Applying IFR to written music

I’ve been looking at some traditional tunes written music (the dots) and have question about interpreting what is written in IFR term.

Caveat - as most if traditional (Scottish/Irish) music was learned and passed on orally, written music may be problematic and doesn’t always match what is played.

My question is, if I look at the key signature of a tune (for example two sharps) that will indicate what pitch is note 1 (so in this case note 1=D). Now if the tonal centre of the tune is A, that would make it the 5th World/Harmonic Env, note 5 being A. The 5 chord would be A major, the 4 chord would be G major, the 1 chord D major and the 6 chord B minor?

I think this is correct, but I think some of the tunes are a bit ambiguous when it comes to key signatures and tonal centres, but just want to check I’m on the right path when trying to interpret this stuff.

It makes sense to me @mem. @ImproviseForReal might have the definitive view?

@mem Those steps are what I’d take. But like you said before, these tunes were passed down aurally, so the written music might be suspect. Your ears will tell you when it doesn’t work. But I think what you’re doing will work in almost all cases.

Kinda like jazz tunes in the real book. They are not gospel like a Beethoven sonata, but just suggestions for what you should try first.

Thanks so much @DavidW and @hender99 for the feedback, yes I’m sure I’m on the right track.

Here’s a tune I’m learning just now


The pipes here I think are tuned to Bb (or maybe C) but I’m playing on either my pipes or my flute, and also trying out accompanying on guitar. The written music I have is “pipe music” which, as is the norm, is written with a blank key signature, as it is assumed to have 2 sharps (C and F) for pipe playing.

So, given that, it could be interpreted as note 1 being D. But …

Playing the tune as written its mostly pentatonic (G A B D E, with occasional F# passing note) and seems to centre on note G. It starts GF#G EDB, BDB AGAB and a G major chord fits underneath, most of the time. I haven’t figured out any other chords yet, but every fourth phrase ends up on an E, so another chord will probably fit better. (a C chord sounds ok)

I’ve learned the melody by ear, its very simple, just 4 different phrases, but would like to understand how to interpret it with IFR.

In the whole, the tune sounds major, so I’m thinking 1st or 5th HE.

So, how can I determine what sensible note 1 could be?

The answer is probably it doesn’t matter given the ambiguity of an almost pentatonic scale, but there might be good way to approach it.

@mem I’d say you’re dealing with a major pentatonic scale from G. I suspect that pentatonic scales might be too far from the normal major scale to think in terms of the IFR harmonic environments. I bet it’s better to think of it as a 5 tone major pentatonic environment on the root G.

But don’t take my word for it. I think I’m out my depth on this. It would be better to hear what David Reed has to say.

You may be right @hender99, maybe @ImproviseForReal can shed some light.

Hi @mem, you’ve raised two questions so I’ll respond to them in two different posts. In this first post, I just want to respond to what you posted about the sheet music example that was written in the key of D. Everything you said about this example was correct. All of the chords that you listed are exactly the tonal numbers that you said. But as @hender99 said, just remember that both the traditional music staff and the chord symbols (e.g. “A7”) are merely attempts to document what musicians play. This is problematic on so many levels:

  1. Musicians don’t all play the song the same way.

  2. Even if everyone played the song the same way, these notes and chords can still be understood and notated in many different ways. For example, the exact same notes could be understood to be in the key of D with the tonal center on note 5, or in the key of A with an accidental applied to some of the notes.

  3. People publishing sheet music don’t always make the most sensible choices. Many of them are just amateur hobbyists engaging in the noble act of trying to preserve a beautiful piece of their culture. I don’t mean any judgment or criticism of their valiant efforts. But we have to know what we’re signing up for. Specifically, we need to be willing to put on our detective hats and really make an effort to understand not only what they wrote, but what they were TRYING to convey, which might be confused or poorly expressed in what they actually wrote out.

In the next post I’ll tell you what I hear in the video you posted.

Hi @mem, in this post I just want to tell you what I hear in the video you shared. You are right that most of the melody notes are the pentatonic scale, but this doesn’t invalidate our harmony model or require any different kind of theory. It just means that the musicians are fanatical about some of the notes and less interested in others.

But as we listen through the entire song, eventually we get to hear all seven notes of the major scale in the key of Bb. (Checking with a digital keyboard, note 1 is actually a little flat relative to Bb, but it’s much higher than A. The pitch feels like it’s about 80% of the distance between A and Bb, so my guess is that their intention was to play in Bb and that the instruments were just slightly flat relative to the precise frequencies that we get from digital keyboards and tuners.)

So if you’re able to tune your guitar such that you can play along with this recording using Bb as your note 1, then you’ll be able to notate all of the melody notes as tonal numbers from 1 to 7 with no outside notes required. This makes it hard to justify any other harmonic interpretation of the song. Especially since we also feel the note Bb as our tonal center, it seems an “open and shut case” that Bb should be our note 1.

Now the only question is why you’re talking about G and I’m talking about Bb. My guess is that you’re talking about G on one of your instruments which is not in concert key. Is that right? If you think there might be any confusion here, the first thing we should do is leave the transposing instruments aside and just talk about the pitches as you find them on your guitar. That way we can avoid any misunderstanding about the note names.

I hope that helps. If you think there is more here to clarify, please feel free to post more!


Thanks @ImproviseForReal for the clarification and for both explanations in your posts.

What you say about written music makes sense, what is written is always someones interpretation of the music we hear.

I may have caused confusion by including that track as an illustration, along with my question, sorry. It does sound like it is played on Bb pipes, producing a Bb drone, and if all the notes come from a Bb major scale, so it would make sense that Bb should be note 1.

Where I can get a little confused is when dealing with tunes which do not contain all 7 scale notes, for example a pentatonic scale, and when I have difficulty deciding where the tonal centre is. These may be be related, I’m not sure. I’ll see if I can find a better example.

Thanks again for all the inputs.