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New England Fiddling: About the Music

Choosing Chords for Fiddle Tunes

When I first started learning to play accompaniment for fiddle tunes on the piano, I was under the impression that there was one correct chord choice for each tune. I think this is a fairly common belief among people new to accompaniment, and one that some people continue to believe for a long time. I was aware that occasionally alternatives existed, but I think I felt that choosing chords was a matter of figuring out the best chords to go with a tune, and anything else would likely be in some way incorrect or inferior. It didn't take too long to figure out this wasn't true! I present a discussion of chord choices, and an example of developing a set of chords for a tune.

 

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Regional and Generational Differences

Over time I became aware that in many cases there were multiple ways of accompanying a tune, each of which were valid, and each of which would give the tune a different mood. I also became aware that different musical traditions had sometimes very different approaches to choosing a set of chords.

Major Chords Only. For example, many of the old-time New England piano players played only major chords. (They might make an exception for a very small number of undeniably minor-key tunes.) The fiddlers playing with these accompanists likely didn't play all that many minor-key tunes, but nevertheless this sometimes resulted in interesting combinations. For example, the Ralph Page Trio recorded the tune Rory O'More with Johnny Trombly playing piano (in G rather than A as it's more commonly played today). The melody wasn't all that different from how it's usually played, and most current accompanists for contradancing would probably treat it as going to the relative minor. But  Johnny Trombly stayed on a G chord in the B part, moving to a D chord at the end of each four-measure phrase. Interestingly, it worked pretty well. To this day I run into old-timers in New Hampshire who don't really understand minor chords and stick mainly to major chords.

The use of all or mostly major chords was prevalent in many parts of the country. Old-time Southern guitar players often played only major chords. I've heard that old-time Southern musicians played Coloured Aristocracy with E major chords where we would now play E minor chords, with what were described as "startling results". I can confirm that; I've tried it and the other musicians were at the very least startled; sometimes they've even come to a sudden halt!

Standard Progressions. Many years ago I read on the Fiddle List about old-time accompanists who played standard chord progressions for nearly every tune. For example Jim Kimball (Fiddle List, 3/10/98) discussed a woman born early in the last century who could sight read popular music of her youth very well, but when accompanying her cousin playing square dance tunes always used the same chord progression which he described as an 8-bar I-IV-I-V-I-IV-V-I  progression. Paul Gifford (Fiddle List, 3/10/98) mentioned a standard progression which I've heard referred to as the Michigan Progression although he said he'd heard it in New York as well that he characterized as I-I-V-V-I-IV-V-I. He noted that the IV chords were sometimes dropped. In the key of G, for example, this would be G-G-D-D-G-C-D-G. Some accompanists would use this progression to accompany nearly all tunes.

I have tried the Michigan Progression on a number of tunes, and while not what would generally be considered correct choices these days, it works reasonably well for a goodly variety of tunes - although I wouldn't  think it would make for an interesting evening for the accompanist!

Developing Chord Progressions for a Tune. I have worked out chord progressions for many tunes, but I recently (as I write this on 1-20-19) had an interesting experience developing a chord progression for a tune. Please go to the next page for a discussion with examples.

 

About Fiddle Music: Choosing Chords  Previous Page     |     Next Page   Developing Chord Progressions: An Example

 

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