Theme Code Index

Find traditional instrumental music

from: FARNE: The Folk Archive of North East.

Try using our indexing system to search for a familiar tune. Where possible tunes in the archive have been indexed using the Theme Code Index. This search will be especially useful to those who have heard a tune and wish to find the notation. The index is explained more fully below.

There are many ways of classifying and indexing tunes by means of codes, and all have their advantages and disadvantages. If the code is too detailed it may not provide a match for two versions of the same tune, while if it is too vague it will give matches with tunes which on examination are quite different.

The codes here use the system described in Charles Gore's 'The Scottish Fiddle Music Index' (The Amaising Publishing House Ltd, Musselburgh, 1994), which is in turn based on the work of the great Irish music scholar Breandán Breathnach. Theme Code Index has itself been useful in writing the commentaries to the tunes on the FARNE website, by providing titles for untitled tunes, identifying composers, and also in showing when a tune is NOT in one of the many publications listed by Gore.

Before going into detail about how to work out a theme code, hum the first bars of The Keel Row to yourself and see if the following makes any sense:
3142 3125L. If it does, you are more than halfway there. Now for the details.

The two main factors in establishing theme codes are PITCH and RHYTHM.

The system is based on a simple numerical code which does not depend on the key of the tune, so that versions of the same tune in different keys will have the same code. For doh, re, mi etc. substitute the numbers 1, 2, 3 up to to 7. The top doh becomes 1H (H for high), and higher notes still are 2H, 3H etc. For notes below the MAIN OCTAVE we use 7L, 6L etc (L for low). A higher octave than H is represented by T, and a lower octave than L by F - both are very rare in traditional tunes.

The main octave is probably easiest for fiddlers to understand - it is the highest octave in the relevant key which can be played in first position. For tunes in C major, C minor or C# minor for example, 1 is third finger on the G-string and 1H is second finger on the A-string. For tunes in Bb major or B minor, 1 is first finger on the A-string and 1H is fourth finger on the E-string. For non-fiddlers, the main octaves of each scale start on middle C (first leger line below treble-clef stave) for tunes in C, on D above middle C for tunes in D, and so on to Bb and B.

The numbers 1 to 7 refer to the notes in the Major scale, or Ionian mode (see the section on MODES for more information). If our tune is in A minor, for instance, the 3rd note is C natural rather than the C# of the major scale, so the pair of notes A C is represented by 13b, the b representing the flat sign. The G natural below our main octave is 7bL - G# would be 7L. F natural would be 6b, F# would be 6. If our A minor tune has an exotic D# in the main octave it would be 4#, and so on.

Zero is used when a rest falls on a main beat, and is more common in song tunes than instrumental tunes.

' Occasionally when the same tune is found in different keys the theme code will be different because of the registers involved. When this is known to be the case then two versions of the code are given. Key signature is not a reliable way to find the keynote, or 1, of a tune, if the tune is in a mode other than Ionian and Aeolian ('standard' major and 'natural' minor). The keynote must be found through playing the tune or hearing it in ones head. Although often a tune starts and ends on its keynote, this also is not a safe guide, particularly with pipe tunes whose strains frequently end 'up in the air'. Although many tunes are described 'double tonic' this usually only means that they are built on two chords, one of which is definitely felt as the 'home' chord, but a few tunes are ambiguous, and with these two versions of the theme code are given.

The codes are based on the main beats of the first two or four bars of the tune and consist of two groups of either four or three numbers. The notes between the main beats are not counted. If a note takes up more than one beat (e.g. a minim or a dotted crotchet in a 4/4 bar) then it also provides the number for the next beat. Note that some rhythms (3/8, 6/4, 3/2, 9/4) are interpreted differently by Gore, so if using his Index this must be allowed for.

