BB'S HOPEFULLY HELPFUL HARMONY HINTS
for Irish Traditional Musicians
The purpose of the following discussion is to help you, as a backup
player or composer, find appropriate
chords for accompanying Irish tunes or songs. The determination of what
constitutes an appropriate chord is based on the most likely
harmonizations of the accented melody note in the
a five-syllable word meaning "putting a chord to a note"
I've tried to make it as un-technical as possible, but the fullest
understanding of what's going on requires a certain familiarity on your
part with terms like "relative minors" and "scales" (being
familiar with Roman numerals helps too!) If you're not comfortable in
this area, you can skip right to the chord tables.
What follows should not be viewed as a rigid set of rules, but rather
as a guide to what will usually sound best. I have tried to list the
chords by degree of suitability, i.e. the first one listed is
the most likely one to produce the harmonization suitable to the tune
or song. This cannot however be anything more than a suggestion;
your own musical ear (and those of the musicians around you, as you'll
soon find out!) will make the ultimate decision.
Pitch / note / tone
The name for a distinct musical sound of a given vibration. Popularly
used interchangeably with "note" although technically they are not the
same. The term "tone" is used for the same purpose and will
be the one I use in this document.
Step or interval
The distance between two adjoining tones; based on acoustic
concepts too technical to deal with here. The important thing to know
is that our branch of so-called Western music deals in
"whole steps" and "half steps". (I should note here that for
equally technical reasons, the interval from B to C and from E to F
is always a
half-step, regardless of what the alphabet is telling you!)
The tones starting from the "tonic" and working up to the
"octave". There are two kinds of scale (bear with me here): the
diatonic scale (= the "do, re, mi" we all know and love). Contains
eight notes. Example: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C'. the chromatic scale,
which contains twelve notes. Example: C, C#, D,
D#, E, F, G, G#, A, A#, B, C'.
(The purpose of "accidentals" [sharps and flats] is to indicate
half-step alterations in tones - a sharp moves a tone upwards a
half-step, while a flat lowers it.)
Think of it this way:
- If you sit at the piano and play all the white keys starting
C and ending on the next C, you're playing a diatonic scale.
- If you play all the keys - white and black - between the first
second C, you're playing a chromatic scale.
If you play a fiddle, two- or three-row accordion, concertina, keyed
flute, or fretted instrument, you're playing a chromatic instrument
because you can play all the notes of the chromatic scale
(corresponding to the white + black keys on the piano).
However, if you play the wooden flute, whistle or harmonica, you're
playing a diatonic instrument, since most of the "half-steps" necessary
for the chromatic scale are not readily available to you.
(When we talk about "D whistles" we mean whistles designed to play the
D scale. We don't talk about "G fiddles" because fiddles,
as chromatic instruments, can play any scale.)
Since the idea of the seven-note-plus-octave diatonic scale is more
useful to this discussion, any reference to "scale" henceforth will
automatically refer to a "diatonic" scale.
It's important to note that each member of a scale has a corresponding
number called a "scale degree". This enables us to discuss
musical relationships without worrying about the pitches
involved. Scale degrees are usually indicated by Roman numerals, which
also serve as shorthand for the chords built on those
pitches (but we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here).
Scales can be "major" or "minor" depending on the arrangement of the
whole steps and half steps between their pitches. This is pretty
important, so a full explanation will follow later.
Note in the meantime that every major scale has a corresponding
("relative") minor scale that starts on the sixth scale degree (thus A
in the key of C). Not surprisingly, every minor scale
has a "relative major" that starts on the third scale degree (thus C in
the key of A minor). They are called "relative"
because each pair has the same key signature
This is an important relationship in Irish music and helps to make
tunes like "Sailor's Bonnet" (first part in D major, second part in its
"relative" B minor), "Curragh Races" (A
minor - C major), or "Leitrim Fancy" (E minor - G major) sound the way
The best way to describe a "mode" is to think of it as a slightly
altered scale, i.e. one in which the pitches are related in ways that
make the scale not quite major or not quite minor.
