This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2014 issue
Did you even notice how many of your favorite Irish tunes are in the key of D? How about A minor? With a few thrown in in the key of G, you could play all night long in those keys and never run out of hot session tunes. Now, it’s no bad thing that Irish tunes are written in a comparitively small number of keys. Some key preferences grow out of traditional instruments that either have limited notes (bagpipes) or instruments that need some time and trouble to retune (harps).
I’ll leave musings on the cosmic aspects of different keys to others more schooled in such things. Beethoven chose different keys to evoke different moods and who would argue with him? But we have a Celtic tradition that includes thousands of tunes in the key of D and that can’t be an accident. One theory I’ve considered is that there are phrase shapes that one becomes comfortable with on one’s chosen traditional instrument and these shapes recur and repeat and recombine countless times to create new tunes that are, yes, unique and singular, and yet have a familiar feel and even seem to telegraph where they are going to the musician playing them.
Perhaps some of the ornaments we’ve come to associate with Celtic styles also feel more comfortable in certain keys than in others and so, again, familiarity tends to keep us playing in keys that roll right out from under our fingers. I know from personal experience that after assimilating a hundred or so Irish D jigs and learning to insert ornaments that snapped and popped and made me happy, I was able to learn a new D tune with increasing speed and sure enough the ornaments dropped into appropriate places with very little thought.
And so mandolins, being tuned in fifths, enjoy the luxury of transferring melodic and ornamental shapes from some keys to others. We can move from D down to G and the scales are the same on different courses. The same goes for transposing up to A. But suppose we wanted to be less reflexive and autonomic about our ornaments? Suppose we’d like to learn some more adventurous or surprising variants in the tunes we love to play or new ones that tickle our fancy? How could we do that?
One easy method would be to add some new tunes in brand-new keys to our repertoire. The Scottish aficionados among you already know that B flat and F are particularly delectable fiddle keys, beloved by Scott Skinner and others from the heyday of the strathspey and reel. And “Calliope House”, a session favorite written by bouzouki master Dave Richardson, is in the bright and shiny key of E major, even if most sessions play it in D. If you know it in D, stop reading this immediately and go hack it out in E and see if it isn’t happier up there. We’ll wait.
Okay, but what about the relatively ordinary key of C? In folky circles it’s sometimes called “The People’s Key” and yet it is sorrowfully neglected in Celtic music. Neglected, perhaps, but not unknown, as this issue’s Celtic tune will attest. But before moving on to learning “The Coolea Jig” I have a suggestion.
Pick a D tune you know absolutely solidly. Play it through a couple of times and note the fingerings and where the ornaments go. Now play it in the key of C. This tune you thought you knew so well now has pointy corners and stumbling blocks in it. Keep playing it until you can get it up to your customary session speed. I’m betting a number of things will have happened. You’ll likely be moving your ornaments around or leaving some out. You’ll be smiling at different parts of the tune than before, noting how phrases slide into other phrases, how some easy runs have become challenging and some challenging jumps may be less so.
But most importantly, you’ll be pairing up your fingers and your brain again the way you did when you first learned to play the tune in D. Not only will these revisited synapses get you playing more in the moment, but when you go back and play the tune in D again, it will be in sharper focus and perhaps have something new to say.
The tune this time, “The Coolea Jig”, is a wonderful C major exercise. The shape is all Irish, and yet you’ll really have to think to make your fingers work properly the first few times around. I’ve included a few picked ornaments and a couple of double-stops that will seem counter-intuitive at first. And in four spots you’ll have to flatten your pinky (on octave mandos) or ring finger (on mandolins) to cover the 5th fret on adjacent strings on successive notes. Again, the first few times through, you have to plan ahead to avoid dropping out of the rhythm.
After you’ve tussled with “Coolea” I hope you’ll hunt up some Scott Skinner tunes in B flat and F. And for that matter, you might try transposing some of your favorite tunes to different keys just to improve your dexterity. If “Pinch of Snuff” can cycle through four keys, what might be possible with other session hits? The People’s Key salutes you.