Choosing Tunes for Contra Dance Medleys
See also What makes a good contra dance band?

These are comments culled from postings to rec.folk-dancing and from Fiddle-L, from the article Contra and Square Dance Playing by Phil and Vivian Williams (their remarks used with permission), and Tune talk for Contra dances, a forum on Mandolin Cafe. To find the complete thread on rec.folk-dancing, search Google Groups using this search key: +tunes +medleys group:rec.folk-dancing. To search the archives of Fiddle-L, go to http://listserv.brown.edu/archives/fiddle-l.html.

See also:
Choosing tunes for medleys by David Kirchner, Brian Rost, Cari Fuchs, Jon Weinberg, and Carol Compton.
Matching Dances to Tunes by Erna-Lynne Bogue

Back to Contra Dance Music: A Working Musician's Guide


|| Use medleys or not? || How many tunes? || When to change tunes || When to put together the medleys ||
|| What types of tunes work and what type don't work || Keys/modulation || Similarity between tunes ||
|| Melodic change || Rhythmic similarity || Instrumentation changes || Other things to consider ||

Use medleys or not?

In his article Ingredients of fiddle tunes (Internet Archive version) (Fiddle Magazine, Fall 1998), Dudley Laufman quoted Ralph Page as saying, "If a tune is good enough to start a dance then it's good enough for the whole thing." He further quotes John Kirkpatrick in his Medley Mania as saying, "You have to play it ten, or fifteen, or twenty times, before you really get inside it and can feel the full extent of its diversity. These tunes were built for constant repetition," and "If a tune is worth playing once, it's worth playing a hundred times."

Dudley and his wife play fiddle, call the dance, keep track of the dancers, and keep the musicians going all at the same time. Changing tunes on top of that is one too many things to think about. He wonders, too, whether bands do medleys because they get bored with the tune or because they are showing off how many tunes they know, but concedes that even he will change tunes if he's not also calling.

Whether to use medleys or not continues to be debated.  Some think that, "medleys of tunes, chosen thoughtfully and played well, can add energy to a dance."  Others feel that "for newer and 'moderate' level dancers the association between Tune Part A1 and Dance Part A1 is a huge aid to learning, and switching to an incompatible choice midway thr[ough] a contra Line can be confusing."

Phil and Vivian Williams write "For long contras ... medleys of tunes can work well and provide variety for the musicians. In a contra dance with long sets, the change in tunes can vary and build the energy of the dance. ... Medleys need to be thought out well to accomplish a purpose related to the dance. Just changing tunes for the sake of playing a new tune can be detrimental to the dynamics of the dance. If a tune is working well with the dance, and the dancers are being stimulated by it, a change to a new tune may not be desirable."

Most people on rec.folk-dancing agree that circle dances and square dances do not normally lend themselves to medleys, but on occasion do.

How many tunes?

Two-tune medleys are good for early or late in the evening when the lines are short or when the tunes are good for playing many times- either they're fun or lend themselves to improvisation.

Three-tune medleys give you a distinct beginning, middle, and end to the set.

Four-tune medleys are good for big dances with long lines.

When to change tunes

From Phil and Vivian Williams: "In a contra dance, the place to change the tune is when a new head couple, who have just worked their way up the set as inactive and have sat out one time through, rejoin the line as an active couple. Depending on the usual habits of the caller, half way through the dance may be when the first couple has worked their way to the bottom of the line and is about to return as an inactive couple. This may be a good place to change tunes in a two-tune medley. Sometimes in contra dance playing three or four tunes are used in the medley, with the change to the next tune taking place somewhat arbitrarily. ...

"The transition from one tune to the other must be done in a manner that does not break time. Sometimes the caller will signal tune changes. Other times the caller leaves this to the band. The band should be clear on who makes the tune switch decision and gives the signal. An alert caller often will signal the band that there are two or three times through a tune before the tune change or the end of the dance, to give the band time to prepare and for and build to the change or end."

One contra dance musician watches the dancers to determine when to change tunes. If the dancers look like they're still having to think, delay changing the tune; if they look like they're getting bored, change the tune early.


When to put together the medleys

Some bands work hard to find tunes for a set, and then rehearse the change from one tune into the next, while other bands decide on the tunes during the last few minutes of the walk through.

One dance caller feel that putting together sets in advance is good for beginning contra dance musicians/bands, especially if they don't "aspire to becom[e] a hot band ... However, if they want to add to their own and the dancers enjoyment, crafting medleys on the fly (during the walkthrough) is a good skill to have."

As far as working medleys out in advance, I would advise it if the band is reading the music or is not well versed in jumping into a new tune at a moment's notice. Many bands I've played with work out medleys as the caller is doing the walk-through, and some even wing it 100%, deciding to toss in a tune while playing. It depends on what the band is comfortable with, I suppose.

