Scales and Modes in Scottish Traditional Music

Jack Campin


The descriptions of scales in music textbooks oriented towards Western art music usually give a misleading idea of the way they are used in Scottish traditional tunes. There are better accounts, like the "Mode" article in the "New Grove Encyclopaedia of Music" or in some texts on jazz harmony, but these include extra material of no relevance to Scottish idioms. This document is intended to help Scottish traditional musicians undo some of the damage done by high-school music teachers while not taking off into side-issues that are only relevant to jazz or art music. A lot of the ideas here come from the Hungarian musicologists of the early 20th century - Bartok, Kodaly and Lajtha - who were interested in describing folk music in its own right, not just as raw material for professional musicians to recycle.

All the theory here is illustrated by real, and I hope interesting, Scottish traditional music. The examples are a mix of very familiar tunes and little- known music from quite obscure sources, to provide something for everybody. They come from all parts of Scotland, all recorded periods and all genres of Scottish music.

Why would you need to know about scales and modes?

In a global context, the last is by far the most important. Most of the world's traditions of improvisation are based around modal systems: those of India, the Middle East, China, Vietnam or West Africa. All of those musical cultures have a choice of modes to give variety, and players decide on which modes they will improvise in before they start playing; without this, a group performance would be a complete mess.

Scottish music is not very improvisational, and a more important use for the modal system is to produce a coherent sound when it is played by a group, just as it does for the equally pre-composed gamelan music of Indonesia.

Theory and musical reality

Almost all of the world's melodic traditions are built around modes in some way. But they all have different theories about them, and usually for good reason - the theories are meant to achieve practical results. I see theories of modality as aimed in two different directions:

The extreme in the expansive direction is the Persian "radif" system, where there are dozens of modes available to an improviser and a worked-out catalogue of hundreds of ways of moving between them. The better a player you are, the wider-ranging and more imaginative your modulations will be. But it isn't totally free form: knowledge of the system is shared with the audience, and the experience communicated is one of landing somewhere familar by a route they couldn't have anticipated.

Scottish musicians do similar things in planning medleys and programmes. Moving between related but distinct modes gives a feeling of unity in variety which is shared with the audience, even though they couldn't put a name to what they're hearing.

The restrictive direction is the one taken by mediaeval Christian music theorists: the point of the system was to get a church choir to sing in tune, and that was more easily achievable if they didn't hop from one mode to another. (At the extreme, the Syriac church often sticks to the same mode for a month). So the Church got its chants classified by mode. This classification system had a very specific purpose, and there's no reason to suppose it would be useful in any other musical context. Unfortunately it's often presented to Western music students as if it were the only kind of modal system in existence: their reaction is generally "so what?", which is perfectly reasonable if you're not a choir director.

The restrictive idea is still used in Turkish classical music, where it is common to organize an entire concert of music in the same mode. Modulations to other modes will happen, but focusing around a single one means that even a very large group can play subtle microtonal effects in exact unison. In Indian classical music, a single raga can be of concert length, using a single mode which never modulates: there usually a long slow prelude which has the objective of getting the performers in tune and setting up the audience's expectations.

Restrictiveness is also welcomed by people who make or tune musical instruments. If you know in advance which pitches will be called for, and in which combinations, you can make your instrument produce them more accurately and with better sound.

Using the files

I'm going to assume you can handle ABC notation, either by reading it directly, printing it out as staff notation, or getting your computer to play it for you. This document was developed with Phil Taylor's BarFly for the Macintosh. When viewing it with that program, for the most part you'll want to view it in text mode, and with the "Highlight note played" option set: that will let you see exactly what's happening in a tune by animating the playback. As far as I know there is no DOS, Windows or Unix program for ABC that animates either ABC source or staff notation, but most ABC programs should be able to play the examples; they almost all meet the ABC 1.6 standard. (There may be problems with ABC Navigator, which in some versions didn't implement the 1.6 standard for modes correctly - if your ears say there's something wrong when using that program, there probably is).

If you don't know ABC, see the ABC home page for a specification of this notation, software (mostly free or cheap) for processing it and links to archives of music transcribed in it. If you don't want to install anything on your computer, there is a web-based converter at - just paste a complete ABC tune into the box (starting with the X: line, finishing with the blank line at the end) and it'll give you both staff notation and a playable MIDI file.

The ABC must be displayed in a monospaced font. I've laid out the tunes in such a way as to make the structure clear when viewing them as ABC; in some cases, depending on the staff notation software, this will make the music oddly cramped or spread-out when viewed as dots, and you'll need to edit the linebreaks in a copy of the source to make a useful paper version. This goes for BarFly too.

The tempi are sometimes meant to be taken seriously, are sometimes wild guesswork, and I'm not saying which is which. I use the "G:" header field (not used much in ABC files on the web) to mean "genre" - this is often used where other people use the "R:" field, but I find that "R:" has such unpredictable and implementation-dependent effects with Scottish rhythms that it's better avoided entirely.

These pages may only be redistributed complete and unchanged, either in computer-readable or paper forms. In particular, please don't extract these tunes into any other ABC tunes database. Since the point of this document is to analyze them, the copyrighted ones (of which there are several) are covered by the fair-use doctrine; they won't be if you simply re-anthologize them without permission from the copyright holder. This document may be used as a teaching aid for courses, but you have to ask me first, and you can't charge for it.

I've removed most of the articulation and gracenotes from the tunes; the point is to make them as readable as possible in ABC source, and some old software can't handle this detail. If you want the full details and don't have access to a print source, email me.

This has been improved by helpful comments from Laura Conrad, Laurie Griffiths, Henrik Norbeck, Julia Say, Phil Taylor, and Peter Wilton.


Mnemonic Tiny URL for this page:

Jack Campin's Home Page