The Octave Drop in Fiddling

The Octave Drop Transposition for Fiddle Tunes

Bag of Spuds is the most recent tune I’ve learned to play with an octave drop. I heard it many times on Lost in the Loop, a Liz Carrol album. She seques from Drunken Sailor Hornpipe into Bag of Spuds and plays it on the G and D strings with a gutsy, growly sound.

When I decided to learn the tune i chose the easy way for me and downloaded it from thesession.org, a great resource for celtic tunes. The sheet music I downloaded was set on the A and E strings, an octave higher than the way Liz Carroll plays it.

I simply transposed it down an octave to go after the sound I heard on the album. Hence, octave drop. All this went well, and I now play Bag of Spuds with a lot of enjoyment.

[And here’s an update. I just posted the Bag of Spuds fiddle tab chart on 100 Fiddle Tunes.]

Teaching the Octave Drop

Students can learn to transpose for the octave drop
Students can learn to transpose for the octave drop

My experience of learning this tune reminded me that I was encouraging my studernts, the intermediate ones, to transpose Angeline the baker down an octave, not so log ago. Alas, this did not go well. There was resistance and I dropped the assignment.

Now I am asking, How can this process be easy, or at least, easier? Is it really a tough skill to master? What are the steps of the process?

There are three factors that can help. There may be more, but these come to my attention right away.

1. Do you know the names of the notes you play on the fiddle? Since I rely so much on tab, I have not been strong on teaching this. Up until now, that is. Here is how it can help. If you know that the first finger note on the E string is F#, can you find the F# an octave lower? It’s the second finger on the D string, of course.

2. Do you know the physical relationship of the octave drop? I teach my students about the octave relationship of the open string and the third finger on the next higher string. That helps learning intonation.  For any fingered note you have to skip a string and use the next higher finger on the next string over.

For example, the open E has an octave relationship to the first finger on the D string. The open A has that octave relationship to the first finger on the G. Second string over, next finger up. The first finger on the E, playing and F# is matched by the second finger on the D. For the second finger on the E, you go to the third finger on the D and think of a whole step up as you go. The third finger is paired with the fourth finger, but you may choose the open string instead.

3. Can you sing or hum the tune? There’s a saying, “If you can sing it, you can play it.” That’s quite true as soon as you learn to play what you can sing. Which is a learned skill, not an intuitive leap. But not a difficult skill to learn for fiddlers that can play their notes without labor. While you learn this, you may also be learning to think in phrases like a singer, taking as much of the melody as a singer would before taking a breath.

Sometimes the phrase has two distinct parts, which musicians call question and answer. Woking with those parts is also satisfying. If needed you can go note by note, using note names and/or finger relationships to make the octave drop. Then put two or three notes together.

Transposing Up or Down an Octave

This octave transposition is a skill every musician learns, as far as I have encountered. It applies as well to transposing an octave higher. That may put you up in third position, not a bad place to be as a fiddler.

As far as fiddling goes, the octave drop has been more rewarding for me than the higher octave. It usually gets yo down to the G and D strings for some rich luscious sounds.

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