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’ meaning the Big Music, which separates piobaireachd from all other forms of pipe music ( marches, reels, jigs etc. ) which are referred to as ‘ceol beag’ – the little music.

To describe a piobaireachd is not easy. It consists of a theme or ‘ground’, with variations (which vary in number and complexity ) that follow the theme. The theme is often very slow, and the general effect of the whole piece of music is slow – slowness being a characteristic of Highland music.

Nothing resembling piobaireachd has been discovered in any other country in the world. Also the Great Highland Bagpipe is the only instrument which can reproduce piobaireachd satisfactorily to the ear of the devotee.

Frequently Asked Questions

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” meaning the Big Music, which separates piobaireachd from all other forms of pipe music ( marches, reels, jigs etc. ) which are referred to as “Ceol Beag” – the Little Music.

To describe a piobaireachd is not easy. It consists of a theme or “ground”, with variations (which vary in number and complexity ) that follow the theme. The theme is often very slow, and the general effect of the whole piece of music is slow – slowness being a characteristic of Highland music.

Nothing resembling piobaireachd has been discovered in any other country in the world. Also the Great Highland Bagpipe is the only instrument which can reproduce piobaireachd satisfactorily to the ear of the devotee.

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) as being “invented and taught by the first Masters of this instrument, in the islands of Mull and Sky.” This is certainly 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 Donald Mor MacCrimmon who was born in 1570. The Piobaireachd Society collections of tunes detail (where this is known) the composer of the tunes, though in many cases this is unknown.

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.

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 – to play in a slow and stately manner, but not so slowly that the listener becomes distracted. Similarly where the music is to be played more quickly, it should never be rushed. The best guide is to seek advice from a teacher of piobaireachd.

What is a “ground”?

This is the theme of the piobaireachd. The Gaelic word sometimes used is “Urlar”. Usually this follows a regular pattern – for example many tunes have 3 lines of music, the first two lines being 6 bars long, and the last line having 4 bars only. 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 the performance.

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 theme 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 long tune called “The Lament for the Harp Tree” can (depending on who plays it) last 25 minutes – a real test of the piper’s ability to concentrate, and keep his bagpipe in tune.

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.

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” – these are not present when bands play, nor are they easily audible if other instruments play. Also the music is not in strict time, so playing it in a group loses some of the sublety of expression, which 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.

Where can I go for more information about piobaireachd?

It depends what info you want. This website has a “contact” button on the homepage which will allow you to send an email to the Society. We should be able to answer most queries, or failing that, put you in touch with someone who will be able to help you

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

This document containing 168 tunes was written in about 1791, and instead of representing the music in staff notation, a form of words was used – as if the tunes were being sung. Each note and each movement had its own sound, and this system of sounds is now known as the Campbell Canntaireachd. For example the sound for low A is “en”, a G gracenote on low A is “hin”, and the sound for throw on D is “tra”.

Pipers frequently learn piobaireachd by the method of a teacher singing to them – though not all teachers use the Campbell Canntaireachd when they sing. While it is not necessary to learn the different sounds in detail, pipers will frequently come across the common Canntaireachd terms. Examples include the common movement called “hiharin”, which is a long E followed by a birl with a D gracenote in between. Also the Nameless tunes are described by the Canntaireachd version of their first phrase – e.g. the frequently heard (and very beautiful) tune “Hiharin Dro o Dro”

The Campbell Canntaireachd is described in detail at the beginning of each of the Society’s books of music, if you want to take a look at it. Again a teacher of piobaireachd would explain which terms are in common usage, and you may wish to learn the whole system – it is not as difficult as it appears.

I am a beginner in the field of Piobaireachd - which tunes should I start with?

 There is no particular tune which is an ideal starting point, but some tunes are much more difficult than others – so it makes sense to start with the easier ones. The College of Piping Tutor (part 4 – piobaireachd) suggests the following 4 tunes

  • The Company’s Lament
  • Mackintosh’s Banner
  • The Lament for Alistair Dearg MacDonnell of Glengarry
  • Glengarry’s Lament

 Each year the Piobaireachd Society suggests “set tunes” for the major solo competitions in Oban and Inverness. This system encourages the competing pipers to learn a wide variety of music as the years go by, and it is of course therefore more interesting for listeners who regularly attend these meetings, if the tunes vary from year to year.

