Melodies as our Guide
I’m always fascinated at the harmony of fiddle tunes. No matter how long I’ve been playing a tune, I still can discover something new about its harmony. As an accompanist, I’m very concerned with following the melody as closely as I can. Tune melodies are based on arpeggios with some passing tones in between. Sometimes parts of the melodies can be ambiguous in terms of the chords implied, but for the most part, the melody is blatantly telling us what chord to use. For this reason, it is very important for accompanists to know the melodies of the tunes as well as what notes are contained in chords.
What I commonly listen for is a choice between the ii and the IV chord in a major key. In the key of A major, the ii chord is B minor (B D F#). The IV chord is D major (D F# A). The ii and the IV chords are easily interchangeable since they share two of the same notes, D and F#. So in many melodic contexts, both chords can work, but sometimes there is a better choice.
Let’s look at the choice between these two chords in first bar of the common jig, Irishman’s Heart to the ladies:
In the second half of the bar we have the notes B A and F#. The D major chord can work in this context- it contains two of the notes in this phrase, A and F#. However, B minor can be heard as more closely following the melody: It contains the root of the chord (B) and the A can be interpreted as an extension of the chord- the minor 7th (a B minor 7th chord contains the notes of B D F# and A). But again, both chords can work and sometimes this boils down to individual preference.
Sometimes instead of following the melody in this way, our ears pull us towards typical harmonic progressions. For example in the climatic parts of a tune, or points of cadence, like middle of a part or just before the end of a part , our ears expect to hear that strong resolution from V chord to the I chord. Sometimes, though the melody can actually spell out a IV chord. For example, in the Irish jig Willie Coleman, we have the following melody in the first part of the B section:
How do we interpret that E at the end of the 4th bar? We usually expect to hear a V chord at the cadence point. Sometimes I hear accompanists play a D chord, sometimes I hear accompanists play an A minor chord to a D chord. This is a typical chord progression known as a ii V. It’s easy to follow that progression since it is so common and so strong. However, if you look at the notes just before the E, you’ll see that they spell a G major chord-G B and D, not A minor. And in terms of the E itself, in my opinion, it suits a C major chord more rather than a D major chord. The note E is not found in the D major chord but it is a chord tone of C major.
So the next time you are wondering what the chords of a tune are, always look at the melody. It never lies!