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There is no shortage of fiddle tunes. It has been estimated that in the Irish tradition alone there are at least 6,000 tunes currently in circulation. That being the case, why would anyone possibly wish to add to this monumental clutter by creating yet more tunes, of their own composition? And, supposing you can come up with a compelling reason, how would you then go about writing a tune that fits well enough into a style to be recognizable and acceptable to an audience already well versed in traditional music, while at the same time having something sufficiently new and fresh to justify its existence?

In this piece I will outline my approach to tune writing, and also compare notes with one of the tradition’s most prolific and successful contemporary composers, Liz Carroll.


First of all let’s look at some of the possible motivations for writing tunes. For some people, playing the fiddle, or indeed any other instrument, is partly a vehicle for self expression, in which case you are likely to get a great deal more satisfaction and fulfilment if not only the performance, but also the material you play is coming directly from you. If you happen to be a gardener or allotmenteer, you will be aware that a tomato picked direct from your own carefully tended plant will always taste infinitely better than one bought from the supermarket. Not least is the fact that you know exactly where it came from and what went into it. A tune you have written yourself will have its own story, and the memory attached to its inception will stay with you for as long as you play that tune.

So let’s get specific. One good reason for writing a tune might be as a gift to a friend or loved one. For the person who has everything, or from the person who can afford nothing, a tune written specifically for , and named after its recipient, is something valuable indeed- providing of course it sounds half –way decent!

If you are a regular performer, perhaps in a ceilidh band, it may be that you need a very specific type of tune for a particular set. It will probably be of a particular form- maybe a slip jig, a 48 bar reel or a polka. The key will also be important, to fit with the other tunes in the set, and the general feel must also work with the rest of the set. In these circumstances, it may be a difficult task to find just the right tune, and writing your own may well be the answer.

If you are a professional player, or at least are aiming to make a name for yourself, there are many good reasons to write tunes. Firstly it makes it much easier to make your performance distinctive if some of your tunes are unique, rather than coming from the same pool available to everyone. You can tailor your compositions exactly to match your level of technique and stylistic preferences, rather than trawling through hundreds of trad tunes in search of what you need.

And if you are a recording artist, you can collect royalties from your performances and broadcasts. Better still, if other people perform your tunes, you will get royalties from their performances as well.

Now let’s move on to the practicalities of how to write a tune. I asked Liz Carroll about her first attempt.

“I can remember always dabbling with little bits of tunes, whether on the accordion (which I played first) or the fiddle. I know that after taking violin lessons and learning where the notes go on the staff, I used to write these bits out with whole notes. As a result, I have quite a lot of sheets of music paper with whole notes! (I can't decipher them at all now as there are no key signatures, tempos or even bar lines.) But these would have been from when I was nine or ten. I wrote a little paragraph for my album, 'Lost in the Loop', and I still think the sentiment holds true for me: "When I was nine years old, with much ceremony, I sat down and composed a reel. I can remember that this felt very special, different from learning a tune, varying one, or hearing one for the first time. I had a melody that had come to me, and it didn't exist anywhere else. I was at once the first person to hear it, to vary it, to learn it, and ultimately to perform it. I can't tell you how exciting that was!"

Liz Carroll Liz Carroll

I can still remember my own first effort in my early teens, which I proudly took along to my violin teacher. He listened politely and, despite probably having little knowledge of “fiddle” as opposed to violin music, pointed out that 17 bars was not a standard length for a tune, and that it might be a good idea to look at the form of what I was writing. This was indeed sound advice. Those 6,000 Irish tunes may represent an apparently infinite variety of melodic ideas, but they are not random. In the natural world you do not see birds with one wing, fish with three eyes or horses with five legs. Most tunes follow a series of conventional patterns in their structure, phrasing, length, key and so on, and an understanding of this form is an essential part of tune writing, even if you later decide to break with these conventions. This understanding may be instinctive; when you have learned and played hundreds of different tunes, you will automatically gain some understanding of their structure, just as you can learn the basics of a foreign language without necessarily studying the grammar. Alternatively, you can deliberately analyse the structure of conventional tunes. This will give you a short cut to writing something which will sound traditional, and will often provide the key to understanding why a certain phrase in your new tune appears unsatisfactory.

Take a look at one of the simplest tunes in the book- the Irish polka Britches full of Stitches.

The basic structure is something we are all familiar with; an 8 bar A section (repeated), and an 8 Bar B section, again repeated

Now look at the individual bars and phrases. You can think of the tune as a series of questions and answers. If bar 1 (which we an call Q) is the question, then bar 2 is an answer. (A1). We ask the same question again in Bar 3, but get a slightly different answer (A2). In bar 5 we ask the same question yet again, and get the same answer as the first time (A1). We then get a two bar ending phrase (E).

The B section starts with a new question (q), which again has two different answers (a1, and a2). Finally we have the same 2 bar ending (E) as the first section.

