In last week's post (which you can see here), I talked about the classic fiddle tune "Cluck Old Hen" as an example of an Old Time tune that uses the Minor Pentatonic Scale. As an aside, though I don't play this tune all that much, "Cluck Old Hen" was called at a local jam this week and we spent a longer time than normal grooving on it with surprisingly cool results; I think the universe was reminding me that simple tunes like "Cluck Old Hen" shouldn't be overlooked in a jam! This week I'll talk about a few different approaches to harmonizing minor pentatonic tunes, using "Cluck Old Hen" again as an example.
As a minor pentatonic tune, the melody of "Cluck Old Hen" can't really be pinned down into a certain diatonic mode (post on modes available by clicking here); since there are only five notes in the pentatonic scale, the melody doesn't give enough information to pick a certain seven note scale (i.e. a diatonic mode) and therefore classify it in a certain mode. Last week (again, here), I mentioned how we can eliminate modes from consideration for "Cluck Old Hen" (particularly, the Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Locrian modes) thereby narrowing down our choices to Dorian, Phrygian, or Aeolian modes.
But all of my attempts to impose a mode on "Cluck Old Hen" beg a fairly simple question: Why? After all, isn't this discussion of the mode of "Cluck Old Hen" purely academic? The tune doesn't really need the extra notes that we have to guess at to put it in a certain mode....why are we trying to pick these extra notes in the first place? If you stick to a melody-only version of "Cluck Old Hen," a recording of which I also posted last week (sigh), this reasoning is absolutely correct. However, the question of "which mode to classify Cluck Old Hen in" becomes increasingly relevant when you (or a guitarist) try to impose chords on a minor pentatonic tune; you have to make some choices depending on how much harmony you'd like to play, as I'll explain below.
The rest of this discussion will refer pretty heavily to the following table, so I'll go ahead and put it up. As a scientist, I can't help but numbering my Tables, so we'll call it Table 1.
Table 1. Notes included in one octave (from A to A) of Chromatic, A minor Pentatonic, A Dorian, A Phrygian, and A Aeolian scales. Dashes represent missing notes. Notes highlighted in red are those that are included in a given mode but not in the A minor Pentatonic Scale. The Chromatic Scale is simply shown to highlight which notes are available for the other scales.
So, in our quest to put a harmony to "Cluck Old Hen" we'll start with the assumption that we'd like to stick to a single scale/mode for the whole tune (be it a Pentatonic scale or one of the modes), and we'll therefore derive all harmony notes from one scale at a time. Using that approach, lets start with the simplest option, creating harmony using notes of the A Minor Pentatonic Scale (i.e., we are constructing a harmony part using only notes that appear in the melody).
Harmonizing "Cluck Old Hen" with the A Minor Pentatonic scale.
Whenever I'm trying to find a harmony, the first thing I do is pick out the notes that the bass player "should" play. This is a bit of a "know it when you hear it" exercise for me so I can't really explain this part. However, even at this stage, there is no "right answer" for which bass notes to pick, but I'm trying to avoid suggesting "interesting chords" at the moment (like putting F major chords into "Cold Frosty Morning" as I discuss in my posts on chord substitutions available here and here). The bass notes I settled on are all plucked (Ha!) from the A minor Pentatonic scale below:
"Cluck Old Hen" - Harmony 1 ("bass notes" only, from the A Minor Pentatonic scale)
A part (x2)
A G A D
A G E A
B part (x2)
A C A G
A G E A
A few things to note about the "bass notes" above:
1) Rhythm-wise these are the "booms" for "boom-chick" style Old Time guitar playing (that is, you only do one Boom-chick per note above), and this would also serve as a great guide for a bass player.
2) While the convention is to use root note names as short-hand for major triads (that is, you could indicate an A major chord by simply writing "A" on a chord sheet) the letters above, once again, are meant to represent single notes. For the rest of this post however, I will be following the aforementioned convention when I outline harmony parts.
