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Jun 19, 2021 - 3:38:24 AM

banjo roo

Australia

48 posts since 5/12/2010

I feel different keys of old time tunes have a certain theme/structure, but i cant quite put my finger on it. So my question is, if there is one, what are the rules/themes for old time tunes in the keys of A, D and G?

Or another way to ask, if all tunes were transposed into random keys, how would someone unfamiliar with the tune work out what key they would be traditionally played?

I suspect the answer, in part, is informed by the tuning of the fiddle.


Eg. (Not sure if any of the below are true)Melody rarely goes below root note in the key A, and never goes above one octave?Modal tunes almost invariably are in ATunes in Key D often go above an octave, or below the root note?Tunes in key D have more complex melodies than those in key A?Key G..?

Jun 19, 2021 - 5:42:27 AM

4145 posts since 10/13/2005

Not quite sure what you are asking but you are right in that these are FIDDLE tunes and the key is most determined around the most convenient for the fiddle player. Over time banjo players had to figure out how to tune their five string banger to best keep up/play along with the fiddler. Having a much longer fretboard and reach for a lot of notes the banjo player had to come up with some way to play along and the keys you mention are what evolved. Perhaps some fiddle players who are also banjo players can better address your questions. banjered

Jun 19, 2021 - 3:27:02 PM
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5984 posts since 3/11/2006

...if all tunes were transposed into random keys, how would someone unfamiliar with the tune work out what key they would be traditionally played?

By finding the tuning in which the tune best fit on the banjo.  What really comes into play here are the intervals between the strings.  

As an example you might have a tune that fits better in gCGCD than gCGBD by virtue of having an open C string,  thus eliminating the need to fret the string if it was a B.

I suspect the answer, in part, is informed by the tuning of the fiddle.

Yes.  The late, great, Bill Martin, dance caller extraordinaire, once said that "old-time music is fiddle music".  At least that's the way it is these days and has been for a long, long, time.  As such, the fiddle rules the roost, and the banjo needs to work out how to best play along with the fiddle in its chosen key.  Since fiddle tunes were mostly composed on the fiddle, it stands to reason that they lay well on that instrument.  That said, OT fiddlers can also employ various tunings.

For the most part, when you are working out a banjo setting of a fiddle tune, use these tunings as a starting point:

Key of D:  gCGCD capo2  (aDADE)

Key of G: gDGBD

Key of A: gDGBD capo2 (aEAC#E)

Key of A Modal: gDGCD capo2 (aEADE)

 

As for the banjo literature of the 19th century,  In 1851, Gumbo Chaff's manual gives the tuning for the banjo as cFCEG.  Briggs, 1855 gives dGDF#A.  Rice 1858 gives eAEG#B, and in the 1880's Baur arrives at the modern day pitch standard of gCGBD.  You'll note that the intervals between the strings in all four tunings are the same, and so in effect the same tuning, only pitched increasingly higher.

Of course pitch standard, that is, A=440, was and has been variable depending on location and era.  Again, the real determinant is intervals between the strings.

In the 1860's, th gDGBD interval scheme appeared, and in the minstrel and later classic literature the gCGBD and gDGBD tuning schemes were pretty much it.  A "folk" tradition, if you will, most assuredly ran concurrently with the popular banjo tradition, and likely included othr variant tunings, some of which we might surmise have survived today in the OT banjo tradition.  The problem is that while there is a good amount of documentation for the popular tradition, the folk tradition was typically an oral tradition and was not well documented.

I don't know that any of the forgoing answers your question, but hopefully some of it is of use.

Jun 20, 2021 - 6:55:06 AM

10966 posts since 4/23/2004

I've been exploring fiddle music for the viola lately. If you play in key with the viola, at least the high sections generally get transposed down an octave.

Alternatively, one can transpose the whole piece down a 5th, playing the tune in a different key but using the fiddle fingering.

The fiddle fingering is almost always easier to play...but of course the key change means you're a solo act.

I haven't noticed any difference in the feel of the pieces due to key change. In the classical world several composers ascribed specific emotional qualities to different keys.

