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.

Get more answers by joining the Society now! Here’s the link.

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 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.

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!