Modes in Irish Music

Four scales (or modes) are commonly used in traditional Irish music:

  • Ionian (Major Scale)
  • Mixolydian
  • Dorian
  • Aeolian.

Dorian and Aeolian are both minor scales.

Ionian is more commonly referred to as the Major Scale. This is the most widely used scale in Irish music. It's used in tunes such as “Miss McCloud’s Reel”, “Off to California”, and “The Blackthorn Stick”. The two most popular keys are G and D, with stringed instruments often using A. Sometimes C and F are used.

Examples of mixolydian mode can be found in the tunes “My Love is in America”, “Langstrom’s Pony”, and “Rakish Paddy”.

There is one note different between The Ionian and Mixolydian. The seventh note of the Ionian is flattened by a semitone. A contrasting example of these two modes in use is to be found in the Lennon/McCartney song “With a Little Help From My Friends”. The verse is in the Ionian mode but switches to a mixolydian mode for the chorus.

Dorian mode is the most common form of minor scale in Irish music. Examples of tunes using this mode include “Star of Munster”, “Pigeon on the Gate”, “Green Groves of Erin”, and “Julia Delaney’s”. The majority of “minor” tunes use this mode.

The Aeolian modes is known as the “pure minor”. It is often found in tunes that move to the related major key. “Paddy Lynn’s Delight” and “The Galtee Reel” are examples of this.

You can download PDFs of the Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian and Aeolian modes.

Gerry GaffneyModes in Irish Music

Tony O’Rourke and Christine Mulcahy at Comhaltas

Back in 2005, Tony accompanied Christine Mulcahy from Killeedy in Co. Limerick just after she won the Under-12 Concertina All-Ireland at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. You can see the video clip here.

The title on the video clip is incorrect. In fact the tune is Devaney’s Goat. Tony thinks it was composed by Eddie Moloney.

Gerry GaffneyTony O’Rourke and Christine Mulcahy at Comhaltas

Antóin MacGabhann, Mick O’Connor and Tony O’Rourke at The Boîte

A concert at The Boite in Melbourne , October 2009.

The three musicians are Antóin MacGabhann from Co. Cavan, Ireland, on fiddle, Mick O’Connor from London on banjo, and Tony O’Rourke from Melbourne on guitar and bouzouki.

Antóin and Mick released their CD “Doorways and Windowsills” in 2009. The title recognises their get togethers at the many steet sessions held at the many Fleadhanna they’ve met up at over the past 4 decades, in particular Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann.

Antóin won the Senior All-Ireland Fiddle Title in 1971 and again in 1972 and Mick won All-Ireland Title playing banjo in 1971 (in the "miscellaneous" category, as banjo was not a separate category until 1975).

Tony has acompanied many touring artists on their visits to Australia, including John Carty and Martin Hayes, and in 1986 was awarded The Tim Whelan Tune Writing Award for his composition “The Town Of Uranquinty”.

The Boite World Music Café is many musicians’ venue of choice when presenting their music. It is a totally acoustic venue and the venue co-ordinators are Therese Virtue and Roger King, who have organised a multitude of memorable evenings of music for the folk of Melbourne for many years.

The performance is divided into 9 parts.

Part 1: Three jigs

Port an Lurga Donn, (Gan Ainm - can someone identify it?), You're Welcome says Maureen and Hugh


Part 2: The Rose of Allendale

Tony plays and sings this tune.


Part 3

John Brennan's, The Redhaired Lass, The Christening


Part 4


Part 5

A beautiful slow air, Air Éireann Ní Neosfainn Cé Hí (For Ireland, I Cannot Reveal Her Name).


Part 6: Two hornpipes

Home Ruler, Kitty's Wedding


Part 7: Three reels


Part 8

Some jokes and general chat, followed by:

The Humours of Milltown, The Morning Lark, Seamus Cooley's


Part 9

Tony plays a Texas fiddle tune.

Gerry GaffneyAntóin MacGabhann, Mick O’Connor and Tony O’Rourke at The Boîte

Tony O’Rourke at Comhaltas

In 2005, Tony attended Comhaltas in Letterkenny, Co Donegal.

You can watch a video of him playing his own composition, "Maura Walsh's Jig", followed by a reel, "The Green Mountain" at the Comhaltas site.

(The video is in Flash format; if you can't see it you can still download the audio there.)

Gerry GaffneyTony O’Rourke at Comhaltas