This of course is "Music Theory for Dummies" material, but the truth is
that the subject of modes is a complicated one and best left to the
editors of the Harvard
Dictionary of Music
to explain. For the purposes of Irish traditional music, however, the
situation is made bearable by the fact that there are
really only two modes to worry about (and easy enough to understand
once you get past the names): the "mixolydian" mode (a
major scale where the 7th scale degree is alwaysflatted, ex.
natural-G') and the "aeolian" mode (a minor scale where the 6th
scale degree is always
sharped, ex. A - B - C - D - E - F# - G - A).
When Irish musicians talk about "modal" tunes (if they ever do),
are referring to the mixolydian tunes like "Rakish Paddy", "Cook in the
Kitchen", "Fairhaired Boy", and the like,
where most if not all of the accented 7th degree pitches (C in "Paddy",
F in "Cook", G in "Boy") are played a
half-step lower than the key signature would indicate. The sound of a
modal tune is quite distinctive, as the
examples I cited will make clear.
The Aeolian mode is almost the default for Irish traditional tunes. I
can't think offhand of any minor-key tunes that consistently use the
"plain" sixth, i.e. C instead of C# in the key of
E minor, F natural instead of F# in A minor, etc. I'm sure there are
some but they are a distinct minority of the
Not a Chinese gang but a three-note chord built on the notes of the
scale. Every note has its
corresponding triad. Very important, so more on this later.
Another way of saying what scale we'll be using in a particular tune.
If you know that a tune is in the key of D, for example, you can expect
all the C's and F's to be sharp (if you're
reading the music, the tune's key signature will remind you).
"Tonality" is a fancy way of saying "key".
For a backup
player, once you know the key, you know what chords you can expect to
To expedite the learning process, I present here the important keys in
traditional music along with their corresponding key signatures (= the
sharps and flats right after clef at the
beginning of the tune) and relative minors:
|no sharps or flats
Disclaimer: I said at the beginning that I would try to make
discussion as un-technical as possible, but unhappily the concepts,
though important and ultimately helpful, are a little
complex. If you start the following but find yourself getting glazed
eyes, skip it and go on to the next section!
As mentioned earlier, musical convention requires the use of
numerals to describe the relationship between notes (and the triads
built on them) in any scale. Not surprisingly, the
"tonic" (= first note of the scale) is always I.
Example: the classic rock-and-roll chord progression is I - VI - IV -
V, which means in musical shorthand that the chords are built on the
first ("tonic") scale degree, on the sixth, on the fourth,
and on the fifth. In the key of D, these chords would be D, B(minor),
G, and A (why the VI chord is minor will be discussed in
the section on Triads).
The handy aspect of the Roman numeral convention is the fact that the
chord relationships (a/k/a "progressions") remain the same regardless
of key. The R & R I - VI - IV - V progression will
produce the same sound regardless of what the I chord is. Remember: the
Roman numerals are giving you information about the
chord relationships, not the actual chords themselves.
Another example: if you tell somebody that the basic harmony for an
Irish traditional tune in a minor key consists of a I - VII
relationship, that's shorthand for saying "for a tune in E minor, your
secondary chord is D; for a tune in B minor, you'll be hearing a lot of
A; for a tune in Dm, look for C", etc. etc.
Sounds handy, right? In fact it is, and even better it's very simple to
learn how to match notes and numbers to start the whole procedure going.
There are names that go along with the Roman numerals. I list these
names here just in case you come across them somewhere:
scale degree I...................... tonic or root
scale degree IV................... subdominant (ex. D E F# G A
B C# D')
scale degree V.................... dominant (ex. D E F# G A B
scale degree VII.................. leading tone (ex. D E F#
G A B C#
The scale starting on degree VI of a major scale is the "relative
of that scale. (Ex. D E F# G A B C#
The scale starting on degree III of a minor scale is the "relative
of that scale. (Ex. A B C
D E F G A')
"Relative" major/minor scales share the same key signature (per the table a few paragraphs above).
