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 Post subject: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2019 7:13 am 
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Is there a historical or technical reason why so much Irish music is in D?

I'm trying to write about Irish music for non musicians and trying to explain where the quality of being both exuberant and melancholy, or the feeling often described as "wild," comes from, without being too technical. I'm trying to explain mode vs key. Is there a historicl/technical reason why the key of D?


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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2019 7:58 am 
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I am not sure you can say the 'is' in D (and G and their associated modes/minors). It is a convention to write tunes in D (etc) no matter what the 'home' key of the instrument is but historically speaking the actual pitch of instruments used would often have been set in different keys, pipes anywhere between Bb and Eb, whistles pitched in C etc etc. And there are plenty of examples of fiddleplayers tuning below concert pitch (Junior Crehan, Bobby Casey etc when not playing with fixed pitch instruments would often have their fiddles pitched around C#). Ofcourse you could argue these are examples of using their instruments as transposing instruments.

Issues of where instruments were pitched aside, there is a fair body of tunes set in other keys, by their composers or for effect by the players. Concertinas and fiddles, and to extend accordions too, tend to move around keys more freely than instruments limited in their ranges like pipes, flute and whistle (although I have met and played with a few fluteplayers who didn't blink an eye and played their tunes in C on their flutes to match the pipes). Plenty of examples of concertinas moving tunes between D,G,C and F.

To a point I think it's convenience of notation for the reading classes, notation providing an outline of the tune that may be placed elsewhere if the player so desires. And about finding a common ground to start from for the session playing musicians. But in practice/reality keys can be more fluid than reading books of notations may suggest.

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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2019 8:59 am 
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PB+J wrote:
Is there a historical or technical reason why so much Irish music is in D?

I'd suggest open strings and natural, resonant fiddle keys. Which applies equally to alternative pitch standards.

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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2019 9:47 am 
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I'd suggest open strings and natural, resonant fiddle keys.


Up to a point, at the same it's the fiddlers that are most likely to take tunes away from D (etc) for various reasons. An I don't mean just Tommy Potts and his followers. You'll have to wonder how much of it (sticking to D etc) is down to the pipes (and to an extend flute and whistle) for being more tied to their home keys.

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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2019 10:00 am 
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I've always wondered why tunes are written in other keys than 'C', especially the 'simple' tunes.
A lot of Folk tunes are in 'D', 'G', & even 'A', (the sharp keys), whilst somber & Blues tend to go for 'F', 'Bb', & 'Eb', (the flat keys).
Other keys seem to give a tune certain 'feelings', it would seem.
But, the tin whistle started out as a 'C' instrument, I believe, so it is curious why the 'D' is so prevalent.

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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2019 11:05 am 
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Mr.Gumby wrote:
You'll have to wonder how much of it (sticking to D etc) is down to the pipes (and to an extend flute and whistle) for being more tied to their home keys.

I was thinking perhaps the most common key(s) got established on fiddle then maintained when pipes, flute and whistle became popular, with the prevalence of D whistle and pipes likely driven by the key(s). But also assuming some correlation with the Scottish situation, where our great stack of D and A tunes was undoubtedly fiddle-driven.

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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2019 11:45 am 
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I agree that musicians coming together to play is to an extend a driver to aim for keys shared between the instruments present.


There's however a limited number of tunes in A in Ireland and I have spent enough time in the company of fiddlers like Martin Rochford, Junior Crehan and others to realise fiddlers here deliberately place tunes in flat keys to evoke particular moods, to play the same tune in two, three different keys on different occasions. And if you look at concertina players like Mary MacNamara, Claire Keville and the late Dympna O'Sullivan, among others, you can hear them doing the same on the concertina, placing tunes in keys that suit the occasion or the mood of the tune. It's only when flute players or pipers enter the scene that a more uniform set of keys comes into play.

I don't think there's one clear answer to the question. Other than perhaps, it's handy whiule at the same time there is a lot of straying from the 'regular' keys as well.

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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2019 12:03 pm 
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Mr.Gumby wrote:
There's however a limited number of tunes in A in Ireland

Yes, I was acknowledging that in my reference to Scotland, to which 'our great stack of D and A tunes' was intended to refer.

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It's only when flute players or pipers enter the scene that a more uniform set of keys comes into play.

