FAQs on the Playing of Piobaireachd

Q: What is piobaireachd?

The word ‘piobaireachd’ literally means pipe playing or pipe music, but is now used to describe the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Another name for it is ‘ceol mor’, the ‘big music’, as apposed to all other forms of pipe music, marches, reels, jigs etc., referred to as ‘ceol beag’, little music. A piobaireachd consists of a theme or, ‘ground’, with variations which vary in number and complexity following that theme. The theme is often very slow, and the general effect of the whole piece of music is slow – slowness being a characteristic of a lot of Highland music, though not, obviously, that associated with dancing.

Q: Who wrote the music?

When and where piobaireachd was first invented is impossible to say. It is old, but almost certainly not the oldest form of pipe music, as it is a highly developed product. In 1760 it was described by Joseph MacDonald (the earliest writer to publish a study of the music – get his ‘Compleat Theory’ here) as being ‘invented and taught by the first Masters of this instrument, in the islands of Mull and Sky’. The last is a reference to the famous MacCrimmon family from Skye who were hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan. Several tunes are known to have been composed by the MacCrimmons. The Piobaireachd Society Collection details the composer of the tunes where known.

Q: Is new music still being composed?

Yes, but infrequently. Newly composed music is available from the Piobaireachd Society – obviously in these cases the composer is named and often is a piper of distinction with years of piobaireachd playing experience. Check out the Society’s book of 20th Century tunes here.

Q: What speed should you play the music?

Slowly – but not too slow. Pipers can play slowly and yet demonstrate that the music is still ‘alive’ and moving forward at all times. This is one of the skills in piobaireachd playing – maintaining a slow and stately manner, but not so slowly that the listener loses interest in the tune. Similarly, where the music is to be played more quickly, it should never be rushed. The best guide is to seek advice from a qualified teacher. Check out the Society’s ‘Learn’ page here.

Q: What is a ‘ground’?

This is the theme of the piobaireachd. The Gaelic word sometimes used is urlar. Usually the urlar follows a regular pattern – for example many tunes have three lines of music, the first two lines being six bars long, and the last line having only four bars. However there are other forms the ground can take, and some are completely irregular with no obvious form. Usually the first line of the ground is repeated at the end of a performance.

Q: What are ‘variations’?

Anyone with a basic knowledge of classical music will be  familiar with the concept of a theme and variations. The variations are based on the ground (the theme), generally utilising the main melody notes. In other words they look at the melody of the tune from another aspect, whilst still holding true to the theme. They can take several different forms, and the best way to see this, is to examine some written piobaireachd music on the stave.

In piobaireachd, the ground is followed by a number of variations which can range from a single variation (though this might mean others have been lost over the centuries) to a large number. The Lament for the Union has 19 variations. Commonly there are 5 – 7 variations, meaning that a piobaireachd can last for 10 – 15 minutes. Very long tunes do exist; The Lament for the Harp Tree can last 25 minutes – a real test of the piper’s ability to concentrate, and keep his bagpipe in tune.

Q: Why does the piper often walk slowly while playing?

There is no defined rule for standing still or walking – but most pipers walk slowly in a circle. It is hard to stand in one place comfortably for a prolonged period, and possibly the effect of the piper moving also makes the experience more interesting for the listener, as the sound varies slightly as he/she moves.

Q: Can you play piobaireachd in groups or pipe bands?

Traditionally the music was composed for the solo bagpipe and this is certainly the best way to appreciate it. The notes of each tune combine with the sound from the drones to produce harmonics which are not present when bands play, nor are they easily audible if other instruments join in. Furthermore, the music is not in strict time, so playing it in a group loses some of the sublety of expression a solo performer can bring to the music. However some enterprising pipe bands have played piobaireachd, and some recent recordings have been made with other instruments accompanying a solo player. These endeavours can be enjoyable and if they broaden the appeal of ceol mor and attract new interest then they are to be welcomed.

Q: Where can I go for more information about piobaireachd?

Join the Piobaireachd Society!

Q: What is the Campbell Canntaireachd? Do I have to learn this?

This document, containing 168 tunes, was written in about 1791, and uses a system of stylised vocables to represent the notes and movements of the melody as if the tunes were being sung. Each note and each movement has its own sound. In the Campbell Canntaireachd (there are other forms of vocables), the sound and word for low A is en; a G gracenote on low A is hin, and the sound for throw on D is tra. Hiharin is a long E followed by a big D gracenote on a birl.

Pipers frequently learn piobaireachd from a teacher singing to them, though usually they will use their own vocables rather than those set down in the Campbell Canntaireachd (CC). Students of piobaireachd really should learn this system the better to understand and interpret what has been passed down to us. It is a fascinating study.

