Modes or Tastes and William Dixon – again. What’s in a word?

With them rose
A forest huge of spears; and thronging helms
Appear’d and serried shields in thick array
Of depth immeasurable: anon they move
In perfect phalanx to the Dorian mood
Of flutes and soft recorders; such as rais’d
To heighth of noblest temper heroes old
Arming to battle,  and instead of rage
Deliberate valour breath’d….
John Milton  Paradise Lost,  bk 1, (1674).

Peter Stewart’s comments on my blog “William Dixon revisited” in his editorial to the latest issue of Common Stock (December 2016) have caused me to think hard about the labels we apply to melodic structures.  He recommends for instance that we use the term ‘Taste’ – preferred by Joseph MacDonald in his manuscript A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe in preference to my use of the term ‘Mode’.  So what’s in a word?

This word is an English equivalent of the Scottish Gaelic word blas, which also translates as ‘savour’ or ‘flavour.’  It comes, one source tells us, from Old Irish mlas which in turn has much older Indo-European roots.  MacDonald was probably serving in India at the time when he penned his manuscript and as a musician he was likely to have come across the etymologically related Sanskrit word  rasa, similarly meaning ‘juice, essence, flavour’ which is applied by Indian classical musicians and dancers  to describe the  aesthetic mood,  or flavour of items in their repertories.  Eight rasa are identified in the  in the ancient Hindu text known as the Natyasastra:   love,  heroism, disgust, anger,  mirth,  terror,  compassion and wonder (and later a ninth taste – peace – was also added to this list). (see R. Widdess, article Rasa in Grove’s Dictionary).

Unfortunately Joseph MacDonald was vague about tastes when writing about the pibroch repertory, sometimes using the words ‘Key’ and ‘Style’ as equivalent to ‘Taste’. But he also mentions two ‘Keys’ which he called ‘A sharp’ and ‘G sharp’ (which I interpret as meaning A major and G major respectively).  He gave some examples of tastes or styles for laments,  two examples of a key for ‘martial marches’ and some examples of the taste for ‘rural pieces’. I won’t discuss all of them.

Here is the opening two bars of his first example – ‘A Sharp’; it is widely known as Donald Gruamach’s March.  He wrote  that such  melodies are based mainly around the four notes A, C, E and high A and  are suitable for ‘martial marches’.


Of a second example (below) of a “Species of A sharp where C and G are  singularly  applied”, he remarked, “there is no style more martial than this; when this March is well played it certainly is martial. The contrasts of G & D join’d by A & C  makes  the boldness and singularity of the Style…”.  Colin Campbell  called this pibroch Thanig Gorrie (‘Here comes Gorrie”) suggesting that it might indeed be a battle march. But a later source called it the Lament for the Viscount of Dundee).  Could this also be a ‘taste’ for a lament?  Or is this just another example of the unreliability of the varying titles applied to pibrochs over the centuries?


Whichever it may be,  it appears from this example that closely juxtaposed contrasts between G major  sonority (as in bar 1)  and A major sonority  (bar 2), all accompanied by an A drone create a specific taste.

He cites a number of Laments and some appear to overlap with  what he called “rural pieces”.  The well-known Lament for Donald of Laggan (shown below) is headed “Another Key for Rural Pieces & Laments”, about which  he remarked, “The force of this Style or Taste lying on the four notes A, B F and D is well adopted for rural ideas. it inclines by the Taste towards D Sharp [D major] and with this peculiarity that it wholly excludes C and seldom or ever meddles with the Lowest Note [G] as you can see by the Taste and Order of the Notes”.


The above two examples are about the closest he came to identifying the characteristics of individual tastes.  The laments he discussed all seem to make much use of phrases containing G, B and D:  in other words a G sonority is established that highlights the comparative dissonance created as these phrases are sounded against presumably an A drone.

In conclusion he added, “Of these Tastes or species of Keys more might be noted down but these being the principal they shall suffice”.  Wisely he had  relied on notations of the opening bars of selected pieces rather than words to try to illustrate the various flavours.  But those examples are not enough.  One would need to  embark on a major exercise, analysing many more from the known repertory of over 300 pibrochs in terms of their melodic content, in order to build on MacDonald’s  explanations and identify more precisely a range of different tastes and their musical characteristics.  Were that to be a successful exercise,  it might then be dangerous to assume that just because the results characterise the pibroch repertory  the same conclusions can be applied to all genres of bagpipe music.

