This article originally appeared in: Mandolin Magazine, Summer 2001 issue

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.”  Here’s 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.

I encourage students to play their way into a new tune at a comfortable, slow pace, but maintaining the beat and the rhythm.  While I play the tune, the students start by comping on the tonic until they can maintain the rhythmic pulse while running through the simple chord changes.  Then we keep playing while phrases and notes start to make enough sense to pick out.  Often, the ends of phrases are the first to come clear, especially how they resolve to the tonic.  Then, the way the end of a phrase ratchets back into the beginning of the next phrase will become apparent.

I wait until the underlying shape of the tune has been internalized before going back and filling in the notes from start to finish.  I find that this method increases the chance of remembering the tune later and gives a much more complete understanding of the tune, both by itself and how it might work with other tunes.  Tunes in different keys and from different places and times can share underlying shapes and end up working beautifully together in medleys.  You want examples?  I say start thinking about the shapes of the tunes you already know and see how quickly you start making connections!

There are a couple of extremely cool things you’ll discover when you start thinking about the shapes of tunes.  First, you’ll begin to play the tunes with a little more freedom, finding ways to step outside melodically and chordally, because you’ll always know where you are in relation to the tune’s basic shape.  You can indulge in brief flights of fancy, inverting or extending arpeggios, or shifting octaves.  It’s not unlike a jazz musician knowing the “head” of a tune and knowing that all sorts of individual inspiration is allowed if you can just manage to get back to the head in the end.  That level of improvisation is rare in Celtic music, but even a few unexpected notes can spice up a tune, both for you and for your audience.  And operating confidently within the shape, you can be sure that when you step out, you won’t also be stepping on others playing along in the session.

The other cool thing you’ll discover is that you can jettison one aspect of a tune’s shape entirely while the tune stays recognizable.  Obviously, the most common way to do this is to throw out the obvious chords and come up with brand new ones, playing with relative majors and minors, or refusing to resolve to the tonic or a dozen other ideas.

Another aspect you can jettison is the underlying pulse, replacing it with another.  Now, this is rarer and probably for good reason.  It doesn’t always work.  Still, reels can sometimes be turned into jigs and vice versa.  The Irish flute master Cathal McConnell, for example, plays “The Gravel Walks” as a jig.  Over the years I’ve gone a little further in my efforts to spice up tunes.

When I was working with mandolinist Paul Kotapish on arrangements for our recent CD, “Wake the Dead,” we were noodling around on the jig, “The Cliffs of Moher.”  Then, for reasons that remain unclear, we started messing around in a Balkan time signature: 7/4.  “The Cliffs of Moher” just started to unwind under our fingers in 7/4.  The tune felt so natural, yet brand-spanking new, making us grin like idiots as we played it about ten times in a row.  When we stopped, we agreed that the shape of the tune just perfectly lent itself to what amounted to adding one beat per bar, while keeping the melody almost unchanged and leaving the pulse points also mostly intact.            

Here’s “The Cliffs of Moher” (renamed “The Cliffs of Mostar”) as it appears on “Wake the Dead.”  Over the years I’ve indulged in jigs in 7/4 and reels in 10/4.  Whenever I do I’m reminded of how elastic some Celtic tunes can be and how, by acknowledging the shape of a tune and then stretching it carefully in one direction or another, you can breathe new life and enjoyment into it.