There is more on the CC in the Society’s collection and also in the General Preface by Dr Roderick Cannon.

Q: How are the Set Tunes chosen?

This is a function of the Society’s Music Committee. It is responsible for recommending the tunes to be played in the Silver and Gold Medals, and in the Clasp and Senior Piobaireachd competitions at the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering each year. The aim is to select tunes of roughly equal ‘weight’ that will be challenging to competitors at the different levels and will also provide entertaining listening for audiences. Another aim is to encourage pipers to explore the piobaireachd repertoire as extensively as possible over the years. The set tunes system has led to an increase in repertoire worldwide, of that there can be no doubt.

Q: What importance should be placed on the time signature of a tune?

Time signatures are only a guide and must be applied with a degree of flexibility. The same tune often has a different time signature in different collections. The book ‘Binneas is Boreraig’, has neither time signatures nor bar lines but uses relative note values to depict the melody.  Whether a tune is written in 3/4, 6/8 or 4/4, the time signature will be at best a guide only. There are often passages within tunes where if the music was strictly recorded, the time signature would change every few bars.

Q: How should the tempo be altered as the tune progresses?

This varies according to the tune. In tunes containing more than one piece of groundwork, there may be a fractional increase in pace from first to second ground etc. ‘Doublings’ and ‘treblings’ of variations can be played slightly faster than ‘singlings’, with the tempo being slowed on entering the ‘singling’ of the next variation.

Q: What are ‘cadences’ and what is their significance in piobaireachd?

Cadences are note groups consisting usually of E, a lower note, then low A or low G. This note grouping tends to occur at phrase ends, in grounds and in variation singlings. The second of the three notes (in a three-note cadence) is normally the theme note and tends to be given a little more length than the first or third note. This varies between tunes, and it is generally thought important that timing is in accordance with the musical flow of the tune.

Cadences were not included in the Campbell Canntaireachd, the written (possibly shorthand) system devised to record tunes pre-staff notation.  Therefore, where tunes have their only origin in a CC source, editors have added them by according to their perception of where they would normally be placed. There has been little variation in cadence placing and timing over the past 150 years.

Q: How should pause marks in the Kilberry Book be interpreted?

With great care. They are often only designed to indicate a small stress rather than that suggested by the presence of the fermata. Stresses must never interrupt musical flow. The book’s author, Archibald Campbell, states clearly however that what he has transcribed does not accurately replicate what was played. He uses the phrase ‘piper’s jargon’ to describe it, meaning that the music can only be followed if the piper is familiar with piobaireachd. His son, James Campbell, stated that his father meant pause marks to mean ‘a denial of shortness’.  In many cases where two pause marks are written on succeeding notes, one or other of these notes is lengthened, with the other being shorter, so that a ponderous effect is avoided.

Q: When should an a mach variation be played?

If the tune contains a sufficient number of a mach notes – Bs, Cs and Ds – and if the tune would be enhanced by the addition of an a mach variation. In certain tunes, e.g. the Bells of Perth, an a mach suits and would be necessary. In others, e.g. The Lament for the Children, it would not. In others, such as the lengthy Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon, some would say an a mach enhances the tune, others would say not. In 1838 Angus MacKay wrote an a mach in only 14 of his 244 tunes. A traditionally taught teacher is the best recourse here.

Q: How should the crunluath breabach be played?

This is best learnt from your teacher or by listening to an expert playing. A detailed piece about it is contained in the introduction to The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor and in Sidelights on the Kilberry book of Ceol Mor. An example of a tune with a crunlauth breabach is MacFarlane’s Gathering.

Q: In the Piobaireachd Society collection a fosgailte a mach always follows a crunluath fosgailte variation but I have never heard it played. Why is this?

There are two schools of thought. One is that when a standard fosgailte (pro. foss gail che) is played it must never be followed by the open fosgailte, sometimes known as the fosgailte a mach. The other school takes the opposite view saying the latter provides an interesting finish to a performance. To play both is not considered compulsory and competitors risk an error if they add an extra variation, hence the disinclination to do so. Some lament this saying it has removed an interesting aspect of particular tunes.

Q: The older collections often say the ground should be played between variations. Why is this not done now?

Possibly due to the constraints of competition. Tunes would be very long with the grounds played in between variations. This is one of several examples which show that piobaireachd practice has changed and perhaps improved the art form over the years. There is one suggestion that in previous centuries repeats of the ground were done after pipers stopped to tune their drones during performance. In days past steady pipes would have been a rarity. A reiteration of the ground would establish the thread of the piece.