This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Spring 2001 issue
Anyone who has spent more than twenty minutes at an Irish bar session and is actually paying attention to the music will be struck by how Irish jigs and reels are strung together in medleys. And a good medley can go on for quite a while, winding down only when the session musicians have to rehydrate with another round of Guinness. This combining of tunes is as old as the tradition, made necessary by the combination of long set dances, short tunes, and the limited attention span of the musicians. But some transitions are more seamless and emotionally satisfying than others. Just as individual tunes have shape and personality, there are artful ways to run from one tune into another to give the whole medley a larger shape, perhaps with increased forward momentum or a much-needed energy boost.
So how do you decide what tune to kick into after you get to the end of that one you’re playing? Happily, in Irish music the keys that tunes are written in are limited. With very few exceptions, Irish tunes are in the keys of A, Am, Bm, D, Em, and G. The odds-on favorite keys are D and A, covering between them perhaps half the repertoire. Mixing up keys in a session medley can really spice things up. But before dealing with key changes, let’s start with some more basic considerations.
I’ll mention a few popular sessions tunes below. Most of them can be found in one of the O’Neill’s collections (and if you only have one Irish tune book, you’ll want O’Neill’s). All of them are session favorites and worth learning.
One striking tune transition happens when you pair off two tunes in the same key, but played mostly in different octaves or registers. “Sean Ryan’s Jig,” for instance, is in Am and cascades all the way down to the low G in its looping arpeggiated shape. I like to follow it with “Cliffs of Moher,” also in Am, but starting at the high A on the E string and resonating more in the upper octave than the previous tune does. Suddenly, without playing louder or faster, you’ve added new energy to the medley and off you go.
Next, try moving from major to minor or vice versa within the same key. There are a handful of Dm tunes out there, but your best bet here is in A and Am, with many of the A major tunes either Scottish in origin or with a strong Scottish tang to them. Two old favorite reels that work together well are “Gravel Walks” and “The High Reel.” “Gravel Walks” starts out in a very modal-sounding A with a short internal side excursion to C major before resolving again to A modal. “The High Reel” is a pipe rave tune built around a strong A major arpeggio. It really kicks into a higher gear, no matter where you stick it in a medley, but after an ambiguously modal A tune, it works particularly well.
So, on to key changes. There are really no hard and fast rules about this. It’s best to go with your gut and what gives you that zing of excitement as you make the switch. Tunes in D can shoot into A or G or Am or Em and gain momentum. A couple of popular local jig pairings are “Tobin’s” and “Morrison’s” (D into Em) and “Top of Cork Road” into “Scatter the Mud” (D into Am). Another relatively new addition to the common repertoire is the set “Paddy’s Return” into “Willie Coleman’s” (D into G), two tunes popularized in the 80s by fiddler Kevin Burke.
You don’t always have to take a lower register tune and shift into a higher register tune for dramatic effect. If the first tune has a nice solid resolution with, perhaps, a quarter note at the end of the phrase, you can find a second tune with an equally strong opening phrase and pretty much any key will work. Try “The Silver Spear” into “The Banshee,” for instance. “The Silver Spear” has a nice flat-footed resolution in D, while “The Banshee” takes off with a strong double-stop low octave G and a tune based so strongly on a G arpeggio, the new chordal direction is immediately clear and enticing.
Given all these good options, I was wondering what tunes to transcribe for you here when my bandmate Paul Kotapish worked “The Pinch of Snuff” into a medley we were working on. Ha! said I. A tune that’s a medley all by itself! Perfect.
“The Pinch of Snuff” is well over a hundred years old, in its original 5-part form. It was all in the key of D, including the first two and last three parts given here. But some years ago, Kevin Burke expanded it into a four-level tour de force. In this (much more rockin’) version, it starts out with a pair of parts in D, played in the lower register. It then repeats those same melodic bits in the key of G, going up a 4th. Then it cranks up another whole step into A major. Then it takes it up one last notch to the high D register, where it lingers a little longer in the ninth part in a descending denouement that slides perfectly back into the top of the tune again. Believe me, when this tune gets rolling, you’ll want to play it about ten times in a row, the key changes and energy shifts are so enjoyable.
So check this tune out for what it can do with key changes internally. Then hunt up some of the tunes I mentioned above and see how they work in varioous combinations. There are very few wrong pairings, but with just a little bit of thought and planning, you can use key changes to add a new layer of enjoyment to your tune sessions.