tonal terminology in the café

We’ve just had a meeting this morning with Josh Dickson at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland about how we can get involved with the BA Scottish Music course over the next couple of years. It will be a really valuable way to test out some of our theoretical models with practising musicians, in the hope that we’ll see ways that the historical material in the sources might have an influence on what today’s players can choose to do.

Then Karen, Barnaby and I repaired to the window of the RCS café to thrash out some terminology that we can share between pipe and fiddle music. Philip Tagg’s recent explorations of tonal terminology have influenced us to the point that for two out of the three of us, the phrase tertial tetrad isn’t weird any more, it’s just helpfully precise (it’s a four-part chord built with a stack of thirds), but other phrases came and went as our conversation became more animated, and occasionally louder. Strains for parts or sections of a tune was abandoned in favour of using arithmetical fractions such as the first half or the third eighth; modal vocabulary became palette; tone, note and pitch were all assigned usages and abusages; hierarchy, focus and signal developed specific musical meanings, and blas and tasto wandered in from Gaelic and Italian respectively. Joseph MacDonald used taste as a synonym for key in his Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe (c.1760), which sounds like a borrowing from Italian to me, having spent many years reading basslines which include the marking tasto solo, which asks the harpsichord player to play only a single key at a time.

2 thoughts on “tonal terminology in the café

  1. When I looked through Joseph MacDonald’s Compleat Theory I got the impression that by taste he meant mode rather than key, in the sense that mixolydian in general has a different blas from dorian in general etc, rather than the key of F has a different sound from the key of G (like Skinner wrote about the character of keys on the fiddle). I will look again at the pages I photocopied when I find where I put them (must clean the basement). Maybe that’s just my own interpretation. And of course it’s a bit hard to distinguish between key and mode when the examples given are on an instrument with only nine notes.

    • hi Kate! yup, in modern terms, mode is what he means (more or less: any tonal terminology is a minefield!), but I wonder if he used ‘taste’ to literally mean ‘key’ in the same way that ‘tasto’ means a keyboard’s key. ‘Key’ was certainly used to describe tonality by the 18th century (the OED has some nice examples).

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