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Enter the Transcription Curmudgeon

For over thirty years, my single favorite Irish tune source has been Captain Francis O’Neill’s “1001 Gems — The Dance Music of Ireland”.  I bought my now-tattered copy at Walton’s in Dublin for three pounds and never have I considered my musical money better invested.  Now, by simple virtue of being written down, the tunes in O’Neill’s carry a certain air of authority, and have for over 100 years.  But what I want to point out in this column is what these tunes lack.

O’Neill knew better than to  write down either ornaments or chord accompaniment with his tune settings.  He knew how different a tune could sound from one end of Ireland to the other (or once it had traveled to O’Neill’s adopted Chicago) and how the different traditional instruments of his day had to stretch to accommodate the shapes of tunes within their different structural limitations.

In “1001 Gems” and its compendious companion “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland”, O’Neill gave us over 2850 tunes, all notated more as roadmaps than as hard-and-fast unique versions. Every tune in O’Neill’s can be shifted and massaged and tweaked and stretched this way or that to suit the individual player or session. 

Now I’m itching to get to the prickly point of this column, though I’m trying to figure out a way to present my opinion without sounding like a sourpuss.  The long and the short of it is this:  I want my transcribed tunes stripped down to their essential shapes so I can absorb them and dress them up as my technical ability and stylistic preferences allow.  I don’t want ornaments, bowing suggestions, dynamic marks, and for God’s sake I don’t want chords.

When I’m picking up tunes at a real, live session or from a real, live teacher, of course, the story is entirely different.  Both sides of the teaching-learning dynamic know that the way one musician plays a tune is unique to that person and very likely unique to that particular day.  That’s part of the contract—the learner’s job is to learn the shape of the tune and then doll it up their own way, honoring their source without killing themselves to reproduce every nuance perfectly.

But problems arise when learning from transcriptions, either as old as O’Neill’s or the newer notations and tabs and MIDI files that are increasingly available on the Internet.  What’s the essense of the tune and what’s the ornamental or stylistic icing one spreads on top of it?  Beginners and newcomers to the genre have no way of knowing.  Even experienced players can be foxed if they learn from a written version of a tune, since passing notes, grace notes, even entire passages might have been added on by the person making the transcription.  When this happens, the learner is cheated out of a chance to devise their own setting of the tune and are stuck with someone else’s interposed tastes and decisions, often without even being aware of what’s happened.

Twenty-five years ago it was devilish hard to find a facsimile copy of “O’Neill’s Music of Ireland.”  The only easily-accessible American edition was one edited by a fine American Sligo-style fiddler, who did an admirable job editing the tunes.  But in editing the tunes, he allowed Sligo-style ornaments to be included in the transcriptions.  This is delightful if you happen to be a Sligo-style fiddler, but if you are a mando player hungry to build an Irish repertoire, you can get into trouble and get frustrated when the fancy bits of edited tunes just don’t fall comfortably under the fingers.  (This book is simply an example picked to help express my crankiness today—in fact, it’s a damn fine book and highly useful when used with intelligence and care.)

Far more problematic are the tune versions proliferating on the Internet.  One can never be sure who contrived them, what instrument they might have transcribed from, or how interested they might have been in accuracy or any shreds of regional origin or style.  My students are constantly coming to me with a tune they learned from some website and it’s such a clunky, dumbed-down setting I spend the rest of the day (after presenting them with an alternative) despairing for the future of Irish music and the oral tradition.

Chordal accompaniment is its own sweet nightmare, in my curmudgeonly world.  In past columns I have stressed the notion that there are always multiple ways to chord behind a traditional tune that was composed as a linear melody.  I’ve also gently reminded players that droning against a melody is not only acceptable, but actually built into the Celtic genre since the earliest days of bagpipes.  So whenever a new tune is presented with chords attached, take the chords with all the salt you can stand and get the tune under your fingers and in your head solidly before seeing if the chords make any sense to you and your musical pals.

The tune that started this tirade in the first place was “The Gold Ring” (Jig #12 in “1001 Gems”), which a student heard in a session and then tracked down a godawful Internet version to play for me.  This tune was a favorite of mine from my earliest days of tune collecting, when my stack of Irish LPs wasn’t two inches high.  I learned it from The Boys of the Lough, a quartet of stellar traditionalists who brought in personal slants from Belfast, County Down, Lancashire, and the Shetland Islands.  The Boys’ setting differs in several ways from the O’Neill’s setting, all of which I prefer.  The 7-part jig has been trimmed to five parts.  The third part retains the happy passing F# that O’Neill switched out for an F-natural.  And the fifth part is a lovely little catapult back to the top, jettisoning 32 bars of serviceable but uninspired variations on the theme.

I’ve heard both settings played in sessions and if I’m the one starting the tune, I’ll go with the Boys’ setting.  The F# and F-natural are not happy being played together in the third part, so if a majority of the session players go for one over the other, don’t fight it.  The shape of the tune and the arc through all the parts remains.

Here’s notation for my setting of “The Gold Ring”, courtesy of the vinyl tradition.  In keeping with my tirade above, I offer no ornaments and no chord suggestions.  There are so many ways to go with this tune that you should be able to play it a dozen times through, with obvious differences each time.  Good luck and I’ll be in a much better mood next issue.

Click here for printed tab notation for “The Gold Ring”



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