It happens occasionally that a musician has to change the key of a
piece (to enable easier playing on a particular instrument, for
example). This process is referred to as transposing.
Based on the theory (that will be elaborated below) that the pitches in
all major scales bear the same distance relationship to one
another, transposing from one key to another is actually very
Here's the way I do it: I write the numbers 1 to 7 in a column down the
page, put the notes of the original key in the second column, then put
the notes of the new key in the third column.
(Remember to make sure that you insert all the flats or sharps that the
keys require, or else you'll wind up with a really weird
You don't really need the first column - as long as you remember to
match the tonic notes of the old and new keys, the rest of the notes
will more or less take care of themselves.
In the following examples, we'll suppose that we have
 a piece in the key of D major that we want to transpose into the
key of F major
 a piece in the key of E minor that we want to transpose into the
key of A minor
|key of F
This system will work for chords too: in example 1, an F# minor chord
in D will transpose to an A minor chord in F; in example 2, a B minor
chord in E minor will transpose to an E minor
chord in A minor. (It's a lot simpler than it sounds!)
Always remember: when transposing chords, majors transpose to majors
and minors transpose to minors.
This is the time to talk more about "triads", which are the building
blocks of chords in Western music for reasons that go back thousands of
years to the ancient Greeks (who came up with a lot
of concepts still valid today).
A "triad" is a collection of notes that consists of a root, a third,
and a fifth. In Roman numerals, a triad = I - III - V.
Ex. 1: D major triad = I - III - V = D
G A B
Ex. 2: G major triad = I - III - V = G A B
C D E
Since the relationship between the I and the III can change, depending
on whether the scale involved is major or minor,
we can have minor triads too:
Ex. 3: D minor triad = I - III - V = D
Bb C D'
Ex. 4: G minor triad = I - III - V = G
Eb F G'
(Note that you can add the octave pitch to any chord without affecting
it - for chord purposes, it's still considered a "I" even though it's
an octave higher.)
[b] Chords where the third or fifth scale degrees are in the lowest
position (e.g. F# - D - A or A - D - F#) are said to be "inverted". If
III is the lowest tone, the chord is in "first
inversion"; if V is the lowest, it's in "second inversion". But either
way it's still called by its root name (in this case, a D chord).
1. There are chords called "seventh" chords (abbreviated V7 or Vb7)
that have four scale members instead of three: the root, third, fifth,
and the seventh. (Don't confuse a "seventh"
chord - which means a V chord with an added seventh scale tone - with a
VII chord, which is a triad built on the
seventh scale degree [and which fortunately doesn't serve too much of a
purpose in traditional music, so forget you
ever heard about it]).
You don't meet "seventh chords" too often in dance tunes either, but
there are certain places where the melody seems to call for them and
they can sound pleasant when used sparingly. The major seventh is
I - III - V - VIIb (= means that the seventh degree is flatted), while
the minor seventh
I - III - V - VII (= seventh not flatted).
Ex. 5: D7 chord = I - III - V - VIIb = D
F# A C#b [ = C natural]
Ex. 6: A7 chord = I - III - V - VIIb = A
C# E G#b [ = G natural]
Ex. 7: Bm7 chord = I - IIIb - V - VII = B
D F# A
Seventh chords normally serve as "cadence" chords, i.e. the chord at
the end of a tune just before it returns to the tonic. In most major
key dance tunes, the cadence is V -> I (A to D,
D to G, etc.); in minor key tunes, the cadence is VII -> I (D to Em,
G to Am). You never hear a VII7 chord
used in Irish music.
2. "Altered" chords ("diminished" or "augmented" chords) are so rarely
encountered in dance tunes that I won't spend any time on them here.
