Creating new bagpipe music and explaining the inexplicable

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By Dr. Bruce Thomson

The only way of fulfilling the mission described in our headline is to literally develop a new tune from scratch. I can only show you how I set about it, not having had the privilege of looking over another composer’s shoulder. As previously, this is being done to promote discussion, develop ideas and hopefully encourage others to start composing. My qualification for attempting this explanation is that I have composed and written down over 400 tunes in 40 years and a surplus has landed in the waste paper basket. So this is a well-worn track. As my friend the late Pipe Major Brian MacRae used to say, I had too much manuscript paper.

To begin; the original phrase of the tune below appears to come from outer space but of course it is based on bits and pieces stored in the memory, and as in the previous article, the appearance of these scraps of music is much helped by going mentally through pipe and Scottish traditional music as a habit during the day, or even night.

It is often at this stage that several characteristics of the future tune become apparent. It is probably a 2/4 of the sort that goes only to two parts. It has the initial feel of a tune that would be in a minor key on any other instrument. It could turn out to be a march, slow march or slow air but we will have to see how it develops. All these ideas could go by the board. It would be too tedious to indicate singly all the changes that were introduced, so I will show them part by part and indicate the changes as we go along. Actual note changes, length, position etc. alter the structure of a tune and, thus a note change from say D to E or quaver to semi-quaver can alter in one fell swoop, the tone, the timing even the melody, so they should only be undertaken after much consideration, practical and theoretical.

On reading The Traditional and National Music of Scotland by Francis Collinson, this would appear to be a tune built on a Hexatonic Scale, in that it uses only six of the seven note scale. C would appear to be the missing note although it appears twice as a short link note. Tunes of this type are using a gapped scale and it is this system that gives the feeling of the Scottish native idiom. This was not in my mind when I thought of the original phrase and comes into the development of the tune. However the whole tone and construction of the tune can be foreseen in that first phrase. The progression from there is due to thought, trial and error. You may well be saying, ‘he is talking about developing a tune and one moment he has a phrase and in the next a whole part’. If one hums or plays the first bar, ideas come. This may be easy or maybe not. I try each invention over and over on the practice chanter.

It becomes plain whether the new music is going to fit in and the great thing is that it is not irrevocable. If there is no good result remember Robert the Bruce, and just try again. Should there be no progress walk away and sleep on it. I have always found that the next morning very often shows up the parts that are not going to work and produces new ideas that will work.

To achieve originality, you should mininise the number of phrases that have been worn out by repetition or at least present them in a different guise or light. Of course these phrases cannot be entirely avoided nor should they be, as some of them are the very essence of pipe music. This particular tune is reasonably free of the hackneyed phrase.

The first bar uses the lower notes of the scale and so I tried to insert a higher note in the second bar and a still higher one in the third. The fourth bar is of the utmost importance in most pipe tunes as it tends to reappear in every part albeit with minor variations. This is the point at which to mention the consumer. Making a tune attractive and original is of course important but please make it memorable for the average player as well as people playing other instruments. Seamus MacNeill used to say that any worthwhile tune on the pipes should be playable on any other instrument and sound good. To go back to the fourth bar I felt that E as final note would be good, and it is frequently found in this position with other tunes. Bars 5 and 6 are the same as 1 and 2. You have to be happy about this; you do not want the tune to sound too ‘samey’.

Now we come to the Ending. I use a capital E because of its importance. All one needs to do is to think of such brilliant endings as John MacDonald of Glencoe, Kantara to El Arish, Conon Bridge, Colonel Robertson and Farewell to the Creeks to realise that these tunes grow greatly in stature because of their endings. As I said in a previous article, my system is to keep humming or playing the preceding bars until an ending literally appears. Very often there are several, similar to each other. With frequent runs through one of them usually takes the lead. My ending ends in D which seemed to be the natural inclination of the tune but it could end on another note quite easily. Important though the ending is, it must be subservient to the tune with a touch of originality and the capacity to finalise each part. So you will find that the ending plays quite an important role in how the tune develops.

Below is the final result of the first part. You will note a few changes. Clearly, I felt they were an improvement on the original and you are quite at liberty to disagree and perhaps prefer the original or think of a different solution. Other endings tried are appended below.

The changes are obvious and largely down to the way I hear the tune. May I repeat that if you want advice on a tune do not go to the relatives and chums as they will naturally flatter you, rather, approach a seasoned player. You may be told a few home truths but these you can put to good use.

The 1st phrase in the second bar has lost the low A. In the 2nd bar the 2nd E has become an E. There is a radical change in the 1st phrase of the 4th bar as I felt the part was overloaded with double Ds. The changes in the ending include the loss of a high G in the first phrase 7th bar and the B and A in the 8th bar have swapped places with an emphasising birl before them.

Brian MacRae used to say that he often started composing by putting an ending together. He may well have been pulling my leg, but I suspect there was a grain of truth in it and it shows how different composing methods can be.

Other endings tried include the following.

I have always felt that the last part of any tune should include variations on your theme. Once more I point to the fourth part of Morag Ramsay by Pipe Major Peter R. MacLeod on page 13 of The Edcath Collection compiled by Pipe Major Donald Shaw Ramsay. The part is true to the tune but produces a totally different flavour.

All that is left is to print it out and give it a name. This last is important as it very often adds and sometimes subtracts from the tune. May I finish by once more emphasising the editor’s point in a recent leading article in the Piping Times: a tune should have a melody.

As you can see there is no name yet but I shall work on it. I think that this is a slow march.

• First published in the February 2009 Piping Times.