This is a common structure. The American tunes Old Joe Clark and Cripple Creek are exactly the same. If you are writing your very first tune, using this template will make it very straightforward. Think of a simple, bold opening bar, and the rest of the tune will virtually write itself. If possible, write it out rather than doing it all in your head; it will make it a lot easier to keep a track of the different elements you are juggling, and will give you a permanent record, rather than leaving it to the chance of your memory.

Liz Carroll told me about her starting points, and her process of writing;

“These days I often decide to sit down and see what I might think of. I also use my phone to record the beginnings of ideas or variations. A lot of times, playing another tune will lead to thoughts of a tune to follow. “

A couple of other points are raised by the tune above. Notice that it is pentatonic, using just five notes. By no means all tunes are like this, but it makes both writing and playing the tune a great deal easier, and it helps greatly in making the tune sound naturally melodic. Also notice that the B section starts on a higher note than the A section. This is almost always the case with Irish tunes, and it is a good rule to follow yourself.

If you’ve never tried writing a tune, now is your chance. By using this template it will probably take you less than five minutes. But how do you know when it’s finished, and when it is, there is another serious question to answer. Is it any good?

“Over the years, anything and everything has happened. I've written a whole tune, with no rewrites, in ten minutes; I've agonized over a tune, with many rewrites and arrows (on paper), and taken a couple of days; I've written the first two parts of a tune and only finished (added the third part) a year later. Once a tune is done, I'm usually happy. However, if I go to record one of my tunes, I'll revisit it for the opportunity to include variations. When I go to record, and the tune is landing in a specific moment in time, I care a lot about the performance and about the listener, and I want things to jump out on each listen to a tune or track.”

As the composer, you are perhaps not the best qualified to judge the quality of your work, but on the other hand, not many of us have friends or relatives either knowledgeable enough or honest enough to give a useful answer. One solution is to simply record it and then take a listen. That way you are freed from the added complication of actually playing the thing, and can concentrate on listening. Another idea is to try and memorise it, both in the short term and the long term. It may be that a few days later, if you try and hum it to yourself when you are away from both your instrument and the written music, you can’t quite remember it, or remember it slightly differently from the original. Often the process of running it through in your head will modify it in a positive way, perhaps ironing out awkward phrases.

There are a few more criteria by which you can judge your handiwork. Does it feel natural as you finger it on your instrument? It may sound great, but if it is unnecessarily difficult to play, you will probably soon ditch it. This is a point that was stressed to me by Liz Carroll;

“ I like composing tunes that feel good on my instrument- that are genuinely fun to play. And I also like a challenge for my fingers and head, a good rhythm, and a strong melody. Aside from the pursuit of these, I don't worry about my tunes sounding like other tunes. An aside: I wrote a tune I named 'Up All Night', that I discovered is very like, in the ups and downs of the tune, 'Pigeon on the Gate'. I enjoy my tune, though, so when I play it I tell the audience that I didn't mean to steal it!”

Is it too predictable? One phrase should lead smoothly and organically into the next, but without some rhythmic, harmonic or melodic element of surprise or tension, your tune will simply sound dull.

Is there anything memorable about it? If you look at half a dozen of your favourite traditional tunes, you may be able to identify in each, one particular feature- a rhythmic phrase, an unusual note or interval, or a certain instrumental technique, which draws you to it. Having identified that feature, it is perfectly possible to incorporate that very idea into your own tune without in any way compromising the integrity of your composition.

Does it follow a mode? This is a big subject in itself, but the pentatonic scale (as we saw in Britches full of stitches), the dorian mode and the mixolydian mode are all tried and tested modifications of the “standard” classical scales which will give a distinctively “traditional” feel to your tune.

Is it easy to put chords to it? If you only ever intend to play it on your own, this may not be relevant, but a simple three or even two chord structure may be as useful as the question-answer template shown above, in terms of providing a reliable framework on which to build your tune. If you are reasonably competent on the guitar, but can’t find chords to fit, it may well be that there is something fundamentally wrong with the melody which needs fixing. For some composers, such as Liz Carroll, the chords are an integral part of a tune:

“I love chords, so I'm ever interested in them. A hunk of the pleasure of writing a tune is sorting out the chords. When I play unaccompanied, I'm forever playing double-stops so that I can let the listener know what I'm hearing. When John Doyle and I would sort through a tune, I have to say that he, as a guitarist, had a lot more ammunition, chord-wise, than me! I would describe the tune, chordally, but he would then expand the world of possibilities. “

Virtually all of the above are simple, practical ideas which will almost certainly result in an acceptable and workmanlike tune. The danger of this approach is that it may come across as a set of rules which must not be broken. It is important to recognize that in fact there are no rules at all. Many traditional tunes are crooked, with odd bar lengths or odd numbers of bars. It may be that the most important thing you want to achieve is to capture a particular mood or feeling, rather than write a tune that you can dance to in a ceilidh. And you must always recognize that, no matter how practical and analytical you try to be about the process of tune writing, there will always still be an element of the totally inexplicable and possibly magic about what separates a good tune from a great one.



(This article first appeared in Living Tradition magazine)


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