Medleys 2: Compatible Tunes

In the last article we talked about why putting tunes together into medleys is so important to fiddlers. Now let’s take a look at how to put medleys together. What types of tunes go together? Which keys are compatible? What if you want two tunes to go together but they break all the rules?

Which types of tunes go together?

For faster tunes it’s easiest to play two of the same type — jigs with jigs, reels with reels. Jigs and reels both have two beats per measure, so if you want to combine them, keep that beat at the same tempo, and listeners can continue tapping their feet or dancing to the same beat. It’s just that you’ll be playing 3 eighths per beat if a jig, and 4 per beat if a reel. If the new type of tune starts with a simple rhythm, it can be easier to make the transition. For example, if going from reel into a jig, a jig that starts with one or two dotted quarters can simplify the transition. If going from jig to reel, a reel with quarter notes or even a half note in the first measure can help you and listeners get a clear handle on the beats before you draw them into the reel.

Slower tunes are a little different.

People rarely play a string of slow airs. A slow air is either played on its own, or can go into a slightly more upbeat tune, usually not a fast tune, though that could be a special effect if you want to try it. For example, a slow listening air could go into a slow dance tune such as a waltz, or a slow reel. In the Scottish tradition it’s common to go from a slow air into a march, keeping in mind that marches come in all sorts of timings — 6/8, 2/4, 3/4, 4/4. The reason they can fit with a slower tune is that they have a more deliberate beat than a jig or reel.

Strathspeys are Scottish tunes with dotted rhythms that force a strong 4/4 beat. Several strathspeys can be played together but (except when playing for certain Scottish dances) strathspeys always are followed by reels. It’s not uncommon to play one strathspey followed by a string of reels.

Having said all that, of course, there are musicians who play around with putting all sorts of tunes together in unpredictable orders, and get away with it!

What about the mood and range of the tunes?

Think about how you want the mood of your medley to progress. Some like to start slow and mournful, become more forceful, and end breathlessly happy. Others like to focus on the pensive, or play driving tunes that finish forcefully, or meandering tunes that finish without really finishing, as if ending with a question mark.

Notice the range of the tunes you’re putting together. If one finishes near where the next begins, it can be pretty easy to merge them. If one finishes on the G string and other starts on the E string, you have to decide how you want to combine them. See below about “breaking the rules”!

What keys are compatible?

  1. Tunes in the same key — G to G, D to D, etc.
  2. Tunes in minor or major of the same key — A major to A minor, or vice versa, for example. In the old days these were considered the same key, just the third note of the scale is different — high for major and low for minor. An old Scottish book marks A major as “A with # 3d” and A minor as “A with b 3d”.
  3. Tunes with the same key signature — C major and A minor; G major and E minor (1#); F major and D minor (1b); etc.
  4. Tunes where the key signature of the second tune has one more or fewer sharp or flat than the first tune — D major (2#) to G major (1#); F major (1b) to Bb (2b) or C (no sharps or flats). These keys are always a fifth apart. We can go either way, but often moving down a fifth (or up a fourth) sounds a little better.
  5. Go down a fifth or up a fourth but from major to minor. Sounds a bit like the examples in the previous suggestion but the key signatures will look a lot different — D major to G minor; C minor to F major. Never mind that D is 2# and goes to G minor (2b); or that C minor has 3b and goes to F (1b).
  6. Especially when playing solo fiddle (or with a versatile guitarist or pianist), any two tunes can go together if the last note of one can serve as the pickup note to the next, regardless of keys.

What about breaking all the rules?

Go for it! If two tunes don’t really fit any of the suggestions above, you can still find ways to put them together.

One way is to finish the first tune with a cut, with a sudden silence, before launching full force into the next tune. It can have a surprising effect and you can carry listeners along once the second tune gets rolling.

Another way is to write a transition. Either change the ending of the first tune to lead into the second, or add time with extra measures, so you can create transitional music between the two. Sometimes this can be as simple as hanging out on the pickup note for a while, so the listener forgets where you came from. I call this the Beethoven effect! Beethoven sometimes wrote transitions that focused on a few notes that were repeated until you forgot their original context, and then he could take you into a whole new idea.

As I mentioned in the previous article, creating medleys is the fiddler’s canvas. Be creative and have fun with it!

©2019 Ed Pearlman

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