Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Transposing from Mandolin to Mandola

mandola (l) and mandolin (r)
I just got a mandola (tuned CGDA) and I would like to sometimes use it for playing Irish music.  The Irish tenor banjo player Gerry O’Connor uses CGDA tuning, so this can be done.  I believe Dervish and Planxty, among others, also utilize mandola.

Irish music tends to have four primary tonal centers:  D (D-major, D-mixolydian), G (G-major), A (A-major, A-dorian) and E (E-dorian, E-minor).  I guess you could also add B (B-minor), although B-minor tunes often feel like a modulation of D-major, since B-minor is the relative minor to D.

When playing a mandola in a session you can’t just use the same fingerings you know on mandolin because it will come out in a different key.  For example, a tune in G on the mandolin will come out in C on the mandola if played with the same fingerings. 

So, one way of working on this is to “transpose” from mandolin to mandola by thinking like this:
Playing in D on the mandola is like playing in A on the mandolin.
Playing in G on the mandola is like playing in D on the mandolin.
Playing in A on the mandola is like playing in E on the mandolin.
Playing in E on the mandola is like playing in B on the mandolin.
Playing in B(minor) on the mandola is like playing in F#(minor) on the mandolin.

This is good ear training because although you know how the tune is supposed to sound from playing it on mandolin, you can’t rely on the same fingerings on the same strings to play it in the same key on mandola.  It’s kind of like learning a new tune that you already have a head start on.

Eventually I hope to be able to play mandola without having to make these direct, literal comparisons to the mandolin, but for now it provides a foundation for comparison.  If nothing else, having a mandola should make me a better mandolin player because of the way it forces you to get outside comfort zones and think about music more universally.

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