I'd say the #1 criterion should be for the music to relate to the dance. Most callers will have an idea of what sort of tune the particular dance might favor...my favorite callers will say, "Give me a bouncy reel, or a stately reel, or a tune that reminds me of "Big John McNeill" but isn't because you'd kill me if I made you play "Big John McNeill." So, for me, preparing medleys "in advance" doesn't work. The best advice I could give is to watch the walkthrough, see where the balances are, see where the heys are, talk to the caller (remember -- s/he's part of the band, too!) and the appropriate tunage will present itself.

I guess that "preloaded" medleys might be useful as a learning tool (and switching tunes ABSOLUTELY EFFORTLY is a *must*) but generally, contra musicians pick tunes that go together to help emphasize the dance."

Have practice sessions where you can experiment with putting different tunes together to hear how they sound. When you find some you particularly like then start a medley list. Use it when nobody in the group seems to have any imagination that night, or when you don't have time to choose tunes ad hoc. Try not to become a slave to it, though...

Some bands work hard to find tunes for a set, and then rehearse the change from one tune into the next, while other bands decide on the tunes during the last few minutes of the walk through.

From Donna Hébert: choose different tunes as well as tempos depending on what the dance itself calls for. Watch the walk-through to see how it flows and choose tunes with phrasing that closely matches the dance.

What types of tunes work and what type don't work

Musical phrases and dance figures that match in duration result in comfortable body flow.

The tune must be "square" (e.g., 32 measures long or 64 beats). Crooked tunes, those with an irregular number of beats or measures or irregular phrasing, don't work well for contra dances. See a list of crooked tunes.

Celtic tunes work great and are hot! There are an infinite number of them but they come in a limited selection of keys.

The way you play a tune can make a big difference. Often the same tune can work for a flowing contra or a bouncy one. Fishers Hornpipe is a good example.

There is an art to choosing tunes. Consider the steps the caller is teaching. Choose tunes with phrasing that closely matches the dance. Some say that tune choice, though, is way way less important than how the band plays the tune. Attentive dance musicians can make any dance tune work for any contra dance.

Distinct pulse and obvious phrases are necessary. Experienced dancers are cued by the music for the next movement.

From Phil and Vivian Williams: The tune played should match the dance to the greatest extent possible. Contra dances have just a few basic footwork moves. These are walking, balance, and swing. When there are balances in the dance, it is nice to use a tune with accents when the balance occurs. In particular, at the point where the balances occur, it is nice to have a quarter note figure in a jig or a heavy accent in a hornpipe or reel. ... Another contra dance move having smooth footwork is the "Hey." This can be treated the same way as walking down the hall. The general rule is to use bouncy tunes for bouncy dances and smooth tunes for smooth figure dances. ... For beginner dancers it is nice to have lots of contrast between the first and second part of the tune so the dancers can easily identify the top of the tune, and therefore the start of the dance pattern repeat. If the dancers get lost, they can wait until the tune comes around again, and get restarted.

Sometimes, an individual dance can support several different interpretations. ... So it can go either way--or it can go *both* ways, by choosing a pair of tunes that emphasize different aspects of the dance. Transitions between seemingly opposing interpretations can be a lot of fun for dancers.

Some tunes work best as openers, some as closers, and some fit best in the middle. There are a few that can go anywhere.

The choice of tunes, the way they are combined in sets, and the way the sets are used during the dance is also important. Start the dance with a more mellow, easy set (which helps introduce beginners to contra dancing), and build energy toward the break. Begin the second half with less energy, but not as mellow as the first half, and again build the energy, ending the dance with your best "kick-ass" set.

Choose music for variety based on what you've already played. For example, follow an old-time medley in a major key old-time medley with New England set in a minor key.

° Some musicians feel that tunes from a given tradition (New England, Irish, Cape Breton, etc.) usually, though not always, work better in a set when matched with other tunes from that tradition or origin.

From Phil and Vivian Williams: Arranging a medley so one tune flows from another and each successive tune augments the mood of the dance is a real art. Tune changes with impact can include switching from a jig to a reel, going from a "notey" tune to a simpler one with lots of drive, switching mode (major to minor, minor to major), or switching keys.

° Mary McNab Dart writes that "... [t]he ... choice of tune can be significant in determining the success of a particular dance.

"Different kinds of tunes make the dancers dance differently, and the character of the tune can be selected to match the choreography. A driving, intense reel, for example, might be more appropriate for a very vigorous dance, while a gentle, pretty jig might fit better with a more graceful, elegant dance.