In general, the tunes set for the Silver medal are easier than the Gold medal tunes, which is turn are not as difficult as the tunes for Clasp (this is the senior competition for those who have won a Gold medal). However there is a lot of good music in the “easier” piobaireachd and many of the most famous tunes in the repertoire are in this category – and can easily be learned by most pipers.

What relevance has the name of the tune, on the way it should be played?

The name of each tune may or may not be correct, as described by Archibald Campbell in his book  “The Kilberry Book of Coel Mor ”. Some tunes have several names and others have no name at all. To play a tune as a lament because it is named so, may or may not suit the character of the tune. A better guide is the music itself – which should suggest to the player how the tune should sound. Don’t get too concerned with the names, though they do make identification of tunes possible. Some tunes e.g. “A Flame of Wrath for Patrick Caogach” are well named, suggesting (in this case) that a tune should be played very boldly or angrily.

I have heard the same tune played differently by several pipers – why is that?

There is no right or wrong way to play a tune. Many players get a tune from a respected teacher and thus is becomes ( for example ) “ the way Bob Brown played it ”. Others will have been to a different teacher – and a different interpretation of the music has been made. As long as it is musical, any interpretation is acceptable. The most difficult thing to do is to learn to the tune straight from the music, with no guidance from another person – this takes years of experience.

Finally there are different accepted versions of many tunes. For example the original manuscripts of Angus MacKay (1838) and Donald MacDonald (1826) show that tunes with the same name, basic melody, and structure can be played very differently indeed. The Kilberry Book points out that Angus Mackay’s style is played much more frequently nowadays than Donald MacDonald’s style, though both are equally acceptable.

A book of Donald MacDonald’s music was published by the Society in 2006 and is available for purchase – look on the homepage for details. At times the “Donald MacDonald setting” will be suggested for one or more of the set tunes for the year. There are other accepted settings and details for each tune are provided in the 15 Piobaireachd Society books.

Where can I go to hear piobaireachd played?

There are numerous recordings available in many formats – go to the College of Piping or the Piping Centre websites for details. If you want to hear live piobaireachd, it is probably best to find a local solo competition or Highland Games. Note that the standard of playing at competitions can vary, but live music is certainly the best way to experience piobaireachd. The major competitions at Oban and Inverness have whole days of piobaireachd playing, of a very high standard, for you to enjoy. Occasional recitals occur, including at the time of the Piobaireachd Society conference which is usually held in March somewhere in Scotland (see homepage for details).

How are the Set Tunes chosen?

The Music Committee is responsible for recommending the tunes to be played in the Silver and Gold Medal and in the Clasp and Senior Piobaireachd competitions at the Northern Meeting and the Argyllshire Gathering each year.   The set tunes are normally also used for the Canadian Gold and Silver Medal and Irish Silver Medal competitions.

The aim is to select tunes of roughly equal ‘weight’ or ‘difficulty’ that will be challenging to competitors at the different levels and will also provide entertaining listening for audiences.    Another aim is to explore the piobaireachd repertoire as extensively as possible over the years.

It is usual for the settings of the tunes to be chosen from the Piobaireachd Society and Kilberry collections, but from time to time other settings are prescribed.   It is always made clear, however, that alternative settings are acceptable provided that there is good authority for them, that judges are advised in advance if they are to be played and that copies of the music are provided by the competitors.

The list of set tunes is published on the Piobaireachd Society’s website and in the piping press in the Spring of the year before they are due to be set so that competitors will be aware of them in good time.

Each year the judges on the Piobaireachd Society’s register hold two informal meetings in order to explore and discuss different styles and settings of the tunes.   Brief notes from these seminars are published on the website also.

The set tunes are used widely throughout the world as the curriculum for study at piobaireachd workshops.   The evidence is that a very wide range of tunes is played nowadays for which the setting of tunes must, in part, be responsible.