Again, what I was thinking was perhaps D whistle, pipes and flute became popular for their articulation with established fiddle keys* before becoming significant drivers of these keys for themselves. But that's just informed guesswork...

*Or perhaps equally for their availability and portability, though that doesn't really explain why D for whistle or pipes. (It seems more obvious for flute.)

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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Sat Dec 21, 2019 1:11 pm 
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But weren't baroque flutes more or less in D? The more or less coming from deviation from A440? I don't really know but I assumed D

I don't have any strong evidence for this but I bet the predominance of "C" has to do with pianos. Who cares about Key until you have to start hitting the black keys?


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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Mon Dec 23, 2019 8:18 pm 
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Peter Duggan wrote:
I was thinking perhaps the most common key(s) got established on fiddle then maintained when pipes, flute and whistle became popular, with the prevalence of D whistle and pipes likely driven by the key(s).

I'm thinking it was the other way around, with fiddlers conforming to what the pipes and flutes could manage. Most ITM tunes only use the top three strings of the fiddle, because that's the range of the pipes and flutes that were playing the tunes.

I submit as evidence, a photo of the Irish Music Club of Chicago, with Chief O'Neill fourth from left in the back row. There are a few fiddlers there, but you're looking at a group playing music that sits easily on the Uilleann pipes and flutes in this photo:

http://ptjams.com/mb/img/flutes/Irish-M ... o-1901.jpg


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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Tue Dec 24, 2019 7:33 am 
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I don't think the Chicago music club was very representative for the instrumentation of the Irish music world. So I doubt the value of that photo as evidence of anything other than who attended the CIMC. But obviously fiddleplayers and players of the more key-flexible instruments would adapt to instruments present that are more tied to a particular scale.

I think a case in point would be represented by tunes like The Star of Munster, Eileen Curran, Caisleann an Oir and the Mist covered Mountain. In the presence of fluteplayers or pipers these would be played in Am (dorian, if you prefer) but give fiddleplayers a bit of room to play on their own or with other fiddleplayers and they'll play them in Gm/dorian. And fiddleplayers do tend to dip into their G string a good bit, if you let them pick the tunes.

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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Tue Dec 24, 2019 9:12 am 
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How much could be attributed to the limited range of comfortable finger spread available on flutes/pipes?

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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Tue Dec 24, 2019 12:37 pm 
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Okay, leaving aside the question of how representative the Irish Music Club was, I think the tunes speak for themselves, in being predominately in a range from the flute/whistle/pips D4 note and up from there. Of course, some fiddlers will want to explore the full range of their instrument, not just going below D4 but also using accidentals and modes difficult or impossible to play on pipes, non-keyed flutes and whistles. But the core repertoire of ITM doesn't reflect that.

For example, take a typical list like "Dow's 50 (Actually 60) Essential Tunes." There are only two tunes in that list that drop below D4: "Farewell to Erin" and "King of the Faeries." Every other tune in the list is in the range above D4 (with a few like "Cliffs of Moher" that are in keys aimed at keeping them playable on whistles and flutes). If you did a database scan of tunes at thesession.org, I think you'd find a similar proportion of tunes reaching below D4. There just aren't that many.

To me, this suggests that either the vast majority of tunes were originally composed on the diatonic instruments that could only reach down to D4, or else they were composed by fiddlers who wanted their tunes playable on those instruments. And it's those instruments that made "D" the reference note for the common keys and modes used in the music. Not the fiddle, with all due respect to fiddlers. I live with a fiddler, so I have to be careful making this point. :)


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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Tue Dec 24, 2019 12:59 pm 
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Sorry, you can't base anything about the nature of traditional music on a list of tunes popular on thesession.org.

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 Post subject: Re: Why the key of D?
PostPosted: Tue Dec 24, 2019 3:35 pm 
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Mr.Gumby wrote:
Sorry, you can't base anything about the nature of traditional music on a list of tunes popular on thesession.org.



You can't really base it on anything, as far as I can tell: any generalization brings a counter example.

I do see a lot of D. Yes, not the only key, but a lot of D. Still not sure why. I've attended a fair number of sessions in the US and in Ireland and D rules the day.

Musicians complain about guitar bands being EGAD bands, everything in keys friendly to the guitar. There's an obvious logic to it. But was there some reason Harps should have been in D? Were baroque flutes in D? Its hard to imagine there could have been enough variation in home pitch to make C and D interchangeable.


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