HARMONIZATION: THE BASICS
[a] Every tone in a scale can serve four functions in a chord:
- as the root : D E F# G A B C#
----------------> major triad D F# A
- as the third: B C# D E F# G A ---------------->
minor triad B D
- as the fifth: G
A B C D E F#
----------------> major triad G B D
- as the seventh: Eb F G Ab Bb C D ---------------> "seventh"
chord Eb G Bb D
This means that in theory at least you can harmonize (= add a chord to)
a melody note D in any of four ways.
But in Irish dance music, the
harmony is not based on individual notes, or your backup players would
go nuts. Imagine playing six chords to the six notes in the first
"Boys of Blue Hill"? Or eight chords to the eight notes in any measure
of "Silver Spear"?
Instead dance music harmony is based on patterns and accents (as well
of course as the note - chord relationship explained above). Working
with these parameters, we can be reasonably
certain that our attempts at harmonization will be, if not 100%
correct, at least headed in the right direction.
[b] The key signature
The first step in analyzing a tune with the goal of harmonizing it
correctly is to make sure we know what key the tune is in, which we can
easily accomplish by checking its key
signature. This knowledge will help us establish a priority of
probabilities as to whether a particular note is likely
to be a tonic/root, a third, a fifth, or a seventh of a particular
For example, let's say we're analyzing a tune in the key of D. This
means that any accented D note we find (see the discussion of Accented
Notes below) has - let's say - a 60% chance
of being the root of a D chord, a 20% chance of being V of a G chord, a
15% chance of being III of a Bm chord, and a
5% chance of being VII of an E7 chord. (These are all bogus percentages
- I'm using them just to give you
an idea what I'm talking about!)
There's also zero chance - given the key signature and the fact that
we're working in a traditional context - that a Bb chord, a G minor
chord, a B diminished chord, or any of the other
chords that contain D will be correct. In this respect our knowing the
key signature not only helps to establish
the probability of what the correct chord will be, it also expedites
the process of elimination so that we get
rid of the "long shots" fairly quickly.
[c] Accented notes
As you already know, Irish dance music is arranged in beats, which in
turn are created by the proper accenting by the musicians of certain
notes in the tune.
A reel, for example, is in 4/4 time, which means that there are four
beats (top figure) of quarter notes (bottom figure) in each measure or
bar of the tune. In reality reels consist primarily
of eighth notes, so the time signature of 4/8 would be closer to the
truth. For a danceable beat to be established,
the musician must stress the accent on notes 1, 3, 5, and 7. In
reels, the accent is fairly even.
The time signature for a jig is 6/8 (= six beats of eighth notes), but
here again it's where the accent goes that makes the difference, and in
jigs the accent is quite clearly on beats 1 and
4. For slip jigs (9/8), there are three accents per measure, on beats
1, 4, and 7. Slides are 12/8 and have four accents per
measure, on beats 1, 4, 7, and 10.
In Chief O'Neill's day, most hornpipes were notated in 2/4 time, but
today these tunes are in 4/4. As with reels, the accent goes on beats
1, 3, 5, and 7, but for dancers, hornpipes require
special emphasis on beats 1 and 5.
Polkas noted in 2/4 have two accents per measure; those notated in 4/4
have four accents.
The relationship of all this accent information to the harmonic aspect
of Irish music is as follows: when the time comes to decide what notes
in a tune you want to consider adding chords to,
you're going to focus on the accented notes only. In fact, you're not
going worry about all of them either, for obvious
reasons: even four chord changes per measure in a reel or a hornpipe
would be too much.
So in those tunes, you'll focus on the notes that correspond to beats 1
and 5; in 6/8 and 9/8 jigs, the notes that correspond to beats 1 and 4
and 1, 4, and 7 respectively; in slides, on
notes in position 1 and 7; in 2/4 polkas, on notes in position 1 and 3.
An arpeggio is basically a chord whose tones are played consecutively
instead of concurrently. If I play piano or accordion or concertina or
guitar, I have the option of playing all the
tones in a chord at the same time, or I can play the tones as separate
notes. Players of other instruments don't have
the first option (double stops on fiddles or banjos notwithstanding),
but certainly have the second.