So what about ‘Mode’?
English dictionaries give it as the equivalent of ‘mood’, ‘style’, ‘fashion’ – surely much the same as ‘taste’. The term mode has long been used to specify certain classes of melodies and in the time of the Greek philosopher Plato (c 250BC), ‘mode’ was applied to general musical style, including instrumentation. It is this view on mode which Milton was referencing in my leading quote from Paradise Lost. For Plato, the Dorian mode was one that expressed disciplined valour.  The trouble is that the labels Dorian, Ionian, Lydian, etc.   which are often attached  to ‘mode’ have,  over the centuries,  changed their meaning with regard to pitch content several times since Plato discussed them. As a result most scholars of Anglo-American song have today abandoned these archaic terms.

I need stress that any such terms are not prescriptive rules, but just handy descriptive labels that tell one a little about the pitch content of a melody. It is less confusing when identifying a complex of musical pitches in a melody to use the descriptive label ‘C-mode’ rather than ‘Ionian mode’ for any seven-pitch melody containing the seven notes of the European diatonic scale (the white notes of the piano keyboard) providing one is able to say that the home note (or tonic) is C. The same seven notes used in relation to a recognisably different tonic give a different taste or mood because the position of the semitones in the scale will have changed: an ascending scale extracted from a C-mode tune begins with the intervals  –  tone,  tone,  semitone,  tone etc. – while the same notes in the F- mode (labelled Lydian by Matt Seattle with regard to parts of William Dixon’s tune Doringtown)  will begin with the ascending intervals  – tone,  tone,  tone,  semitone etc. . This F-mode has a very different ‘taste’ and is a rare one with regard to lowland Scottish music, or indeed all Anglo-American ‘folk’ music. This difference in taste is even more noticeable if a tonic drone is sounding with the melody as with bagpipe music.

However,  problems arise.  Can we always be sure which is the ‘home’ – or tonic – note,  or if indeed there is only one?  Previously some scholars claimed that the final note of a piece of music was a reliable indicator of the tonic (it works for Mozart’s symphonies): but this ignores the fact that many Scottish and English tunes are cyclical, where there is no final resting note.  Though it may be abundantly clear when listening to a tune which is the tonic or home note, it need not be the last note of a tune.  More rarely, some tunes which are not cyclical may also come to rest on a note other than the tonic.  How many who have danced to a Scottish dance band or to an early music consort, have performed a ‘reverence’ (paid one’s respect) to  one’s partner  at the close of a dance to the firm sound of a ‘tonic chord’ sounded by the band, even though the tonic note was not the ‘last’ note of the tune? I have often.

Thirdly,  there is sometimes a question of modal ambiguity. Take for instance  the following Scottish Gaeelic song of an exile,  ’S fad tha mi ’m ònaran (Long have I been alone) (no. 114 in the Elizabeth Ross manuscript). Can one easily decide what ‘key’ it is in? Is it A, or is it the related minor key F# ? An accompanying A drone might help one call it an A-major tune and it is true (not only of Gaelic melody) that using the note F# above a tonic A gives a subjective feeling of unrest, not so much dissonance as a kind of longing or incompleteness, a need to move somewhere more restful such as down a step to E.  In the case of this song, the refrain also ends firmly enough on low F# and this pitch also occurs in a number of structurally prominent places.  The ambiguity is further enhanced by the fact that the tune is pentatonic (and consequently  needs no G# in the key signature).


Refrain: Long have I been alone, by myself, far from the land I know.
Here in the shieling of the glen, as I listen to the melody of the thrushes
(the song continues…)
in a little tree-shaded hut, no friend comes to ask for me there.
Carry my greeting across the sea to a house in a glen I once knew well:
Your women would perform a quadrille, while a flute poured out joyful music.

Other tunes can abruptly alternate between two related tonalities  without any change in the array of pitches used.  The following vocable refrain from a song  attributed to the 17th century  poet Mary MacLeod  of Skye is just such an example (see Elizabeth Ross’s Original Highland Airs collected  at Raasay 1812, no. 89).


I would suggest, after singing this refrain several times, that the tonic  or ‘home’ note is also A, despite the fact that it does not appear until bar two, nor the fact that the refrain ends firmly on F#.  (f.n. In modern parlance F# minor is the relative minor key of A major – a relationship much exploited by classical European composers who, however, would have had little influence on the composing of either of the two above melodies.)

