime!)

Finally, let me add that not all tunes are so easy to analyse in terms of chordal accompaniment.  In fact, most are a little less obvious than the examples I have provided.  But this process does get easier and more intuitive the more you do it, not least because so many of our pipe tunes share very similar patterns of chord progressions.  And again, if this is not your favourite exercise, it’s by no means the end of your harmony-writing career.  Feel free to seek out someone to help determine good matching chords from which to base your new harmony part(s).

•Gary West, Ian Duncan, John Mulhearn, Calum MacCrimmon and James Duncan Mackenzie at the Celtic Connections Annual Piping Concert 2023. Photos: JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news

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
  10. Exotic tunes and tunes that change key
  11. Compressing tunes with low F-sharp notes
  12. Compressing tunes with high-B notes
  13. Theory Top-Up Harmonics: an introduction to the mysterious overtones in our music
  14. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 2: continuing the discussion on overtones
  15. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 3: using harmonics to fine-tune our pipes
  16. Theory Top-Up: An introduction to writing harmony for ensembles
  17. Theory Top-Up: writing harmonies of thirds
  18. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 1 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  19. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 2 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)