Tune Analysis: How To Dissect, Interpret and Categorize Anglo-American, Celtic and English Folk Melodies

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This article should be studied in conjunction with the article Scales and Musical Modes in Celtic, Anglo-American and English Folk Songs


The analysis of folk melodies and scales was widespread amongst the great collectors of the early twentieth century. They were particularly interested in the so-called modes in which traditional music has come down to us, especially the most common modes, Ionian (Major), Mixolydian, Aeolian (Minor), and Dorian. In the twenty-first century, however, tunes analysis is less common, partly because, in the oral tradition, tunes in the major key (Ionian mode) now predominate, and Mixolydian, Aeolian and Dorian melodies are in decline.

The study of harmony can be quite difficult and complicated. In contrast, the analysis of simple folk melodies is considerably easier.

Tune Analysis Step 1: Note the Metre or Time Signature.

The metre, time signature or rhythm of a tune has no relevance to its scale or mode. It is, however, important in comparative studies of the similarities and differences between melodies.

Tune Analysis Step 2: Ascertain Whether the Scale is Authentic, Mainly Authentic with Sub- or Super-Keynotes, or Plagal.

Authentic and plagal scales, like time signatures, have no effect on which notes comprise a scale or mode; but, again like time signatures, they are important when comparing and contrasting different melodies. You will find a fuller explanation in Section 2 of Scales and Musical Modes in Celtic, Anglo-American and English Folk Songs.

In summary, tunes can be divided into two categories according to where the keynote (almost always, in the case of folk songs, the last note) is positioned in relation to the other notes.

In an authentic scale the keynote is at the extreme end (usually but not always at the bottom end) of the scale.

In contrast, plagal scales have a keynote that is positioned about half way between the lowest and highest notes in the scale.

Analysis is complicated, however, because, in Celtic, Anglo-American and English folk song, tunes that present as authentic may have one or more notes that dip below or, more rarely, above the keynote. Such tunes are best categorised as mainly authentic, and such notes are best described as sub-keynotes if they are below the keynote, and super-keynotes if they are above the keynote.

A further complication is that the judgement as to whether a tune is mainly authentic or plagal is subjective and can be difficult to call. In such cases both interpretations should be flagged up.

The folk song collectors of the early twentieth century gave authentic and plagal distinctions little attention, and today they can optionally be excluded from the analysis of folk melodies.

Tune Analysis Step 3: Measure and Note the Tune's Melodic Range or Compass.

The melodic range or compass of a tune is the distance from its lowest to its highest pitch. For example, the version of “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies, O!”, song number 5, pp. 13-16, Cecil J. Sharp (1916) One Hundred English Folk Songs, ranges up from the D above (middle) C to the e above c. This is an octave (6 tones or 12 semitones) plus 1 tone (or 2 semitones), or a total of 7 tones (or 14 semitones).

A tune’s melodic range or compass has no effect on its scale or mode, but it can be important in classifying and comparing tunes, and in the study of tune similarities and differences.

Tune Analysis Step 4: Allocate a Provisional Scale or Mode.

Assume in the first instance that the keynote is the final note of the tune. Ascertain what this note is then count how many sharps or flats there are in the key signature. You can then use this table to allocate a provisional melodic scale or mode:

Key Signatures of the Commoner Folk Song Scales.JPG

The table above is applicable to the vast majority of notations of Celtic, Anglo-American and English folk songs. However, if a song's keynote contains a sharp or flat (if, for example, the key is Bb Major or C# Minor, which is unlikely), or if the mode is Lydian or Locrian (which it almost certainly is not), the table does not apply and you will need to look at a more complete categorisation. You will find these here,File:Tune Analysis Table 1 of 4-Full Unredacted Table of Scales and Modes.pdf here File:Tune Analysis Table 2 of 4-Table of Scales and Modes First Redaction.pdf and hereFile:Tune Analysis Table 3 of 4-Table of Scales and Modes Second Redaction.pdf.

Practical Tip. You can use an abc editor such as EasyABC as an information resource on scales and modes.

Load any abc file that you will into your editor and change the Key (K:) field as required. If, for example, you wish to know the key signature for E Dorian make the Key field K:Edor.

The musical score panel will then display the key signature for E Dorian, which contains two sharps (##).

Similarly: K:Eaeo or K:Emin will bring up a key signature of one sharp (#) for E Aeolian or E minor; K:Emix will display a key signature of three sharps for E Mixolydian; and K:Eion, K:Emaj, or simply K:E will display a key signature of four sharps (####) for E Ionian or E Major. The other scales or modes are rarely used: K:Ephrg (E Phrygian); K:Elyd (E Lydian); and K:Eloc (E Locrian).

Tunes Where the Final Note May Not Be The Keynote.

Sometimes the final note may not be the tonic or keynote but a pickup note or anacrusis. Take, for example, this dance tune, "Oh Hag! You've Killed Me."

Oh Hag.JPG

File:Oh Hag.mid

It has a 7-note heptatonic scale and a key signature containing one sharp. The final note is E, which, if taken as the keynote, would indicate that the tune is E minor/E Aeolian. However, in this case the E is not the keynote but a pickup note or anacrusis which precedes the first downbeat in the next bar of the melody. Such pickup notes are not usually encountered as the final notes in folk songs but they are quite common in dance tunes, which often repeat themselves until it is decided to end the dance. In such cases the penultimate note, that is the note immediately before the final pickup note, should, in the first instance, be taken as the tonic or keynote. In this case the penultimate note is G, which indicates a key of G major/G Ionian. Note that here the anacrusis consists of a single pickup note whereas in other cases it may consist of two or more.