If the tune is in 4/4 or 2/2 then the bar is divided into four and the note which falls on each beat is given a number, as in our Keel Row example. Two bars are numbered. If it is in 2/4 then each bar has two beats, so four bars are numbered to give the two groups. 6/8 is treated like 2/4 with two beats per bar: the first note of each quaver triplet, dotted crotchet or other half-bar group is numbered and four bars are numbered to give the two groups. One bar of 12/8 counts as two 6/8 bars and gives four numbers. 6/4 is an older way of spelling 6/8 and is treated in the same way as 6/8, two beats ber bar, though beware of incorrect time signatures - sometimes 6/4 is mistakenly written for 3/2 which is treated differently, see below.

These are used for 3/2, 3/4, 3/8, 9/8 and 9/4 rhythms. In each case the bar is divided into three to find the numbers of the notes which begin each beat. The advantage in using the same division for all tunes in 3/2, 3/4 and 3/8 is that matches will be found whether a waltz is written in 3/8 or 3/4 and whether a triple-time hornpipe is written in 3/4 or 3/2.

If a reel or hornpipe is written in 2/4 (mainly semiquavers) rather than 2/2 or 4/4 (mainly quavers) then it will have a different theme code. When tunes are known to have more than one rhythmic spelling then both codes are given.

Alternative Version

The system used in this index for identifying musical themes is based on the work of the late Breandan Breathnach, the great Irish traditional music expert, editor of "Ceol Rince na hEireann", a collection of Irish dance music published in 1963 and of much else besides. The editors of Ihe Scottish Fiddle Music Index acknowledge with gratitude the efficiency of the Numerical Representation system when applied to traditional music sharing the same ancestry.


  • FlRST: establish the "Key Note"
  • SECOND: estabiish the Time Signature
  • THIRD: build the Theme Code, based upon Key and Time Signatures

Establishing the Key Note and setting out the Code
The Key Note is that to which the music returns naturally (as when finishing the phrase with a chord). In the majority of cases, this would normally be a simple matter of checking the key signature against the last note of the firsl eight bars of music(*).

  • For example:
    • 3 Sharps (Key of A Major)
               Last Note: A Key Note: A
    • No Sharps (Key of A Minor or C Major)
               Last Note: A Key Note: A
               Last Note: C Key Note: C
    • 1 Flat (Key of F Major)
               Last Note: F Key Note: F etc., etc.

This means that the CODE remains the same, no matter how many different keys the music may have been arranged in over the years.
(*)Where the first section of a melody does not return to the Key Note, thus producing doubt as to key, the best test is to try the "finishing chord". Among the older collections, there are examples of keys which can, literally, be "disputed"; however, these are rare.

Numbering the first note of the music

Now turn to the FIRST BEAT NOTE of the music. If it happens also to be the Key Note, it receives the coding "1". If it does not, it will receive the coding 2,3,4,5,6 or 7 ascending the scale.
Music set in the octave,starting at Middle C (or ascending, to B Natural) are represented by the figures 1 to 7. For example:

Key of C Major: Key Note C = 1 (Note 7 = B Natural)
Key of D Major: Key Note D = 1 (Note 7 = C Sharp) ... and so on

A note which falls in the octave BELOW this central octave (eg: in C Major, below middle C), is followed by the letter "L" (1L to 7L); two octaves below, by the letter "F" (1F to 7F).
A note which falls in the octave ABOVE (eg: in C Major, the C above Middle C, ascending) is followed by the letter "H" (1H to 7H); two octaves above, by the letter "T" (1T to 7T).
In the MINOR MODE, the altered notes are indicated by a flat symbol (here represented as a lower case b).
If an accidental occurs on the beat of the music, interrupting the natural progression of the scale, it is indicated by a # or a b.

