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Which keys would you say are most common for Celtic music. I think D is one of them- any others?
The fiddle keys
D,G, A, C, very occasionally F or Bb, and of course the relative minors.
I think of it this way:
The keys with one sharp: G major, D mixolydian, E minor and A dorian.
The keys with two sharps: D major, A mixolydian, B minor, E Dorian.
I have played in Bb, F and their relatives (G minor and D minor), though not often.
These are the most common, especially in seisiúns because they are the keys that are easiest (or is that possible?) for the flute, whistle and pipes.
OK, I think I wasn't as clear as I wanted to be.
The one sharp and two sharp keys are most common.
The one and two FLAT keys (F and Bb etc.) are less common for the reasons stated in my last post.
So what about the key of C? From a piano background that was easiest - but not considered so with strings?
C was once quite common. Many older sets of uilleann pipes had C chanters (or even B or Bb), for example. Tunes that are nowadays played in D, G, A etc. would have been played in C, F, G on those instruments.
This would go back to a time when the music was primarily solo, rather than ensemble-based. Over time, as musicians began playing together more, and with the introduction of fixed pitch instruments such as accordions, D (and G, A etc.) became the norm. There were still occasional tunes in keys like C and F (for example, one of the famous O'Neill collections has a slip jig in F called "The Road to Athlone" - I remember being surprised when I came across it years ago), but I'd imagine these would have been primarily the preserve of more "key-versatile" instruments like the fiddle; or maybe they were collected from players who just happened to be playing a tuned-down instrument, like a C-chanter set of pipes, I don't know.
There are pockets of the tradition (like East Clare / East Galway) that would feature more of the "lower keys" like C and F, again primarily fiddle-based.
In more recent times, I've noticed a lot of younger players are learning to play in a wider range of keys than before. This is down to many factors - outside influences, better quality of instruments, increasing level of technical ability and so on. So, for example, you can get a flute player with D-flute playing in C, something that you may not have found so often, if at all, 30 years ago.
For Celtic music, it isn't a matter of C having no flats or sharps but that D and G are much easier to accomodate on the wind instruments. On mando, for instance, C, D, G and A are not that different PHYSICALLY. For beginners, C may be easier to sight read in -- but otherwise they aren't that different.
But, on the tinwhistle, there are six holes and if they are uncovered one at a time from the bottom up, you get a D major scale - D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D. (With different tonal centers these pitches also constitute E dorian, G mixolydian and B minor). The C natural required to play in G and its relatives involves either a half hole or a forked fingering (skipping rather than going in order). Half holes can be tricky to accomodate in tune and forked fingerings are relatively counterintuitive. Most players learn to accomodate the C natural but other accidentals such as the F natural are not as commonly done.
Now whistle players can buy whistles in other keys and often will carry several. Many whistles are well below $20 a piece. Flutes (several hundred $) and Uilleann Pipes ($3000 -$5000) on the other hand are more expensive and a player will generally be expected to have only one. I don't think the pipes are made in other keys anyway.
So the bottom line for a mandolinist is that if you want to play with others, you will probably be in the one sharp and two sharp keys most of the time. Most writers on Irish music will refer to the key of D (and its relatives) as "concert key".
Jus another random thought on keys and ease of playing. I was once commissioned to compose a piece for the marimba. I was asked to make it easy to sight read and prepare (there wasn't much rehearsal time before the performance. I asked what would constitute "easy" on the marimba and was told that C major is one of the most difficult keys because, with the bars set up like piano keys, the natural tones were further away from the music than the sharps and flats and there was no direct physical contact with the instrument. Evidently, marimba players find it much easier to play in Db than in C. I ended up writing a piece in Eb minor for him.
Wow, thanks for the informative replies. The reason I asked is that, as a beginner I want to put my initial energies into learning the scales and chords that is mostly used in Celtic. I have been drilling myself in C,G,D and A for the past couple of months. I guess the extra practice is never a waste...
Two other questions:
What about Old-Timey music- does mandolin playing in that genre also focus on certain keys because of the other ensemble instruments?
You mentioned the flute as an ensemble instrument that may limit the keys that the group plays in. I thought the flute was more versatile than a tin whistle and could play in any key easily. Doesn't it have all the note holes?
Irish Flute (Wood or Poly) does not Bohem Flute (silver) does (Bohem flute is the flute you would see in a symphony or a like) Irish flute is fingered like a D whistle but is an octave lower than a standard D whistle (they do make low whistles quite haunting sound) there are keyed Irish Flutes which can play in all keys. Since Ol time is based on ITM I would assume the keys would be the same. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif
As a caveat to my previous reply, I've just realised that the original question related to Celtic music in general, and my reply was based solely on Irish music. I don't know enough about the other strands of Celtic music (to my shame) to comment usefully on them.
Shetland tunes which the fiddle is the main instrument(not whistle/flute) can be in a whole raft of keys (even Eb and Bb), but the most common key is Amaj, quite a few tunes are also in E http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/rock.gif