The melodies in Irish traditional music are heavily based on arpeggios
or "broken" chords, so that examination of the melody structure - the
notes that follow the accented notes
discussed above - will lead us further in the direction of deciding the
For this procedure to be successful, it presumes that the musician
doing the analysis is familiar with the triad structures outlined
above, so that when he sees a series of eighth notes
consisting of GECE he will recognize it as being a broken (arpeggiated)
C major chord (= I: C, III: E, V: G)
This I find is a handy way of figuring out which notes correspond to
which scale steps in any key.
If you really get ambitious, you can throw in the Roman numerals I
mentioned before and get your chords too. I think this is very useful
for us backup players who specialize in chord relationships!
Example, using the D major scale (two sharps - "Silver Spear", "Lark in
|| note D
|| D chord
|| note E
|| Em chord (explanation below)
|| note F#
|| F#m chord (ditto)
|| note G
|| G chord
|| note A
|| A chord
|| note B
|| Bm chord (ditto)
|| note C#
|| don't worry about this one!
When you start out with a major scale, some of the chords that you come
up with - namely, the II, III, and VI - will always be minor chords.
The reasons are pretty technical and have to do with neat stuff like
"triadic intervals", which are interesting but not relevant to what I
want to do here. (Same holds for the VII chord in a major scale.) If
you want to pursue the matter, any basic music theory book from the
library will tell you all you could possibly want to know (and more,
Can you use this procedure with a minor scale? Sure, but the results
come out a little differently!
Example, using the A minor scale (relative to C major, no sharps or
flats - "Sligo Maid", "Cliffs of Moher")
|| Am chord
|| note B
|| incomplete - like a VII in a major
|| note C
|| C major chord
|| note D
|| Dm chord
|| note E
|| Em chord
|| note F
|| F major chord
|| note G
|| G major chord
Notice: when you build harmonies based on a minor scale, the III, VI,
and VII will always be major chords, while I, IV, and V will always be
minor. (In the present discussion, disregard the fact that Irish minor
keys are almost always played with the 6th scale degree sharpened
It's important to understand these relationships because the little
"m's" that we're so familiar with in our chord symbols don't appear
automatically when we build our harmony chart - we have to know when to
be looking for them.
Now that you have all this good theory, let's move on to the tables
I've made up that will I hope assist you in finding the appropriate
chord to harmonize any given note. I realize that the choice of chords
in Irish traditional or any music is in some respects a matter of
taste. However, since my tastes in backup tend to be conservative ones,
I have listed only the chords I consider to be appropriate to the task:
you won't find any 7th chords, augmented or diminished chords,etc.
These are all fine and wonderful harmonies in the context of George
Gershwin or Duke Ellington, but I don't think they have a place in the
harmonic accompaniment of Irish traditional music, and on that basis
you won't find any listed here.
A reminder: the following harmonization suggestions apply to accented
notes (i.e. the notes where the beats fall).
