Modes and Key Signatures    

Ever had trouble trying to figure out what key and mode a tune is in? Is it all rather a bit of a mystery to you? Tah dah! The following tables and directions will help you figure it out! A special thanks to Will Harmon, fiddler/fluter in Montana, who put the first table together for your use (since you, like us, were too lazy to go look it up yourself! *grin*). Jason Amini (a former BASS'er in California, one of our fellow Slowplayer sessions) recently sent us the second table, which is organized for another memorization aid.


Key Signature Home Note
  Major Dorian Mixolydian Minor
0 Sharps C D G A
1 Sharp G A D E
2 Sharps D E A B
3 Sharps A B E F#
4 Sharps E F# B C#
1 Flat F G C D
2 Flats Bb C F G

To determine what mode a tune is in, find the "home" note--the note that the tune wants to resolve to. This home note is the one that you would most likely hold as the last note when you end the tune. It isn't necessarily the last (or first) note in a tune. Also, some tunes resolve to one note in the first part and a different note in another part. It's your call then to decide which part most characterizes the tune.

Then figure out the tune's key signature. When you play the tune, are any notes sharp (F#, C#, or G#)? Are any notes flat (Bb or Eb)? Find the corresponding number of sharps or flats in the table, slide horizontally to your home note, and look at the top of the column for the mode.

For example, Drowsy Maggie always wants to come home to E. When you play the tune, the F is always sharp, and so is the C. So go to 2 Sharps on the left-hand column above, then slide across to E. The mode is dorian.

Some tunes have a note that is both natural and sharp. For example, in Irish music, it's not unusual for a tune with a home note of D to feature both C sharps and C naturals. Trust your ear--are most of the C's sharp, giving the tune an overall major ("happy") sound? Then it's D major (e.g., The Bantry Lasses). Or are there more C naturals--or C naturals dominating key points in the tune-giving it a more somber, "modal" sound? Then it's D mixolydian (e.g., Rakish Paddy). - Will


Key Signature Home Note
  Major Mixolydian Dorian Minor
2 Flats Bb F C G
1 Flat F C G D
0 Sharps C G D A
1 Sharp G D A E
2 Sharps D A E B
3 Sharps A E B F#
4 Sharps E B F# C#

Now the diagonals are all the same "home" note (for example, the highlighted A's). I'm mostly familiar with the major scale, so I just remember the sequence "Major, Mix, Dor, Minor" knowing that in going from one key to the next, I lose one sharp. For example: If I see a home note of "A" with one sharp, I mentally recite: "A Major has 3 sharps -> A Mix 2 sharps -> A Dor has 1 sharp." - Jason

Thanks, gents! Something to remember about keys: if you're a melody player, then, no, you don't really need to know about key or mode. However, you should keep in mind that every melody player stands a pretty good chance of playing with a backer at some point in their playing life; the odds are fairly good that they may not know that much about Irish music, and if you like to have someone playing in the same key as you, it's best to know this sort of thing so you can help out by giving them the key. Personally, I'm terrible at this key thing, but I do realize that it's something I need to learn, at some point.

Also handy to know: often a tune may be in one key during the first part, but in a different key in the second part, or perhaps the tune is all in one key, but the first measure starts off on a different chord from the key's usual chord progression, or...

This is why so many people give up trying to back Irish music. Backing isn't just a matter of learning three or four chords, it's actually rather difficult. All praise to a good backer!


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