Teach Yourself Bagpipes by Lindsay Davidson - Piobaireachd

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This is a huge topic and no longer belongs to the realm of beginner 'piping.

It is also an immensely satisfying topic and after entering the wrld of piobaireachd for real,  many see a whole new realm of 'piping.

Piobaireachd (also pibroch), also known as ceol mor ('the great music'), is often called the classical music of the 'pipes, and it is without doubt a genre which places the great highland bagpipe in a different world to the rest of the world's bagpipe traditions. This form is unique in the bagpipe world to the Scottish tradition.

What is it?

A theme and variations in  the Baroque fashion.

The theme is called the 'Ground' and the variations are stylised. The variations take the essential underlying structure of the ground and subject this structure to systematic actions. These variations have names. They are often given twice each, the second of which has an additional change in the same general direction the the first. These are called Singlings and Doublings.

The ground is made up of a series of musical motifs, which can be thought about and worked with as rhetorical figures.

Traditionally, ceol mor is notated using a system of words called canntaireachd. Historically, there are two systems, one of which is in common use today. Canntaireachd influences timing and understanding of phrasing.

How does it function musically?

  • The drones provide a musical space and harmonic background. They should be set up and tuned in a way that accents and highlights the upper partials (harmonics) in the sound spectrum, and this gives a fullness and richness against which the chanter notes 'sing' and create harmonic tensions.
  • The rise and fall of these tensions creates one plane in which ceol mor functions musically.
  • The next plane is is terms of melodic tension. This tension is created through the intervals from note to note and the cumulative effect of all of this tension in each phrase.
  • A third plane of musical function is in the relationship between the ground and the variations.
  • And then...there is the physical space in which we perform. The acoustics of the room or open air environment change the way in which we hear the harmonics and build up and release of tension, and so alter the way we play.

How do we listen to it?

  • We mentally turn off time.
  • Each note should be heard against the drones.
  • Each note should be heard against what comes before and what comes next.
  • Allow the whole effect to engulf us.

How do we understand its interpretation?

There are two broad definitions to consider here - 'expressionist' and 'classical'. These are not tradition terms, but terms being used here by the writer.

Classical means we aim to create an interpretation according to a school of thought and tradition and concentrate on highlighting musical rhetorics at play. We impose an interpretation on the environment.

Expressionist means we react to the playing circumstances more than classical interpretation and we thus have greater irregularity of pace and pulse and phrase crafting.

Keeping these points in mind, then listen as above and generate interpretations according to the ideas above.

What are the specific challenges?

  • Rhythm and pulse are questions which are less regular than functional pipe music (marches and dances).
  • The contrast in length between notes and gracenotes is huge. This brings its own special challenges.
  • There are many areas where we need to have a mental sub-division of pulses of 2, 3 and 4 units, and also situations where pulses themselves are grouped into complex compunded arrays of triplets and other irregularities at the same time. The writer is working on midi programming the computer to play interpretations of grounds in order to further identify what these patterns and complexities are. This is a research project and is revealing insights to interpretation which considerably simplify the process of understanding how to play a given piece, which is why a few midi interpretations will be included here.
  • Keeping the instrument in tune for a long time...Pieces of ceol mor last from 3 minutes to 30 minutes...That is a long time to blow and stay in tune.
  • Memorising tunes.
  • General stamina - mental and physical.

Why do we have piobaireachd?

As with other piece of pipe music, important occasions in the history of a Clan or other group were marked by composing a piece of ceol mor. This is why we have Laments, Salutes, Battle tunes and other incidental tales. As time has gone by and social context has changed, we have expanded what might be commemorated by a composition and who, and linked the musical content more exactly to the meta-musical layer (the title and the story). In historical music, the titles may not always match the content, so care should be taken.

Other comments...

This is a massive field and people become students of piobaireachd for their whole lives. It is  a matter that rouses great passions, and thus controversy. Sensitivity to other viewpoints is advised, and a pinch of salt is recommended. A good guiding principle is to check the internal musical arguments presented whenever someone presents a position that seems a bit dogmatic.

There are movements for historical performance style and for further embedding the competition style. New compositions are appearing. 

Books the serious student of ceol mor will want in due course:

  • Kilberry book - the starting point for the 100 tunes. There are follow up books called 'sidelights'.
  • The Piobaireachd Society books - a long series with more detailed remarks about the tunes. 360 plus pieces.

Qualifying remark

Understanding ceol mor was a significant part of the writer's doctoral research in the field of music.
'Expressionist' and 'classical' are the writer's viewpoints and proposals.

This section is making progress...June 2021.

As this is a large project, please add to your favourites and keep coming back.

About this project
Lindsay Davidson
About the author