1. Key sig: TWO SHARPS
|| D maj
| B minor
|| D, Bm, G
|| Bm, D, G
|| A, Em
|| A, Em
|| D, Bm, F#m
|| Bm, D, F#m
|| G, Em
|| G, Em
|| D, A, F#m
|| F#m, A, D
|| G, Bm, Em
|| Bm, Em, G
|| A, F#m
|| F#m, A
2. Key sig: ONE SHARP
| G maj
||G, C, Em
||Em, G, C
||G, Em, Bm
||Em, G, Bm
||G, D, Bm
||D, G, Bm
3. Key sig: THREE SHARPS
|| A major
| F# minor
||A, D, F#m
||F#m, A, D
||A, F#m, C#m
||F#m, A, C#m
||A, E, C#m
||E, A, C#m
||D, F#m, Bm
|| F#m, Bm, D
4. Key sig: NO SHARPS OR FLATS
||C, F, Am
|| Am, C, F
||C, Am, Em
|| Am, C, Em
||C, G, Em
||Em, C, G
||F, Am, Dm
||Am, F, Dm
5. Key sig: ONE FLAT
||F, Bb, Dm
||Dm, F, Bb
||F, Dm, Am
||Dm, F, Am
||F, C, Am
||C, F, Am
||Bb, Dm, Gm
||Dm, Gm, Bb
6. GENERAL FORMULA
|| any major = I
|| relative minor = VI
|| minor = I
|| I, IV, VI
||VI, I, IV
||I, IV, VI
|| V, II
|| II, V
|| VII, V
|| I, VI, III
|| VI, I, III
|| I, III, VI
|| IV, II
|| II, IV
||I, V, III
||V, I, III
||I, V, III
|| IV, VI, II
||VI, II, IV
|| IV, VI
|| V, III
|| III, V
|| III, V, VII
The chords are all numbered based on their relationship to the tonic (=
root note) of the major key.
Remember: building from a major scale, the II, III, and VI chords are
always MINOR; building from a minor scale, the III, VI, and VII chords
are always MAJOR. Chords you don't have to worry about (unless you want
to!): VII in major, II in minor.
Everyone even slightly familiar with Irish music knows about "modal"
tunes ("Banish Misfortune" and "Rakish Paddy" are two examples).
a musicologist might understand the word in a broader context than we
do, all we as Irish musicians have to know is that in "modal" tunes
most if not all of the accented 7th-degree-of-the-scale notes in the
tune are flatted (i.e., the C# in the key of D now becomes C natural,
the F# in the key of G now becomes F natural, and so on).
Harmonizing the "flatted" note in "modal" tunes is relatively simple:
use either the chord that has the same name as the note name, or its
key D modal: C# lowered to C natural: use either C or A minor
key G modal: F# lowered to F natural: use either F or D minor
That's basically all there is to it. Again, the choice of chord will
depend on your ear.
The pitches of a major scale are arranged so that the "spaces"
adjoining pitches is as follows (W = whole step, H =
CONSTRUCTION OF SCALES
[a] Major scales
half step) starting at the first pitch: W , W , H , W , W , W , H
Example: D major scale = D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D'
D to E = whole step ; E to F# = whole step; F# to G = half step; G to A
= whole step; A to B = whole step; B to C# =
whole step; C# , D' = half step
E F# G
A B C# D'
---v----v----v----v----v----v-----v---, W W
W W H
Any major scale (i.e., beginning on any tonic note) will be constructed
using exactly the same WWHWWWH relationship.
The relationship is what defines it as a major scale.
[b] Minor scales
The minor scale is defined by a different arrangement of whole
steps: W , H , W , W , H , W , W. The D minor
scale is thus: D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D'.
Notice the difference between the two scales:
major has F# and C#
minor has F (natural) and C (natural), plus Bb instead of B (natural)
I'll use another (crude) graphic to illustrate the relationship of
pitches in a minor key:
E F G
A Bb C D'
W H W W
H W W
Again, this defining relationship applies regardless of what the tonic
(= starting) note is.
As you know, the sounds of major and minor scales are quite different;
the arrangement of whole and half-steps creates an emotional response
in the listener that nobody fully understands (think of the difference
between "Mason's Apron", key A
major, and "Star of Munster", key A
minor, and you'll know what I'm talking about).
[c] "Modal" scales
I mentioned "modes" above and explained (or tried to) how a "modal"
scale is formed. Since so-called modal tunes are not
uncommon in the Irish tradition, let's do the step analysis on the two
modal scales most common in Irish music, namely the
mixolydian mode and the aeolian mode.
Here's the mixolydian mode, characterized by the lowered seventh,
applied to the D major scale:
E F# G A B
---v----v----v----v----v----v-----v---, W W
W H W
And the Aeolian mode, characterized by a sharped sixth, applied to the
A minor scale:
D E F#
W H W W W