I've included a recording of me playing the "bass notes" only harmony on piano to my previous "Cluck Old Hen" banjo recording below. Why did I pick piano? Mostly because as I continue this post, I'll build chords from the root notes, and its easy to find simple, non-inverted triads on the piano. A pre-apology for what you're about to hear: my piano playing here is purely for example purposes so its a bit heavy-handed (I just bang on a note/chord at the beginning of each phrase)...also when I say piano, I really mean keyboard, in particular one that doesn't actually have a line out (!) - I had to put a mic next to the speaker and I definitely got a lot of "key-pushing" noise. Finally, my timing leaves a little bit to be desired - lets consider my little lags "artistic choices" for now : ) Now that I've sold the upcoming audio experience, lets have a listen...
"Cluck Old Hen" played on banjo with Harmony 1 ("bass notes" only,
using notes from the A Minor Petantonic Scale) played on piano.
So, as you may have noticed, the "harmony" here is kinda of boring and utilitarian. For the most part I picked it out by stealing the "main" melody note of a phrase with the exception of the first note, which I conservatively picked as A (the root of the tune) rather than the E the phrase starts on. In fact, there is so much unison going on here between the banjo and piano that its hard to even call this "harmony" in places; were this played on a bass it would at least be a little more interesting being a few octaves lower than the banjo. As it stands, however, it could use a little spicing up.
We can use "Harmony 1" above to establish the root notes for building chords however. So lets try to assemble some standard triads using the minor pentatonic scale. Interestingly, if you compare Table 1 and Harmony 1 above, we use every note from the minor pentatonic as a root note at some point in the tune. We therefore need to build chords using A, C, D, E, and G as root notes. So lets start by building a triad off of A. Standard triad chords contain a root note, either a minor third (1.5 steps above the root) or a major 3rd (2 steps above the root), and a perfect 5th (3.5 steps above the root). This turns out to work pretty well: C is available as a minor 3rd, and E is available as a perfect 5th; in other words, the minor pentatonic scale gives us all the notes available for an A minor chord. But you'll see that we can't actually do this for every chord we need to make....time for another table!
Table 2. Making chords from "bass notes" given in Harmony 1, using only
notes from the Minor Pentatonic Scale.
As shown in Table 2, while you can make A minor and C major chords from the A Minor Pentatonic scale, you can't make full triads for chords rooted on D, E, or G with the notes available. If you want to stick to the A Minor Pentatonic scale for your harmonies, you could always rely on intervals (i.e. 2 note harmonies rather than 3 note triads), but this ends up sounding more "Gregorian Chant" than Old Time. But....if we pick one of the above modes for "Cluck Old Hen," we can fill in the missing notes, and get some sort of triad (more on that in a bit) for every chord we need to make. Here we go!
Harmonizing "Cluck Old Hen" with the Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian Modes.
So, lets take the same approach outlined above starting with A Dorian Mode (and using the root notes given in "Harmony 1"). Amazingly, by adding just 2 notes to the A Minor Pentatonic scale, we can make a triad from every note we need.
Figure 3. Making chords from "bass notes" given in Harmony 1, using only notes from the A Dorian scale. Once again, notes in red are those not found in the A Minor Pentatonic Scale
Using the chords in Figure 3, we can now write out a Dorian-flavored harmony for "Cluck Old Hen" and you can use the same tactic for Phrygian and Aeolian modes as well (I won't go through all the derivations here since you likely get the point ). We now have 3 harmony options for this tune, each one using notes from a single mode, as outlined below:
If you look closely at Harmonies 2, 3, and 4, you'll notice a couple of things:
1) The Aeolian and Dorian harmonies only differ by one chord: there is D minor chord in the Dorian harmony (#2), while there is a D major chord in Aeolian harmony (#4). Since a D-rooted chord only occurs once in the A part and not at all in the B part, the two harmonies are otherwise identical (though I personally like the D major chord in harmony 2 for a bit of "modal flavor").
