By Bruce Thomson

The 6/4 time signature is not found frequently in pipe music, but I can quote a few examples. The most familiar is perhaps, Farewell to Nigg, by Duncan Johnstone on page 68 of the Scots Guards volume two. They are quite scarce. For example, there is only one in the Mid-Argyll Collection. That’s The Collaboration Waltz by Tony Higgins and Rod Buchanan on page 58. Pipe Major Angus MacDonald has one in his second volume page 33, a slow air called Lochailort, and I could not find any in the Gordon’s collection, Cabar Feidh, The Royal Irish Rangers nor in Donald MacLeod’s books.

Jeannie Campbell has been most helpful. She tells me that there is a 6/4 in The Florida Collection called The Way Back by David Barnes. I do not have this book. There are five to be found in my own published collection and I am going to use one of them to help illustrate any points.

It is because I have found this time signature so pleasant to compose in, with hopefully reasonable results, that I am keen for others to use it. This is not a diatribe on time signatures but a little explanation is probably necessary. The 6/4 means that the 4 indicates the value note throughout the tune is a crochet and the 6, that there are six of them to a bar, giving six beats or in marching terms six paces. Thus there are 48 paces to a part, once through and 96, twice through. One can go some distance on one four part tune. I suspect that like a 4/4 the convention is that each part is only played through once. Here I am sticking my neck out as the 6/4 was not taught or, perhaps not even composed, in my youth. Those expert in pipe music history might be able to help.

As I have said before, I do not normally take a time signature and compose in that time, nor do I search around for some fragment of music heard before and extrapolate a tune from it. I need a few notes that sound attractive to me, get them down on paper, and spin a tune out from there. Of course it sometimes fails to work and you have to go back to the drawing board. The reason for this explanation is to show that I found this time signature by error in that the phrase I found constituted six crotchets which hung together as a bar of music. It followed that subsequent bars only made musical sense with the equivalent of six crochets to the bar. May I put forward the first part of my tune Nikki Thomson to illustrate how all this happened?

As one adds notes, phrases and in the end bars, it is a matter of trial and error to see if they fit your overall musical scheme. In a way it is a form of musical common sense and can be learnt by perseverance. There is nothing particularly clever about this process as the music itself only allows you to go in a sensible and linked up direction. Very often by putting the composition away overnight and returning to it next morning, it will be made plain whether you are going the right way. Of course, it is possible to get six crotchets to a bar by organising a 4/4 and adding two crotchets to each bar, but this is very stilted and does not produce a good, musical tune. I am now going to put in the three remaining parts of Nikki Thomson to illustrate how versatile a tune it is:

You will notice that the parts are very different yet hang together. This is the opinion of vastly more experienced players than I.

To sum up; this is a versatile time signature in that it can depict sadness as well as joy, at the same time giving one a long expressive tune to march to or fill in with, away from the endless run of 2/4s, 3/4s and 4/4s.

An example of a sad tune is Kate McNiven, page 5 of The Pass of Brander book. She was the last ‘witch’ to be burnt at the stake in Scotland. A much happier tune is The Mains of Ury on page 41 of the same book.

As I have indicated, it is possible of course to turn a 4/4 into a 6/4. In theory I suspect that one could in the end turn any given time into another time with seriously unattractive results. This is not within my ability or my wish, as I am only interested in producing music with an attractive melody. I am going to illustrate some points using an unpublished and unplayed tune called Highlandman Station:

The name comes from a now defunct railway halt just outside Crieff that was on the line that once ran through Crieff from Gleneagles and on up Loch Earn. It fell foul of Doctor Beeching and his cuts although the original station has been transformed into a house. It is close by Highlandman Loan down which the Highlanders drove their cattle from the Highlands and Islands to the Lowland and English markets.

I now show Highlandman Station in its original form composed in 2007 and the six four I spun from it:

Instantly, one recognises that it is not the same tune although there are similarities. Obviously one can change the time by adding a crotchet or two to the end of each bar, but you will be lucky if this produces a melodic tune. It is better to literally spin something entirely new from the original. I am pretty sure that this change of time cannot be done to a formula and you literally have to compose yourself from the one time to another, and you can see that is what I have done.

• From the May 2011 Piping Times.