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

Most piobaireachd was first written down, in staff notation, after it had been learnt orally for several generations.  The same tune often has a different time signature in different collections.  One collection, Binneas is Boreraig, has neither time signatures nor bar lines.  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 for a few bars.

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.

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 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 Canntaireachd, the written system devised to record tunes before staff notation was used.  Therefore, where tunes have their only origin in a Canntaireachd source, editors of collections have added them by according to their perception of where they would normally be placed.

There is debate in the piobaireachd world about the timing of cadences and how strictly they should be placed; one school of thought is that the evidence suggests that they should be used much more randomly than is the case in current performance. There has been little variation in cadence placing and timing over the past 150 years.

How should pause marks in the Kilberry collection be interpreted?

This often causes difficulty, because often a pause mark is written over the last two notes of a phrase, and this can be seen to slow down and interrupt the musical flow.

The Kilberry book was compiled by Archibald Campbell and was his “best shot” at recording what his teachers showed him.  He states clearly however that it does not accurately replicate what was played – he uses the term  “piper’s jargon”,  meaning that the music can only be read 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 or static effect is avoided.

When should an “a mach” variation be played?

The general rule has come to be “if the melody suggests it”. In other words, 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 invariably played; in others e.g The Lament for the Children it would not.  In others, such as  “The Lament for Donald Ban”, some would say an a mach enhances the tune, others would say not.  Competitors should tell judges in advance if they intend to play an a mach.

The written collections are often unhelpful.  Lists have been made of tunes where an a mach is played, and these tend to reflect current thinking.

The MacGregor-MacArthur collection was the first example of full tunes written down; 14 of the 30 tunes have an a mach.  Next, in 1820, was Donald MacDonald – 25 of his 73 tunes have an a mach. Then, in 1838, Angus MacKay wrote an a mach in only 14 of his 244 tunes.  Of current collections, The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor has 117 tunes, 6 having an a mach.

How should the Crunluath Brebach 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 Brebach is The MacFarlane’s Gathering.

It is often written as a 3 note group with note 1 timed twice as long as notes 2 and 3 with the crunluath movement played between notes 1 and 2.  The usual timings are either:

  1. Note 1 is given 2 even pulses.  The crunluath movement is the 3rd pulse. Notes 2 and 3 are given one even pulse each.  There are therefore 5 even pulses.
  2. Note 1 is given 3 even pulses. The crunluath movement is the 4th pulse. Notes 2 and 3 are given one even pulse each.  There are therefore 6 even pulses.

There is some evidence that the style with 6 even pulses is relatively recent.

In the Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor note 3 is written half the length of note 2.  This is intended to mean that note 2 is dwelt on slightly longer than note 3; it is seldom played twice as long. Details are contained in the introduction to the book.

In the Piobaireachd Society Collection a Fosgailte a mach always follows a fosgailte variation but I have never heard it played. Why is this?

 The fosgailte type of crunluath variation occurs, for example, in “The Lament for the Viscount Dundee”.

In the original collections, MacGregor-MacArthur and Donald MacDonald, the “edere” movement is written “open” ie the E and F gracenotes were written on the themal B, C or D. In Angus MacKay, the movement is written “closed” ie the E and F gracenotes are written on low A.  Oral evidence tells us that both ways were played.

Some say the open version was played after the closed in certain tunes only – the famous teacher and player Alexander Cameron directed the playing of an open crunluath fosgailte at the end of the following tunes – “Too Long in this Condition”, “The Kings Taxes”, “The Groat”, “The Lament for the Viscount Dundee”, “Glengarry’s March” and “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart”.  John MacDonald of Inverness said that the open fosgailte. was sometimes played “as a diversion” instead of the closed way, but not additional to it.  There is no evidence to show that a “fosgailte a mach” is played after every conventional “fosgailte” as written in the Piobaireachd Society collection.

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, assuming the tempo is as it is today.  There is no reason not to  play grounds between variations, as there is clear evidence that it was done.

This is one of several examples which show that piobaireachd practice has changed over the years.