September 7, 2016

A la Mode

Sometimes, you’re trying to put together a set of tunes – some jeels and rigs or a march, strathspey, reel set – and you might be at a loss on how to begin.  You could just slap a few tunes together, and there are many ways to go about this. But for now, let’s think about theory and how knowing a little more about music structure might help us make some better decisions.

First, we are harp players so we’ll already be doing a lot with our hands, so we need to put together tunes that don’t require lever changes (or maybe just a couple but, really we’re going to try for none).

Second, we want the tunes to sound like we put them together on purpose rather than like we were grasping for any tune that would come into our head next to be played.

So, how are we going to use theory to help us out?  Isn’t theory just a bunch of dry, boring, un-understandable blahblahblah that I will never use?  The answer is a resounding – NO!  Learning theory gives you the tools you need to put those tunes together – in a good way, that will make musical sense, will save you some lever changes, that brings your audience along with you – you want all those things!!

What theory lessons would be helpful for putting that set together?  Well, you’re already part of the way there if you really, r-e-a-l-l-y don’t want to make lever changes! Because when you set your levers, you have automatically put the harp into seven different scales – and there’s probably a great tune in one of those seven scales (ok, really there’ll be about a million great tunes in a couple of those scales and possibly none in the others – but…made you look!).

What are these seven scales?  You already know, but you might not know their names.  The first is the scale you think of when you set the levers – no sharps or flats? You’re in C and you know it.  But you’re also in…

Ionian mode (sounds pretty exotic).  If you move everything up one note (start on the D) you’ll be in the Dorian mode.  You know this one, that’s what Scarborough Fair is written in.  Up another and you’re in Phrygian (someone suggested the theme for Dr. Who is an example).  Start on F you’re in Lydian, but being on G and now you’re in Mixolydian – and if you’re playing trad, you’re used to playing here with its “flatted” seventh (the “pipe scale”).  Start on the A and you’re in Aeolian (also known as relative minor or the natural minor) and again if you play trad, you probably know a lot of things in this scale). One more, start on the B and you’re in the Locrian mode which you would probably avoid because it sounds “wrong” to western listeners. 
So, find some tunes that are in Ionian, Dorian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian and you’ll be well on your way to building a set – with no lever changes!*

*there are plenty of other considerations to putting a set together so don’t be surprised as you go along trying this find that the set doesn’t quite work – we’ll talk about other elements to building sets another time – I’ll let you digest this first!

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