Canntaireachd and graphic design: capturing its ‘expressive force’

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By KATE CARPENTER and JOSHUA DICKSON.

The Pibroch Network gathers together and makes accessible pibroch’s earliest primary sources with the means to explore them effectively, meaningfully, and collaboratively. It’s a network not only in terms of the comprehensive and interlinking database of repertoire and source material made ever more discoverable – it’s also a network by virtue of its many user communities able to engage with each other – pipers, other musicians and singers, artists, scholars, researchers, students and teachers.

By bringing together voices new and old, we aim to spark innovations in research, education, performance, outreach, and access to pibroch: the single malt of Scottish music.  

Kate Carpenter volunteers as a visual design consultant for Phase III of the Pibroch Network website. Through her Masters degree in graphic design, she has been investigating how to use canntaireachd as not just an aural but also a visual representation of pibroch. The work she is producing as part of her studies includes a visual album of the tunes contained within the 1828 Gesto Canntaireachd with musical information represented visually in John (Iain Dubh) MacCrimmon’s vocables through the tools of graphic design. Below, Kate recounts her initial discovery of this historical source and her collaboration with the Pibroch Network to realise her creative ideas – culminating in practical solutions for improving non-pipers’ access to the classical music of the Highland bagpipe.

There has long been a tradition of women upholding and passing on knowledge of piping through canntaireachd.[1] Unwittingly, I’ve followed in these footsteps – years ago, my partner, a former Vale of Atholl piper, made a comment in passing about the existence of canntaireachd, a ‘secret language’ of pipers. Women are no longer excluded from playing the pipes, and there is nothing stopping me from trying to learn to play them, except that I am no musician, and am far more visually inclined in how I think and process the world. Canntaireachd felt like a way of understanding and coming closer to this music; a point of entry more accessible to me as a graphic designer.

Visualising canntaireachd

This initial mention of canntaireachd planted a seed: I loved the cross-sensory idea that music could be written down in words, and that this could be an art form in itself. In the case of canntaireachd, this hasn’t always been plain sailing; it was Frans Buisman who first offered the important philosophical and functional point in 1987 that ‘it is essential for canntaireachd to be chanted … canntaireachd ceases to be canntaireachd the moment it is written down’.[2] Buisman believed that to render pibroch graphically was to deprive canntaireachd of its ‘expressive force’ as a fundamentally oral/aural representation of the music.

While undertaking a Masters degree in graphic design, I became inspired to challenge this lack of ‘expressive force’ in written canntaireachd. Playing with the idea that overlaying images can create new meanings, the seed of an idea started to sprout: what meaning might be conveyed by screen printing a canntaireachd design onto the musical notation?

Visual representations of pibroch and canntaireachd took root in my imagination. I learned about the existence of A Collection of Piobaireachd or Pipe Tunes as Verbally Taught by the McCrummen Pipers … by Neil MacLeod of Gesto in 1828, and as I was searching high and low for more information, I came across papers by both Barnaby Brown and Josh Dickson and transcriptions of Roderick Cannon’s lectures. I discovered an early attempt in 1880 when John F Campbell published Canntaireachd: Articulate Music, in which he tried, unsuccessfully, to align the Gesto vocables with the notes of Cill Chriosda (‘Kilchrist’) on the stave.

Figure 1: The opening notation of ‘Kilchrist’ in John F Campbell’s Canntaireachd: Articulate Music (1880)

I found myself following links to the erstwhile Alt Pibroch Club website. Eventually this led to an inquisatory email to Barnaby and an initial phone call, which evolved into a series of regular meetings. In exchange for some graphic design for the nascent Pibroch Network, Barnaby provided me with tuition in the music and history of canntaireachd and, more widely, pibroch.

The vocables of canntaireachd captured my imagination. As a self-confessed non-musician, I use canntaireachd as a means of understanding and accessing musical patterns and theory that have otherwise eluded me. As an outsider and a graphic designer, I look for visual ways to communicate the experience of pibroch – its ‘expressive force’ – through visual means.  

Working from this place, honouring past traditions while speaking to wider audiences, I wanted to create an intuitive visual language that could be applied directly to the text of canntaireachd. By using the tools of a graphic designer – colour, size, space, typography – to embed musical information into the text of the vocables in a more intuitive and accessible way, written canntaireachd begins to stand on its own, free from the constraints of staff notation.

The Gesto Canntaireachd and the development of visual variables

Neil MacLeod of Gesto’s written form of canntaireachd is a transcription of the singing of Iain Dubh MacCrimmon prior to his death in 1822. This is very different from the written system of canntaireachd developed by Colin Campbell of Nether Lorn between 1797 and 1815, which was a system essentially innovated by a single person as graphic notation inspired by traditional chanting. In other words, unlike the Campbell notation, the vocables used in the Gesto Canntaireachd were written as MacLeod heard them, and are intended to be sung. His transcription has its well-known drawbacks; for example, without hearing them (or already knowing a particular tune), a reader can’t discern whether ‘ho’ is a B or a C.

Developing principles for implementing visual variables, I explored different ways of highlighting rhythms, internal structures, and the pitch or tonal colour of each vocable. In the sketch below, the vocables’ pitches relative  to each other are represented with the placement of the red dot, but the primary focus is on the rhythm and relative length of each vocable, conveyed through the size of the text and the weight of the font.

Figure 2: A sketch by Kate Carpenter illustrating the rhythm of the ground in Ceann na Drochaide Bige / The End of the Little Bridge.