Tune Analysis Step 5: Count the Number of Notes in the Scale, and Analyze Any Gapped Scales.

A full ungapped heptatonic scale has 7 notes and no gaps. A gapped hexatonic scale has 6 notes and one gap. A gapped pentatonic scale has 5 notes and two gaps. Note that when counting the number of notes in the scale notes an octave apart are counted as one note. For example, C (middle C) and C' (upper C) are counted together.

If a tune is gapped further tune analysis is needed. This is because we should not consider gapped scales separately but as full heptatonic scales in which one or two notes are missing.

The various possibilities for the Major/Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian and Minor/Aeolian gapped scales (hexatonic and pentatonic) are listed and explained in Section 6 of Scales and Musical Modes in Celtic, Anglo-American and English Folk Songs and gapped scales can be analysed by reference to that Section.

Tune Analysis Step 6: Analyse The Significance of Any Accidental Sharps, Flats, or Naturals.

It may not be possible to undertake a systematic analysis of all of the accidentals in a folk melody. It may be, for example, that accidental sharps, flats and naturals have been added in error, or randomly, to give a pleasing or interesting sound or dissonance. Where possible, however, accidentals should be analysed and explained. Here are some typical scenarios.

1. To conform with currently fashionable musical theory or practice some modal melodies may have been notated in a conventional major or minor key signature that, without accidentals, cannot accurately notate the melody. For example, a tune that is clearly D Dorian (no sharps or flats in the key signature) may be notated as in the key of D minor, but with all of the B flats naturalised. Or a tune in the key of G Mixolydian may have been notated as in the key of G Ionian/G Major, but with all of the F sharps naturalised.

2. A tune may modulate between different scales or modes. For example, there are quite a number of Ionian/Mixolydian hybrids among Celtic, Anglo-American and English folk song melodies. This is because the Ionian and Mixolydian scales are identical except for the seventh note, which is natural in the Ionian scale and flattened in the Mixolydian scale. Thus the top of the scale ends with a tone and a semitone in the Ionian scale, and a semitone and a tone in the Mixolydian scale.

Such Ionian/Mixolydian hybrids are likely to be notated in the Ionian mode, with a Major key signature, and with some of the sevenths flattened. Thus, for example, an Ionian/Mixolydian hybrid in the key of G Major, with the seventh (the F) sharpened in the key signature, will have some of its notated Fs naturalised.

It is also possible, but less likely, that an Ionian/Mixolydian hybrid is notated in the Mixolydian mode with some of the sevenths sharpened. Thus, for example, an Ionian/Mixolydian hybrid in the key of G Mixolydian, with no sharps or flats in the key signature, will have some of its Fs sharpened.

If an Ionian tune has one or more sharpened fourths (for example F#s in a C Ionian melody) this could be construed as evidence of Lydian influence. This influence, however, if it is there at all, is likely to be ephemeral and fleeting since full Lydian mode tunes are extremely rare in Celtic, Anglo-American and English folk songs.

Other possible modulations are between the Mixolydian mode and the Dorian mode, and between the Dorian mode and the Aeolian mode.

The Mixolydian and Dorian scales are identical except for the third note, which in the Mixolydian mode is natural and in the Dorian mode is flattened. The Mixolydian scale thus has a major third which categorises it as a major scale, whereas the Dorian mode has a minor third, which categorises it as a minor scale. For example, "The Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime," the last song in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs presents as D Mixolydian, but one of the Fs is naturalised so that, at that point, the tune modulates into the Dorian mode. (See the link to the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs below.)

The Dorian and Aeolian scales are identical except for the sixth note, which is sharpened in the Dorian and natural in the Aeolian. For example, it is evidence of Dorian influence if, in an A Aeolian tune, one or more of the Fs is sharpened. Conversely, it is evidence of Aeolian influence if, in a D Dorian tune, one or more the Ds is flattened.

3. Some Aeolian and minor mode melodies may demonstrate the influence of the modern Harmonic and Melodic Minor scales, in which the seventh note, or both the sixth and the seventh notes, of the scale are sharpened.

The Aeolian scale, also known as the Natural Minor scale, has the same notes as its relative Major scale, but the keynote is the sixth note of the Major scale. Thus A Aeolian or A Natural Minor has the same notes as C Major but with A as the keynote, thus:

A Aeolian (natural minor)



The Harmonic Minor scale, also known as the Aeolian #7 scale, has the same notes as the Aeolian or Natural Minor scale with the exception that the seventh note is sharpened, thus:

A Harmonic Minor



The 1.5 tones, or 3 semitones, between the F and the G# are an augmented second.

The Melodic Minor scale differs in its ascent and descent. In its ascent both its sixth and its seventh notes are sharpened, but in its descent both its sixth and its seventh notes are natural; it is thus, in its descent, identical to the descending Aeolian or Natural Minor scale.

A Melodic Minor



Note: For a fuller and more complete explanation of the various minor scales see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minor_scale#Harmonic_minor_scale

The analyst of Celtic, Anglo-American and English folk melodies must therefore watch out for sharpened sixths and sevenths in all minor mode melodies. These are all melodies with a minor third, namely all Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian (rare) and Locrian (virtually unknown) melodies. Having located such sharpened sixths and sevenths, the analyst should attempt to explain them. The usual explanation is that the minor scales commonly found in classical and art music have sometimes influenced traditional and folk melodies, but that the influence tends to be variable, patchy and inconsistent.

Examples of Tune Analysis.

You will find an analysis of the tunes in Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd (1959) the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs here. The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs

Tunes from Cecil Sharp (1916) One Hundred English Folk Songs are analysed here.Cecil J. Sharp (1916) ''One Hundred English Folk Songs''