(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 as criteria:
  1. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 <rost@nexen.com>

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 <jonw@ultranet.com>

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 huge difference!

Carol Compton <carol@bitdance.com>

David replies:

I'll say! 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.

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 England-style music.

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 <david6@artsci.wustl.edu>

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Last updated on August 7, 1996 by entropy@prismnet.com (Kiran Wagle)