By applying colour to the text, the intended pitch of each vocable is unambiguosly conveyed to the reader. I ‘hear’ the dissonant notes of pibroch as brash, reddish colours, and the more consonant notes as calm blues and greens. This in turn links back to Thomas Pearston’s 1973 table of piping notes and their associated meanings.[3] With all these influences in mind, I created a system with a colour per note on the piping scale:

Figure 3: The colours selected for each note, alongside Thomas Pearston’s associated meanings

Likewise, by applying fonts of increasing weight, I can express the relative length of each vocable. These tools allow a performer to engage directly with the text of the canntaireachd and sing or play without needing sheet music. (For playing the pipes, knowledge of which vocables correspond with which finger movements is still required.)

By assigning a colour per note, I can create an image of a whole tune with the intent to convey its overall emotion, or encode this information into written text and allow someone to use canntaireachd to sing or play without needing sheet music (for playing the pipes, this would still require knowledge of which vocables correspond with which finger movements).

Collaborations with the Pibroch Network bore fruit in the form of an exhibition at the Arts University Bournemouth in June of 2022. Using the vocables and my system of colours and text weight, I created a zoetrope – a type of Victorian animation, predating film – to illustrate the changing tempo of a pibroch. Barnaby provided the canntaireachd, and visitors were able to listen to the tune being sung while watching the spinning zoetrope.

Figure 4: Zoetrope representation of Ceann na Drochaide Bige / The End of the Little Bridge, featured in an exhibition at Arts University Bournemouth, June 2022, by Kate Carpenter.

The sketches and representations of Ceann na Drochaide were initial experiements. I had been studying the text of the Gesto canntaireachd and the sheet music from Roderick’s typescript for his book The Music of John MacCrimmon, creating a database of vocables and their corresponding notes for each of the tunes in this collection. A larger undertaking began after Barnaby commented that it would be useful to have an updated version of the Gesto canntaireachd, even if the only changes were greater spacing between the lines, and simple numbering of each line for ease of reference.

Realising I had all the information required to do so, I set myself the aim of producing a version of the Gesto canntaireachd that incorporates musical information directly into the vocables of John MacCrimmon. Through the Pibroch Network, I was able to work with freelance software developer Jamie Green, who kindly wrote a script so that I could quickly import and format my spreadsheets, and I was off and running.

Figure 5: Mallachd nam Piobairean / The Curse of the Pipers. Excerpt from Kate Carpenter’s book The Gesto Canntaireachd, showing her system of embedding musical information into the vocables using colour and weight.

This book which I produced privately for my Masters degree, The Gesto Canntaireachd (after the common shorthand for Niel MacLeod’s collection), is intended as a practical resource and will hopefully be useful for pipers and those interested in learning and performing canntaireachd. It is also, in some ways, the book I was looking for when canntaireachd first piqued my interest by bringing together the short historical notes MacLeod made on each tune, along with background information on the titles from Roderick Cannon’s ‘Gaelic Names of Pibroch: A Concise Dictionary’.

A Visual Album of Pipe Tunes

A far less practical, but more emotional and expressive interpretation of the Gesto canntaireachd is the second book I created for my Masters. Titled A Visual Album of Pipe Tunes, each page illustrates one of the tunes from The Gesto Canntaireachd, with colour selections informed by the emotion and meaning behind the music. The cover is reminiscent of an LP, with a track listing and liner notes on the back.

Figure 6: Front and back covers of Kate Carpenter’s A Visual Album of Pipe Tunes

Colour selections for these tunes were limited to two each due to the printing process; the colours were selected for emotive reasons rather than for practical use. Tunes with war-like or fierce themes have more red; laments have blue or mint; regal tunes use gold.

Figures 7, 8: Excerpts from Kate Carpenter’s book A Visual Album of Pipe Tunes

The canntaireachd of each tune is presented in a spiral, harking back to the path a piper walks as they play, as well as a shape commonly found in traditional Scottish art. These ‘wreaths’ of text simulate the wall of sound, associated with the pipes, emanating from a single source. The form of the book enhances this blossoming of sound, each page unfolding as it opens, as seen in the video below.

Coming full circle, I returned to screen printing a wreath of canntaireachd, this time working with the tune Cill Chriosda, which contrasts nicely with John F Campbell’s representation of the tune in 1880. I selected colours from my colour palette (Fig 3) based on the notes present in the tune, but not applied directly to each vocable. The aim was to convey the mood and feeling of the tune, without requiring the piece to be an accurate or specific representation of the music behind the canntaireachd:

Figure 9: Visual representation of Cill Chriosda in canntaireachd overlaid on notation, by Kate Carpenter

All in all, the creation of this work could not have happened without the Pibroch Network – truly living up to its stated aims of welcoming both pipers and non-pipers, providing a collaborative network of resources and people, and supporting the traditional study of pibroch while exploring modern interpretations and revisions.


[1] Dickson, Joshua, ‘Piping sung: women, canntaireachd and the role of tradition-bearer’. Scottish Studies 36 (2013), pp 45-65.

[2] Buisman, Frans, ‘From chant to script: some evidences of chronology in Colin Campbell’s adaptation of canntaireachd’. Piping Times 39, No. 7 (1987), p. 45. 

[3] Pearston, Thomas, ‘Bagpipe Tuning’. Piping Times 25, No. 4 (1973), pp 8-11.