Jun 20, 2021 - 2:47:59 PM

banjo roo

Australia

48 posts since 5/12/2010

This is taking a bit if a tangent to my query, but interesting nonetheless. I love playing songs in key of A with double A tuning (dble C tuned down, using a long neck). Several reasons, 1) I like the low tones, 2) I can play easily in two octaves, or A/B part in different octaves for variation, 3) it provides contrast, and 3) the open 2nd string in open A tuning really grates on me and always sounds out of tune (i think because of Equal Temperament, which is another topic altogether)

Jun 20, 2021 - 6:30:19 PM

3162 posts since 10/17/2009

quote:
Originally posted by banjo roo

I feel different keys of old time tunes have a certain theme/structure, but i cant quite put my finger on it. So my question is, if there is one, what are the rules/themes for old time tunes in the keys of A, D and G?

Or another way to ask, if all tunes were transposed into random keys, how would someone unfamiliar with the tune work out what key they would be traditionally played?

I suspect the answer, in part, is informed by the tuning of the fiddle.


Eg. (Not sure if any of the below are true)Melody rarely goes below root note in the key A, and never goes above one octave?Modal tunes almost invariably are in ATunes in Key D often go above an octave, or below the root note?Tunes in key D have more complex melodies than those in key A?Key G..?


As others mentioned, key and tuning layout affects aspects about the playability and flow...(both hands)... often involving taking advantage of use of open strings; hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, drop thumbs. Similarly fiddle, key/tuning affects bowing, slurs, drones, rocking, unisons... flow. 

But to address other questions:

Modal tunes almost invariably are in ATunes

Yes, on the fiddle (at least in OT), most often will be A (mixolydian, dorian or aeolian). But there are many in D, as well as some in G, or E.

Melody rarely goes below root note in the key A, and never goes above one octave?...

...in Key D often go above an octave

While there are some fiddle tunes fit in one octave, on the fiddle...  the open A string up to a or b on e string. Makes for D tunes that go from fifth below, to fifth/sixth above; tonic in the middle of range, fifths at ends. Makes for A tunes would go from tonic to octave/second; tonic at ends/fifth in middle.

More common in traditional tunes are about an octave and half (+ one or two steps). Common of tunes in D (or C) go from tonic to a fifth/sixth above; lower D up to a or b. Similarly more common in tunes in key of G and A go from down to the fifth below tonic, up to a second (E to b in key of A) or third (D to b in key of G).

All these tunes all become friendly with typical banjo tunings range.

Not to say though that there of course are many tunes (or parts) that go lower on the fiddle in any of those keys; and cover 2 octave + range, dropping down to low A or G note and up to a or b. Often don't sit as well on banjo, generally requires banjo to somehow shift octave for part.

Tunes in key D have more complex melodies than those in key A?Key G..?

No. If anything the both keys of D (and A) might lend themselves to more open drone and simple pentatonic drive... where as G or C might seem less so, so favor a bit more diatonic, and notey. But plenty of plenty of A tunes can be as complex; plenty of G or C tunes can be driving pentatonic and quite simple.

Jun 21, 2021 - 7:20:14 AM
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carlb

USA

2267 posts since 12/16/2007

quote:
Originally posted by banjo roo

3) the open 2nd string in open A tuning really grates on me and always sounds out of tune (i think because of Equal Temperament, which is another topic altogether)


It may be because of the bridge placement. If you play the harmonic at the 12th fret and then press the string down on the 12 fret the notes should be the same. If the note is too sharp then the bridge needs to be moved back. You should check this with all strings. My bridge is angled and this allows for in tune fretting of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd strings as you play up the neck. The 4th string is a bit off, but I don't play this string up the neck. Some bridge makers have made bridges (what I call broken bridges) that have the 3rd string a bit longer (bridge locate is a bit more toward the tailpiece) while the 1st, 2nd and 4th all have the same string length.

Jun 22, 2021 - 5:09:39 AM

126 posts since 10/26/2018

Not sure if this is what you meant, but tunes typically called "C tunes" do indeed have a flavor. Often the melodies are similar in structure from one tune to another and, to my ear, stand out as C fingerings on the fiddle.

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