Barnaby Brown has argued that when assessing the affect or taste of bagpipe melodies it is essential to take account of the pitch of the  drones  and the varying degrees of  harmonic tension that occur when different pitches of the scale sound against a drone.. (see  While agreeing with him I would go further and suggest that because musical memory plays a vitally important part in our appreciation of musical meaning – for one is constantly referencing what one is currently hearing to what has preceded it, even without an explicitly sounding drone – we create an implicit drone, an appreciation of tonicity, based on musical cues as a tune proceeds.  Our musical memory allows us to savour much of the taste of a tune even when no drone is sounding and to appreciate the varying degrees of consonance and dissonance (or rest and unrest) that different pitches produce in relation to a perceived tonic.  In the particular case of the Mary MacLeod refrain given above, the feeling that A is the tonic is by no means negated by the firm cadences on F# in bars 4 and 8 and one does not need a drone to tell us this. So perhaps this song is a less convincing example of ‘modal ambiguity’.

Weighted Scales.

Are there other ways of summarising the tonal and structural features of such tunes?  When I first visited the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University I found my predecessor, the Danish composer/researcher Thorkild Knudsen,  using a simplified form ‘weighted scales’ as useful information on the melodic content of a melody. So a transcription of an ode chanted by Calum Nicholson of Braes in Skye in 1969 began with the following brief  ‘key’:-

It simply indicated that these are the pitches Calum used for his song and that A was the home note or tonic (DS Information 69/1).

Two years earlier when discusssing examples of  ballad tune types he used:-


In this case he simply implied that G and E were the most prominent pitches of the six pitches used in his notation of a ballad air (DS Information 67/1) .

A weighted scale goes  further, assigning a durational value to each of the notes occurring in a melody, bearing in mind the frequency of use, position in the metrical hierarchy and durations of pitches used.   So a weighted scale for Mary MacLeod’s tune will look rather like this:-


This shows  F# C# and A as all important pitches, influencing the perceived tonality or taste.

Weighted scales and Doringtown.

Weighted scales do not always work so well for some tunes.

Here are the opening two strains of Dixon’s Doringtown, his manuscript version and also a transcription at the same pitch.



And here a weighted scale derived from these two strains.weighted
This scale hides the fact that Doringtown is clearly, according to Dixon’s notation and, judging by a number of other early records, a straightforward C-mode tune in F major – a fact that is announced from the beginning with the three strong notes of the tonic chord F, namely C F A and with the last bar of  most strains derived from the supertonic chord of G minor which leads one  back to F sonority.  It is a case of  F sonority being established even though the note F does not appear to have the greatest ‘weight’. It also then calls for F as the principal drone pitch. Listen to it here –   Doringtown.

Closing remarks.
If one plays  Doringtown one tone higher in the key of G on a bagpipe with Highland or Small Pipes pipe tuning,  as presented in The Master Piper , then the fourth degree of the scale will be C sharp rather than C natural.  This allows one to describe it as an F-mode tune or, as Matt Seattle  labels it in The Master Piper, a tune in the Lydian mode). Unfortunately this gives  a different taste or mode altogether from  what is essentially a song melody set for bagpipes.  Transformations like this seem to me not at all ‘exemplary’ solutions despite what the editor of Common Stock diffidently claimed.   In the case of Doringtown the unsuitability of this transformation becomes especially apparent in strains 8 and 12 where we find frequent awkward leaps of an augmented 4th (G to Csharp).

That said, more than three-quarters of the tunes in the Dixon  collection as presented by Matt Seattle in The Master Piper taste well enough on pipes with Highland bagpipe tuning.  The exceptions worth thinking about, in addition to Doringtown, are:- Hacky Honey, The Black and the Grey, Wallington, Hay for Newbeginn, Young and Lustie was I, Ov’r the Dyke & till her Laddy , Saw ye never a bonie Lass  and Berwick Bully.  Many of these would prove satisfactory if pipers could produce C natural  on their Highland Pipes (the equivalent of Dixon’s Bflat) and, of course could play some of them with G drones rather than A. You will need to refer to my earlier blog Dixon Revisited where you can listen to them and read more of my thoughts about these tunes.

I have tried to show that ‘taste’ and ‘mode’ are simply descriptive labels that help inform our appreciation of the qualities of melodies.  No-one has yet given names to the different tastes of Highland or Lowland pipe music repertories nor any set of useful verbal descriptions; but  at least the labels C-mode, F-mode A-mode etc. tell us a little  about the pitch relationships that characterize the ‘taste’ of tunes.

Pdf files containing facsimile and edited versions of Elizabeth Ross’s manuscript of Highland Airs are available here:

I look forward to  reading comments and criticisms regarding the above views.

February 9 2017


2 thoughts on “Modes or Tastes and William Dixon – again. What’s in a word?”

  1. Very interesting Peter, it would be good to hear Midi versions of the tunes as described to help with understanding you examples. Hope you’re keeping well.

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