2) The Phrygian harmony (#3) has an E diminished chord (written as E dim). This is because there is not a perfect 5th above the E root in Phrygian mode so we have to include a chord that incorporates a flattened 5th (3 whole steps from the root instead of the 3.5 steps that make a perfect 5th) instead. This interval is known as a "tritone" and was thought to have demonic connotations in previous eras. Coincidentally, this chord also includes a minor 3rd, adding to the "general spookiness" of a diminished chord. If you try to make triads for every note of given diatonic mode, you will find that a diminished chord actually occur somewhere in every mode (this shouldn't be too surprising since all of the diatonic modes are actually permutations of one-another. In this case, our bass note selections just happened to hit the diminished chord for Phrygian mode in our "Cluck Old Hen" harmony, but not in the other modes we tried.
So enough talk - lets hear this stuff!
"Cluck Old Hen" played on banjo with Harmony 2 (using notes from the A Dorian Scale) on piano.
"Cluck Old Hen" played on banjo with Harmony 3 (using notes from the A Phrygian Scale) on piano.
"Cluck Old Hen" played on banjo with Harmony 4 (using notes from the A Aeolian Scale) on piano.
As you may expect, the Dorian and Aeolian chords sound similar, but also familiar, while the Phrygian Chords sound a little strange (almost like someone was stumbling for the right chords but not finding them.....though once again, they are "correct" as it pertains to Phrygian mode). If you want to pick a set of chords to back "Cluck Old Hen" with from those above, your best bets are likely Harmonies #2 and #4. Phrygian mode (which provided the notes for Harmony #3) was kind of fun to play around with, but it may not be the most appropriate choice for an Old Time session.
However, there is another approach to harmonizing this (and really any) tune:
Harmonizing "Cluck Old Hen" without sticking to a certain scale
What if you forget the whole "got to stick to a single mode for the whole song" approach - is there another way to pick out some standard triads? One approach would be to mix and match chords from all three options above, but thats not quite what I'm getting at. Instead, you could take the "if it sounds good, do it" approach: basically pick any chord you like that matches the melody while its ringing and don't worry about what overall mode you're intending to suggest. In other words, forget the idea that triads have to suggest that a single mode permeates the whole tune; chords don't have to be consistent, they just have to sound good in the moment. Let me put up another commonly used harmony for "Cluck Old Hen" to demonstrate what I'm talking about:
"Cluck Old Hen" - Harmony 5 (major chords only, no single mode responsible...)
A part (x2)
A G A D
A G E A
B part (x2)
A C A G
A G E A
Here's how it sounds:
"Cluck Old Hen" played on banjo with Harmony 5 (using all Major chords) on piano.
If you'll notice, the above chords use the same root notes we've been using but they pick standard major triads (major 3rd, perfect 5th) to go with every root note! Old Time guitarists do seem to love major chords. However, on the surface this seems like a choice that shouldn't work. Let's look at the "math" here by making one more table:
Table 4. Making Chords however we want : ) No modes required!
The green notes in Table 4 are those that don't occur in either the A minor Pentatonic scale or any of the 3 modes that share its notes (i.e. the Dorian, Phrygian, or Aeolian scales outlined in Table 1). In fact, these notes should clash with several notes in the A Minor Pentatonic scale: the C# should clash with the C natural found in the A minor Pentatonic scale, and the G# should similarly clash with the scale's G natural! In a related conundrum, we use a C# in the A major chord, then jump to a chord based around a C natural? What key/mode is this song supposed to be in anyhow? The answer is: it doesn't matter. The A major chord works just fine for the melody notes that its harmonizing (for example, a C natural never occurs in the melody while an A major chord is played), and the C major chord works great for the melody notes that its harmonizing. The fact that the two chords don't share a mode/key is irrelevant - it just sounds good!
I should point out that other forms of music (like the blues) actually embrace the so-called "clashing notes" I pointed out above. A blues guitarist would not hesitate to play a C natural over an A major chord - these notes are actually known as "blue notes" and they are key to the blues sound. Overall, there just are no hard rules in harmony: whatever sounds good is good, and experimentation with dissonance is to be encouraged!
Guess that will do it for this week. This coming weekend marks my first gig with my new Old Time duo (maybe trio?) "Rock Andy" - we're playing at a local food co-op this coming Saturday - time to yet to be determined...I'll give a run down on the gig next week!
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.