"The match of the musical phrasing and melody line with the phrasing and character of the dance figures can enhance or detract from the choreography of a particular dance, and the general mood and pace of the tune can also make a difference in how well the music fits the dance. One can, for example, echo the phrase lengths of the choreography through the choice of an appropriate tune. If the dance consists of short moves four to eight beats long, then the musicians can select a tune which is also structured in short phrases. Longer sixteen beat phrases might, on the other hand, be used to accompany a movement such as a "hey for four," which requires sixteen beats to accomplish in the dance."

° Play to the dance figures.

Choose tunes with phrasing that closely matches the dance. What type of melody works with what figures? Match the figure with both the choice of tune and the style of playing it. Make note when a tune works well with a given dance or figure. Know how long it takes to do a figure and what music works best. Playing to the figures can also cue the dancers when the caller stops calling.

A typical figure takes up 8 beats of music, but figures of 4 or 16 are also used. One time through a dance and the tune will take 32 measure (64 beats).

Some contra dance figures use the last step to move or prepare for the next figure. For example, an 8-beat figure may use 7 steps to do the movement, and 1 beat to move or prepare for the next.
allemande 1/2 source 4 beats
allemande 1/2 source 4 beats
allemande 1 1/2 source 8 beats
allemande twice source 8 beats
balance 4 beats
balance & swing from 4 to 12 beats; use a tune with accents, chords, or a high or long note at the point where a balance occurs, it's nice to have a quarter note figure in a jig or a heavy accent in a reel
circle right or left 8 beats
circle right or left 3/4 source 8 beats
circle right or left 1/2 source 4 beats
contra corners source 16 beats
courtesy turn 4 beats
do-si-do 8 beats
down the center and back 16 beats to walk down, turn around, and come back up; use smooth music or march-type music, making the music get softer as the dancers dance down the set and louder as they return.
forward and back 8 beats
full hey 16 beats; a long smooth sixteen-beat phrase or music that suggests the changing form of this figure
grand square 16 beats (3 to move and 1 to turn x 4) a quarter
gypsy smooth, sinuous music; a minor key works well
ladies chain across the set: 8 beats; across and back: 16 beats
pass through 4 beats
petronella turn 4 beats; with a clap-clap on beats 3.5-4
promenade usually 16 beats
right and left through 16 beats
roll away with a half sashay 4 beats
star right or left 8 beats to go around once
swing 4 to 8 beats (or longer); use a driving rhythm or tempo that match the pace of the swing
wavy line balance 4 beats; jigs works well

Source: Contra Dancing and Matrices
Source: Wikipedia: Contra dance choreography


Jody Kruskal (www.jodykruskal.com) made these remarks (used with Jody's permission) in a dialog about tunes for contra dances on the Mandolin Cafe web site:

I like to see the dance card or have the caller tell me what and when are the distinctive figures of the dance. Some tunes support balances on the top of the A or B. Heys and gypsies often indicate a smooth tune. Down the hall in a line of 4 is good for marchy jigs or marches. Petronella turns shout out for short 2 measure phrases at that point in the dance.

That said, here is an example of how I would think about tune selection. Liberty would work well for a dance with lots of balances or petronella turns at the top of the A sections and something smoother in the B sections like heys, swings, circles or hands around. Liberty is in D. Following it with other tunes that have short phrases in the A and smoother in the B would be my choice, so how about Glise de Sherbooke in G as the second tune and then last, Kitchen Girl in A. That last switch from G to A is quite dramatic and should make 'em yell!

Let's say that the dance has a full petronella in the A1. The dancers would balance and turn, balance and turn, balance and turn, balance and turn. A good choice would be Sandy Boys, Abe's Retreat, Jaybird, Puncheon Floor, (and many more) because the phrases of these tunes do what the dancers are doing. A not so great choice would be Ships Are Sailing, Swinging on a Gate, Yellow Barber, Barrow Burn, Don Tremain, Paddy on the RR. Not that these tunes in the second list wouldn't work for the dance or because they aren't as much fun to play but because they wouldn't be as much fun to dance to for the moves the dancers are doing.

Over the years, I've noticed that when the structure of the tune is in agreement with the structure of the dance everyone has more fun. I like to pick contra tunes based on critical detailed info like "there's a hey-for-four in the first A and a balance at the top of the second B" and all of that stuff. Sometimes other important considerations trump that level of detailed choice, but when the pick is a great match to the dance, then magic happens.


Dancers' perspectives, taken from discussions on various web sites:

Dancers rely on the music to tell them: 1, when to take steps, 2, when to start figures, and 3, where they are in the dance. One dancer depends upon the phrases of the music to tell him where he is in the dance and to cue him whether he needs to hurry up or slow down to end up at the right place at the right time. Another dancer uses the melody to keep track of when the figures start and end. The band needs to play the melody enough times for it to become familiar to the dancers before improvising. If the improvising strays too far from the original tune or phrasing, the dancers may need to count the beats in order to stay with the dance.


