One Correct Cord Choice. When I first started learning to play accompaniment for fiddle tunes on the piano, I was under the impression that there was one correct chord choice for each tune. I think this is a fairly common belief among people new to accompaniment; some people continue to believe it for a long time. I was aware that occasionally alternatives existed, but I think I felt that choosing chords was a matter of figuring out the best chords to go with a tune, and anything else would likely be in some way incorrect or inferior. It didn't take too long to figure out this wasn't true! Let's look at the issue of chord choices.
More Than One? Over time I became aware that in many cases there were multiple ways of accompanying a tune, each of which were valid, and each of which would give the tune a different mood. I also became aware that different musical traditions had sometimes very different approaches to choosing a set of chords.
Important Editorial Comment: There may not be a single set of correct chords, but it's not too hard to find chords that really don't fit! But even then, occasional use of a chord that doesn't really fit or that seriously doesn't fit can energize the dancers. But it's best to be careful in using such chords!
In this section of the web site we will look at how chord choices vary from one musical tradition to another, and from one time period to another. We will then look at an example of developing a set of chords for a tune, illustrating how even within the tradition of New England fiddling, a tune may be accompanied in a variety of different ways.
There are many possible explanations for why two piano players would accompany the same tune differently. Personal preference is undoubtedly an important factor. That is likely affected by who one has listened to and/or learned from. Two of the biggest factors are regional and generational differences. Here we'll look at those two factors.
Complexity of Accompaniment. I think it would be reasonable to suggest that in general chord accompaniment used to be far less complex than it is now. The variety of chords used was smaller, and the frequency of changing chords was lower. I've listened to any number of older recordings where the piano player used almost exclusively I and V chords with an occasional IV chord. (In the key of D, the D is the I chord, G is the IV chord and A is the V chord.) There are, of course, important exceptions. If the piano player had a background that involved use of varied chords, that would often show up. In Montreal there was a lively jazz tradition and some interaction with the traditional dance community. As a result, the chord accompaniments used by some piano players was much more varied, and the style of accompaniment was much more complex. That formed the basis for the fairly sophisticated accompaniment of Québécois music that's been around for many years now.
In many places accompanists used to play only major chords, sometimes with what were referred to as "startling results!"
Complexity is also a regional variable. Old-time Southern guitar players tend to use somewhat simpler chord choices than are often used in New England. Most Canadian accompaniment styles are on the more complex end of the scale. But even when two traditions have similar levels of complexity to their chord choices they might produce very different accompaniments for the same tune. The playing styles might differ, and the actual chords in use might differ.
Major Chords Only. Many of the old-time New England piano players played only major chords. (Some but not all made exceptions for a very small number of undeniably minor-key tunes.) The fiddlers playing with these accompanists likely didn't play all that many minor-key tunes, but nevertheless this sometimes resulted in interesting combinations. For example, the Ralph Page Trio recorded the tune Rory O'More (in G rather than A as it's more commonly played today) with Johnny Trombly playing piano. The melody wasn't all that different from how it's usually played today, and most current accompanists for contradancing would probably treat it as going to the relative minor. But Johnny Trombly stayed on a G chord in the B part, moving to a D chord at the end of each four-measure phrase. Interestingly, it worked pretty well. To this day I run into old-timers in New Hampshire who don't really understand minor chords and stick mainly to major chords.
The use of all or mostly major chords was prevalent in many parts of the country. Old-time Southern guitar players often played only major chords. I've heard that old-time Southern musicians played Coloured Aristocracy with E major chords where we would now play E minor chords, with what were described as "startling results". I can confirm that; I've tried it and the other musicians were at the very least startled; sometimes they've even come to a sudden halt!
Standard Chord Progressions. Many years ago I read on the Fiddle List about old-time accompanists who played the same standard chord progressions for nearly every tune. For example Jim Kimball (Fiddle List, 3/10/98) discussed a woman born in the early 1900s who could sight read popular music of her youth very well, but when accompanying her cousin playing square dance tunes always used the same chord progression which he described as an 8-bar
I-IV-I-V-I-IV-V-I progression. Paul Gifford (Fiddle List, 3/10/98) mentioned a standard progression which I've heard referred to as the Missouri (or Michigan) Progression although he said he'd heard it in New York as well that he characterized as
I I | I I | V V | V V | I I | IV IV | V V | I I (where "|" represents a bar line). He noted that the IV chords were sometimes dropped. In the key of G, for example, this would be
G-G-D-D-G-C-D-G. Some accompanists would use this progression to accompany nearly all tunes. In fact, several people on the Fiddle List commented that they tended to use that progression some or most of the time.
I have tried the Michigan Progression on a number of tunes, and while not what would generally be considered correct choices these days, it works reasonably well for a goodly variety of tunes - although I wouldn't think it would make for an interesting evening for the accompanist! But if one is accompanying a tune and isn't sure of the chords, it could make a good starting point.
On The Next Page: Some Chord Choice Examples. I will present a couple examples of playable sheet music to illustrate some of the regional and generational changes in chord selection I've discussed here.