(This page is a part of the contradance pages maintained by Kiran Wagle)
Choosing Tunes for Medleys
Some notes by David Kirchner, Brian Rost, Cari Fuchs, Jon Weinberg and Carol Compton.
(These notes were originally posted to the Usenet newsgroup <rec.folk-dancing>.)
David Kirchner asks:
We're having a hard time figuring out what criteria we should use to put tunes together into medleys. For example, let's suppose we want to build a medley that includes "Red Haired Boy". Should we try to find other Irish tunes? Tunes that have similar melodic or harmonic patterns? Tunes in specific key signatures? Or does it not make sense at all to base a medley around a specific tune?
Brian Rost writes:
I'm not an expert, but I do play in some contre bands and we go through
this process all the time as we work on new material. Things we use
- With respect to key transitions, the modulation between tunes
should be pleasant. Up a fourth is nice, down a minor second is not
nice 8^) Most of the time, two tunes in the same key is also not the best choice
Melodic or rhythmic similarity can be bad if it makes the tunes
sound too much the same. The idea of the medley is to try to inject some energy into the dancers at the transition, so the more obvious it is that a new tune has arrived, the better.
- Despite what I said in #2, you want to make sure the transitions
are not ridiculously abrupt. For example, going from a bouncy tune into a dark, moody one isn't as good an idea as going in the opposite direction.
- For a particular band, the question of dealing with instrument
changes may be important. That is, if you have a member who plays more
than one instrument you might want to pick medleys that don't require
them to switch midway if that is difficult; on the other hand, if it's
easy for them to switch, you can incorporate tunes with different
instrumentation as additional variety in the medley.
- As far as working medleys out in advance, I would advise doing so if the band is reading the music or is not well versed in jumping into a new
tune at a moment's notice 8^). Many bands I've played with work out
medleys as the caller is doing the walk-through, and some even wing it
100%, deciding to toss in a tune while playing. It depends on what
the band is comfortable with.
Brian Rost <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cari Fuchs adds:
Adding to Brian's excellent tips, here's what we (All Strings Considered, a Pittsburgh-based New England dance band) have found over l0 years
of playing contras:
Celtic tunes work great and are hot! There are an infinite number of
them but they come in a limited selection of keys. We always change
keys with each tune, trying to increase the energy & excitement by
going into higher registers each time. So the first tune might start
low, say in key of D, the next is higher and more driven, say key of E
minor, and the last is wild, say key of A modal.
Here are some other
good key combos: E minor-G-A minor; D-G-A modal; D minor or modal-G-A
modal or major; D minor-E major-A minor. We find that going up a second
(G to A for example) is an energizing transition, as well as going up a
fourth (e.g. D to G) or fifth (e.g. D to A). Notice that we also swith modes
alot, following major with minor tunes (a very driving progression) or
vice-versa (a sort of bouncy, festive sound).
Rhythmically, we try to make sure all the tunes in the medley would fit
the same dance. So we think of dances as smooth vs. bouncey,
elegant or graceful vs. wild or driven, slower vs. faster in tempo. Then we
pick tunes in different keys with that style, although they might well
have different rhythmic patterns (even going from jig to reel!).
Hope this helps.
Cari Fuchs (hammered dulcimer, concertina, Irish button accordion) <>
Jon Weinberg writes:
Here are a few more ideas:
Jon Weinberg <email@example.com>
Have practice sessions where you can experiment with putting
different tunes together to hear how they sound. When you find some
you particularly like then start a medley list. Use it when nobody in
the group seems to have any imagination that night, or when you don't
have time to choose tunes ad hoc. Try not to become a slave to it,
- We often try to put tunes of similar orgin together (New England,
Irish, Cape Breton, etc.). But that's a matter of personal
preference. I personally find most French Canadian tunes go well with
each other without much thought.
- The way you play a tune can make a big difference. Often the same
tune can work for a flowing contra or a bouncy one. Fishers Hornpipe
is a good example.
- Go for key changes and try to add a distinct pause between each
tune. This adds interest and energy for the dancers.
- Personally I think that finding tunes that go together rhythmically
is more important than other factors. After all, that's what the
dancers are dancing to.
- Other personal preferences of mine:
- putting a minor key tune between two major key tunes
- increasing the energy of the tunes as the medley progresses
- going for dramatic melodic changes so the dancers immediately
recognize the change.
Carol Compton continues:
David, you've had some great responses in this thread. I would add a
thought or two about choosing music over the course of an evening. My thoughts on the matter fall into two categories: know thy caller, and think about not only what would be fun, but how it might fit into the overall pattern of the evening.
What I mean by "know thy caller" is: does (s)he have a particular
signature or specialty dance that you should be prepared for? Is
the first dance after the break always a New England chestnut ? Are
you expected to provide one waltz or two? a hambo? another couple dance? Do you have just one caller for the event or several?
When I led the SPUDS pickup band In Philadelphia, where several
callers share the evening, I always prepared 12-15 tunesets knowing
full well we wouldn't use all of them. (We also listed tunesets in
advance so that folks could work on them - subject to on the spot
rearrangement if needed!) I tried to build in the following: 1 march
set, some jigs, some reels, some smooth, some bouncy, some easy, some
hard, at least 2 really driving sets, some variety in style or tradition, and maybe a gimmick set if I knew we might need or want it.
This provided flexibility to respond to just about anything: three callers in a row wanting hard driving reels, tired musicians on a weeknight, and those strange permutations that can only happen in a pickup band: 12 fiddles and 1 wind player, or 8 guitars, 2 fiddles and a dulcimer. Of course, as the group's repetoire expanded we developed some "favorite" tunes
that could be pulled out without warning (in fact "Red Haired Boy" was
one of them for a long time!).
I had a hidden agenda in planning SPUDs tunesets the way I did
beyond the flexibility mentioned above. (and no, Bob Stein, it wasn't
just to torture accordion players!) I believe that a band's
programming of the evening's tunes can be just as important as the caller's
programming of the evening's dances.
Some callers have an instinctive knack
for requesting music that fits both the dance they've chosen and the
place during the eveing they've chosen to call it. Others will leave
it to the band beyond saying "jig" or "reel." Watch the flow of
energy over the course of a dance event that leaves you feeling GREAT.
Think about matching your high energy or funky tunesets with the
energy peaks, and providing more relaxed tunes for "warming up" or
"recovery" times. A whole night of hot driving tunes will wear out
both band and dancers.
Programming an evening does not mean a lack of spontaneity or huge
amounts of structure. On the best nights this will just happen, particularly when you consistently work with the same caller over a
period of time. Other nights a little conscious effort can make a
Carol Compton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Carol Compton wrote "David, You've had some great responses in this thread."
What an excellent comment. As a caller, I have always found my best
evenings have been with bands that understand this concept. I work hard as
a caller on programming an evening, but unless the band has the same feel,
the energy will feel flat, or it will be misplaced.
- "I believe that a band's programming of the evening's tunes can be just as important as the caller's programming of the evening's dances."
One of my reasons for playing music is that I think it makes me a better
caller; I can give better guidance to a band that isn't as familiar (or
concerned) with the ebb and flow of an evening. That's why I used to
participate in the Glen Echo open band on a regular basis. Now that I'm
out in the Midwest, I'm also propelled by a desire to have more New
I was trying to explain to one of my fellow musicians a few weeks ago why
jigs felt different to dance to; but she didn't really "get it" until a
fiddler played one (at my request) last week for a dance.
David Kirchner <email@example.com>
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Last updated on August 7, 1996 by
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