Most contra dance medleys. are formed based on how the segues flow. You change tunes to change the mood in the hall, usually to lift it up, or maybe to throttle it back for an ensuing lift.

It's tricky business to be rubbed wrong about mixing Irish and old-timey. Much of the music has been passed back and forth, all over the British Isles, Eastern Canada, New England, the Southeast, Louisiana, and so forth. All these folks came from one side of the English Channel or the other, it's not even like it's that big a regional difference.

There are many contra bands who integrate "foreign" styles into contra tunes. Blues contra, klezmer contra, electric contra, ad infinitum. Inventive musicians are forever weaving odd themes into their tunes, which is akin to mixed-ancestry medleys, and can often be refreshing.

Keys/modulation

The goal of changing key is to increase the energy of the dance. Knowledge of the keys and the circle of fifths is useful in devising key changes that are effective, and not jarring. For example, one person advised that "up a fourth is nice, down a minor second is not ..."

Effective key changes are to move up a major 2nd (e.g., D E or G A) or a 4th (e.g., D G or G C) or to follow the circle of 5ths (e.g., D A or G D) or a combination of these (e.g., D major E major A major)

In addition to changing key, moving into a higher register with each key change and/or increasing the energy of the tunes as the medley progresses will increase the energy. Knowledge of the keys and the circle of fifths is very useful.

Another suggestion is to switch between major and minor, possibly even putting a tune in a minor key between two tunes in major keys. One band uses this to achieve certain effects. Major tunes followed by minor tunes create a "driving progression"; minor tunes followed by major tunes generates a "bouncy, festive sound."

C major
A minor
no sharps
no flats
G major F#
no flats
D major F#, C#
no flats
A major F#, C#, G#
no flats
E major F#, C#, G#, D#
no flats
B major F#, C#, G#, D#, A#
no flats
F# major F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#
no flats
C# major F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#
no flats
E Minor B Minor F# Minor C# Minor G# Minor D# Minor A# Minor
F major no sharps
Bb
Bb major no sharps
Bb Eb
Eb major no sharps
Bb, Eb, Ab
Ab major no sharps
Bb, Eb, Ab, Db
Db major no sharps
Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb
Gb major no sharps
Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb
Cb major no sharps
Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, C, Fb
D minor G minor C minor F minor Bb minor Eb minor Ab minor

Leaving distinct pauses (without losing the beat) between each tune is one more way to add interest and energy for the dancers.

Similarity between tunes

° Work from lower to higher energy tunes with a set.

° Consider rhythm, key, and texture and whether you want to make a contrast and change the dance mood in the middle or keep the same mood.

Melodic or rhythmic similarity can be bad if it makes the tunes sound *too much* the same. The idea of the medley is to try to inject some energy into the dancers at the transition, so the more obvious it is that the new tune has arrived, the better.

Melodic change

Try for dramatic melodic changes so the dancers immediately recognize the change.

Rhythmic similarity

Rhythmically, try to make sure all the tunes in the medley would fit the same dance. Think of dances as smooth vs. bouncy, elegant/graceful vs. wild/driven, slower vs. faster in tempo. Then pick tunes in different keys with that style, although they might well have different rhythmic patterns (even going from jig to reel!).

Make sure the transitions are not ridiculously abrupt, say a bouncy tune into a dark, moody one isn't as good an idea as going in the opposite direction.

Finding tunes that go together rhythmically is more important than other factors. After all, that's what the dancers are dancing to...

° You can go from a jig to reel (but usually not reel to jig) and do this at most once on a given night.

However, another contra dance music on Fiddle-L noted that the jig-to-reel change, when executed well, can briefly energize the dance, but that this change should be "judiciously applied." Someone even suggested "4/4ing" the last measure of the jig to get a running start into the reel.

Instrumentation changes

For a particular band, the question of dealing with instrument changes may be important. That is, if you have a member who plays more than one instrument you might want to pick medleys that don't require them to switch midway if that is difficult; on the other hand, if it's easy for them to switch, you can incorporate tunes with different instrumentation as additional variety in the medley.

Other things to consider

Check with the caller, especially if you wish to do more than two tunes in a medley. Three tunes can make a dance too long in many situations.

Reasons for keeping a dance relatively short: (one or two tunes)
° lines are short to medium in length
° the crowd is tired (e.g. very hot weather or nearing end of long dance event)
° the crowd is not used to high energy dances (e.g. many new dancers)
° the dance is very energetic
° shorter dances give more partner changes

There are good reasons for longer dances too. Most of the time, only the caller is aware of these issues. Don't make the caller choose between pleasing the band by letting them work through all their arrangements and letting the dance run longer than it ought to.

As long as the band talks with the caller throughout the evening, there shouldn't really be any problem. If you've got a hot three-tune medley, you can still play it for a short dance. The band just has to know in advance that each tune is going to be played fewer times than u


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