Some Beginning Theory for Old Time Music

Music theory is a HUGE thing. It goes on and on forever – like a web. But on THIS web (site) we will look at the subject in a very limited way.

A few people just have a knack for playing harmony notes and making it sound good. Most of us have to work at it a bit. Many good books are available for either fiddle (and mandolin – the two instruments are tuned alike), guitar or bass which focus much more thoroughly on theory. I suggest that you get such a book and learn to use it. In the mean time, here are a few ideas to get you started.

Tune structure: It will help you to know that most fiddle tunes have two parts – the A part and the B part. These are like the verse and chorus of a singing song. A hoedown is played AABB – and repeated as many times as desired. Some tunes have a third (C) part as well – or even more parts!

Some tunes have a first and second line that are alike except for the ending – then a third line that is very different – then a fourth line which is just like the second. Once you get used to this idea it makes playing along with a tune easier.

About keys:

To begin with, there are two kinds of keys: one of those things on a keyboard instrument that you press down to produce a sound (the keys on a piano for example), or an abstract concept determining whichnotes you will use in a tune.

Look at a piano keyboard if you have one. If you start just to the left of a group of two black keys and play each white key as you move to the right, continuing for eight notes (or until you reach the next white key just to the left of two black keys), you have played a major scale in the key of C. It sounds like the “do re me” part of that song from “The Sound of Music.”

But if you start in another place on the piano keyboard, you’ll have to use one or more black keys to produce that same sound – the major scale. The note you start (and end) on is the name of “the key you are playing in.”

In traditional old time music, the easiest keys are D and G. Then C and A. Most of the old time tunes are in these keys. Many contest style tunes are in more difficult keys (F, Bb, and Eb being common).