Scales, modes & key signatures

In written music a key signature at the beginning of the notation tells you which notes are to be played sharp or flat. The diagram below shows the signature for 2 sharps. The # symbols indicating which notes are to be played sharp are placed on the top staff line for F sharp and in the appropriate space between lines for C sharp.

Most tunes sound unfinished until they come to rest on a homing note which is known as the key note or final. As the name suggests the final is usually the last note at the end of the tune, though some tunes (Glorishers is a good example) are designed to be repeated several times and sound unfinished until a final note is added at the end of the last repeat.

Before playing a tune it is helpful to first play the notes of the tune as a scale, rearranging them into an ascending and descending order starting and finishing with the key note or final. To do this look at the key signature, identify the final of the tune, and then play the appropriate scale.

Playing the scale of a tune accustoms your fingers to the correct spacings and also establishes the mode of a tune. Modes are given Greek names and there are four modes commonly used in fiddle music: Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian and Aeolian. Each has its own character depending on the position of the semitones in the scale. To appreciate these differences refer to this fingering chart for scales with two sharps and play the following two scales:

1 D major - Ionian (often used for dance tunes),

begin playing the scale on the open D string

2 E Dorian (with a more wistful or sad character),

begin with the 1st finger E on the D string

Later you can explore the other two scales from this diagram
A mixolydian (a common bagpipe scale), and
B Aeolian (another minor scale with a more sombre character).

You can do the same for other key signatures by referring to the fingering chart reference page.

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