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The Shapes of Things

     When I trot out a new Celtic tune for a student, I try to get them to listen through the tune a few times before ever trying to play along. What I want the student to hear is the shape of the tune, which is a very different idea from the melody. In fact, there are some Celtic tunes that I’d swear have no melody at all, though they surely have a shape. Here’s what I mean by shape and why I find it such a useful learning device.

     A Celtic tune’s shape is a combination of the key the tune is in, the mode or scale the tune occupies, the chord progression the tune implies, the underlying rhythm, and finally the notes used to sew all the other elements together. If you try to read a transcribed tune as simply a succession of notes, you will certainly miss the lyricism of the tune and, if it’s a particular "notey" or complicated tune, you will probably find the work both difficult and unsatisfying.

     So back to the idea of absorbing a tune’s shape first. While there are thousands of tunes in the Celtic tradition, there are major constraints holding all these tunes’s possibilities in check, allowing you to get a jump on learning them easily.

     First and simplest is the key a tune is in. Celtic dance tunes are almost all written in only six keys: Am, A, Bm, D, Em and G. When you listen to a new tune, first identify where the tonic is and start physically fingering the scale of that key. The next thing you’ll notice is the scale or mode of tune. Again, you have a mercifully short list of options to choose from: major (or ionian mode), minor (or aeolian mode), dorian mode, or mixolydian mode. Listen first for where the third scale step falls. If the interval between the first and third scale steps is a major third, then your mode is either major or mixolydian, your two happy-sounding scales. If the interval is a minor third, you choose between minor and dorian mode.

     So now that you know the scale, run up and down the scale in first position. Now listen through the tune again and this time listen for implied chord changes. Again, you’ll have a short list of likely options. We’ll leave alternate and jazzy chord opportunities for a future column and stick to the simplest and historically most common choices. In major- or happy-sounding tunes, chances are you can start with nothing more exotic than 1, 4 and 5 chords. In minor- or darker-sounding tunes, you can add a flatted 7 to the 1, 4 and 5 as your best options. There are some popular session tunes that are played with the chordal instruments toggling exclusively between 1 and 7.

     Once you’ve got a good little chord progression going that tracks the tune well, you’ve got a huge amount of information about that tune. Celtic tunes tend to be assembled out of bits of ascending and descending scales and arpeggios running up, down, or every which way. A perfect example is "Tobin’s Jig." Click here for printable notation for the first half to show you how obviously the tune’s arpeggiated shape telegraphs the chords.

     The underlying rhythmic logic is the next thing to focus on consciously. If you’ve puzzled out plausible chords for a tune, you’ve already noticed something about the rhythm. The chords tend to shift on strong pulses. This usually means the 1 beat, whether you’re in 6/8 jig time or 4/4 reel time. Busier chord changes will probably happen at the halfway points in bars; the 4 beat in jigs or the 3 beat in reels. While this might sound obvious, consciously noting how often the implied chords change will speed up your learning the tune accurately, because the chords will almost certainly be touched on by one or more melody notes. And more often than not, whole phrases will be built around nothing more complex than the arpeggios of the chords.

     So now you’ve listened through the tune two or three times and noted different parts of its shape. Now it should be considerably easier to fill in the notes. You now have an idea what register the tune occupies, whether it starts high and runs down, starts low and runs up, or sports one or more repetitive melodic elements.

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