Grouping the codes according to Time Signature
The Musical Theme Code uses ONLY THE BEAT NOTES in the music. Though it may be decorated with quavers or many more notes of values less than a crotchet, the Code uses only the note which falls on the beat.
If a beat note is of LONGER DURATION than a crotchet, each beat within it is represented by the SAME FIGURE (eg: two beats to a minim, etc.)
If a beat falls on a rest in the music, it is indicate~ by "0" (Zero).
The number of BEATS used in the Musical Theme Code varies according to the Time Signature, but the code itself always fall into two groups

 | CODE A |     &      | CODE B |

CODES GROUPED IN FOURS: 4/4 time has 4 beats to the bar and uses the first 2 bars of the melody 2/2 time (or C| ) may be regarded as the same as 4/4 for this purpose 2/4 time has 2 beats to the bar and uses the first 4 bars of the melody 6/8 time should be treated in the same way as 2/4 time (use 4 bars)
CODES GROUPED IN THREES: 3/4 time has 3 beats to the bar and uses the first 2 bars of the melody 9/8 time should be treated in the same way as 3/4 time (use 2 bars)
LESS FAMILIAR TIME SIGNATURES: 12/8 time with 4 beats to the bar uses the first two bars (Fours) 3/8 time with (in effect) one beat uses the first 6 bars (Threes) 6/4 time (in effect double 3/4 time) uses the first bar only (Threes)

Reading Theme Codes
Each melody in the Main Index has been given a Theme Code. Once having mastered the rules above, it should be possible to use the Theme Codes for cross- referencing. The various purposes to which these can be put are explained in the following section "Using the Theme Code Index".

Setting out Theme Codes
Wilh a suitable photocopy of the music to hand, the numbers can be written under the beat notes directly. If the music is not in written form, it is as well to scribble down the first 8 bars of the music on manuscript and work from that. If the piece is in the Index, it can then be traced against the Theme Code Index (to give its title/s) and in the A-Z Index for its source.

Once you have cracked the coding system, the THEME CODE INDEX can be brought fully into play. It has three purposes:
1. To facilitate a search for any tune of which the title is unknown or temporarily forgotten. Just the first two bars, a Key Note and Time Signature are all it is necessary lo remember.
2. To create a cross-referencing system whereby tunes wilh a shared melody can be found listed together. Many of the older traditional tunes have been published under one or more titles, sometimes, it has been argued. for not entirely innocent reasons (For example, lhe Gows are alleged to have "borrowed" a number of lunes by Marshall and others and republished them under different titles). In the case of some of the most familiar vocal melodies, short titles and first lines are virtually interchangeable and this has led to confusion in the past.
3. To indicate, by means of the letter prefix (I) or (II), if a tune has been re-published in the later period (from about 1844 onwards). They are left in duplicate for a practical reason: When obtaining copies from library editions of books long out of print, the rule lends to be that pre-1800 volumes are stored on microfiche or film and are expensive to reproduce, whereas later colleclions may normally be photocopied for a fraction of lhe cost. It is always as well to ascertain how lhe material is stored.

THE PROGRESSION is numerical, beginning al the lowest CODE A coding (1L1L1L1L) and ending with the highest (1T1T3T1T) without any sub- division. Use the title and the letter prefix (I) or (ll) to return to tne appropriate A-Z section.


T:Ossian's Hall (first 4 bars)
C:Collection: John Anderson
e | cAec fde=c | B=GBd =g2 Bd | cAec fded | cAce a2 e ||
%   3 5  6 5     2  2   7b 2

T:Sr. Adam Ferguson's Reel
C:John Riddell of Ayr
B,EEF E/F/G FE | A,DDE  D/E/F ED | GFED EFGA | Bedc B2 E2 ||
%5L 1  1     2    4L 7bL 7bL   1

T:My Bonny Laddie has my Heart
C:William Christie
B, | E>F B2 E>F | AF E2 D2 | E>F B2 A>B | df e2 e>f | g>f e2 dB |
%    1   5  1     4  1  7bL
B<d F2 ED | E>F d2 B2 | AF E2 ||

T:Kiss me Fast
C:James Aird
D2 A F2 A | E2 F GFE | D2 A F2 A | D2 A F2 A | G2 B F2 A | E2 F GFE |
%1    3      2    4     1    3      1    3
dcB AFA | D2 F AFD ||