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 ‘ceòl mór’ meaning the’big music’, which separates piobaireachd from all other forms of pipe music (marches, reels, jigs etc. ) which are referred to as ‘ceòl 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, though not, obviously, the dance 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.
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) 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 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. This is one of the skills in piobaireachd playing – maintaining a slow and stately manner, but not so slow that the listener loses interest. 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: 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 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 it. 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 ceòl mór 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: I am a piobaireachd beginner – which tunes should I start with?
The first thing to do is to buy a copy of the Kilberry Book and then seek out a teacher. The book has many straightforward tunes suitable for the beginner: Struan Robertson’s Salute, Sir James MacDonald of the Isles’ Lament, MacFarlane’s Gathering etc. The main thing is to get a teacher. Check out our ‘Learn’ page. Access it via the box on the website home page (you must be a member to do so).
Q: What relevance has the name of the tune on the way it should be played?
Very little. Many are misnomers. To play a tune as a lament because it is named so may or may not suit its character. A better guide is the music itself. Don’t get too concerned with titles, most are mere means of identification. However there are tunes where the name is significant. ‘A Flame of Wrath for Patrick Caogach’ is one. It must be played very boldly or angrily. Click on ‘Free’ on the Home Page to hear it.
Q: I have heard the same tune played differently by several pipers; why is that?
Piobaireachd has its rules. Imagine these rules as a framework (much like a painting). Within that framework pipers are free to express themselves as they like, hence differences in expression.
Q: Where can I go to hear piobaireachd played?
Join the Piobaireachd Society and you will get access to our superb archive of recordings. For live music, search the internet for ‘bagpipe competitions’ and you may discover an event taking place soon and/or quite near where you live, or perhaps a Livestream.
- An extended list of FAQs can be found on the Learn page