Enough music for pipers


This article, written by the legendary Jack Churchill, was published in the very first edition of The International Piper (May 1978).

Jack Churchill was a British Army officer who fought in the Second World War with a longbow, bagpipes, and a Scottish broadsword. Nicknamed ‘Fighting Jack Churchill’ and ‘Mad Jack’, he was known for the motto: “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” An article about him appeared on BagpipeNews last March.

In his article, Churchill essentially explains lucidly to a learner the basics of pipe music. It is a very useful article for learners and, indeed, tutors.

Captain John A MacLellan writes: “The following dissertation was written by Colonel (then Major) Jack Churchill for the edification of his Commanding Officer who was at that time very much a learner piper. The success of his methods must be measured by the knowledge that today that Commanding Officer is now an enthusiastic piobaireachd player.”

“The instructions were written on the back of regimental daily orders of the 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders at Bicester on September 13, 1947. His obvious military approach to the explanation of sufficient theory to read elementary musical scores is unique.”

By Jack Churchill

To be able to play written music on sight, on a pipe, without some previous knowledge of the tune, two things are necessary,

1. To be able to arrange the fingers correctly on the chanter, so that when blown, the right sound is heard for each of the notes shown on the music sheet. To be able to do this only, is not however enough to produce the melody.

2. It is also necessary to keep the fingers correctly arranged, for the same length of time the composer of the tune himself did, when he composed it. This is Time.

Given the ability to do both 1. and 2. accurately, any player, anywhere, at any date in history, can produce the same melody as any other player, from a similar sheet of music. Several players can also play together the same tune, even on first meeting, provided the design of the instruments is the same.

A page of written music bears the same relationship to the sound of the tune it represents as a page of writing Joes to the passage it represents when it is read aloud. Except that the written music is more accurate than the w word because it indicates the duration each sound. Each word, however, in prose, is not so stressed normally, nor is any indication how long a complete passage will take to read.

Moreover, if a man sets out to play a bagpipe from A to B, five miles away, the exact note he will be playing on passing the fifth milestone can be calculated advance if he decides on his tunes beforehand and walks consistently to a known step length. This is because pipe music is based precisely on a steady beat – the quick march step – slow march step dance step – or dance step, depending on the tune.

There are certain conventional signs connected with writing music which have to be learnt. These may be looked upon as the musical alphabet. For pipers, these signs are few and simple. There are no sharps or flats, nor are there different keys to worry about or other complications.

The comparative length of notes is shown in Logan’s Tutor. From this it be observed that the duration of shortest note is only 1/32 of that of the longest. This is a far wider range piping needs. A longer note than this

(crotchet) is seldom met. The shortest widely found (other than gracenotes) is

(semi-quaver), which is only quarter as long. Only in the fingering of numerous gracenotes is piping difficult, in its effort to blow, and in its maintenance; but this trio of difficulties has, down the ages, not prevented pipers from attaining the highest proficiency.

Fully and quickly to understand the stylised form of caligraphy which places pipe sounds on paper, one can hardly do better than examine a melody which is a good song with words, and is also a good pipe tune. So let us examine the Nut Brown Maiden and take her apart to see what makes her tick.

This is a 2/4 tune. March tunes are almost all either written in 2/4 time or 6/8 time and other timings are similar to these. What is the difference between them? It is an important one, and is mainly a slight difference in the style and lilt and timing of the tune. Played on the march the net result of both tunes is exactly the same. The marching men take the same number of strides and cover the same ground at the same speed As a rough guide, a 6/8 tune is more sprightly than a 2/4 tune, and usually consists of a slightly greater number of notes played over a given distance marched, for the same calibre or standard of tune. I should like to see all 2/4 tunes described as ‘marches’ while those in 6/8 time be described as ‘Quicksteps’. In fact, these two descriptive terms are used quite indiscriminately by compilers of music books for either style of tune, and therefore have no definitely different meaning.

Here is the Nut Brown Maiden broken down into words and paces.


1. That the first part played once over covers 16 paces.

2. Thus the complete part tune takes the marching men 64 paces.

3. The tune played ten times consecutively takes them 640 paces or 533 yards at a 30 inch pace*. A four part tune such as The 79th’s Farewell to Gibraltar needs only be played half as many times to cover the same distance on the ground.

4. That there are eight bars to the measure. (From the words ‘Ro’ to ‘Me’).

5. That two steps are taken during each bar.

6. That the left foot strikes the ground when the FIRST note of each bar is sounded.

7. That the last bar contains only one crotchet –

 and one quaver –

which is one quaver short of correct complement. This note found at the start of the tune over the word ‘Ho’. It is a musical convention and is necessary when parts are repeated, to make up deficiencies in the last bar with starting notes before the first bar, so that the marching timing and rhythm is not upset.

8. That where the notes are tied together either foot strikes the ground when the first of these tied notes is sounded.

9. That gracenotes are not allowed for in the mathematical timing of the tune. The period during which they are sounded is taken from, or included in, the period allotted to the main notes they grace,

10. That a dot placed after a note increases its length by half. There are a few devices by which the steady rhythmic time of a pipe tune can be altered to achieve special effect. Only two need be mentioned here. This sign

placed over a note means, sound it longer than is shown in the music, or for as long as you, the player, thinks it pleasing. In Strathspeys, chiefly, a group of notes are sometimes played more quickly than they are shown in the music. The appropriate sign is this:

and means that the three notes should be played in the same time as two notes of similar value.

It is more common for the First note of several tied notes to be longer in duration. (The note played as the foot touches the ground) as in the first bar.

Finally, notwithstanding what was said originally, small differences are discernible in the playing of the same tune by various players.

Some of the variations are accounted by:

(a) Similar differences when two people say the same sentence, due to differences in accent and phrasing.

(b) Slight variations in instruments, in reeds, and in their adjustment and their maintenance.

(c) Idleness in the learning of the tune from the music.

(d) Inaccuracies in the staff notation of the tune.

(e) Inaccuracies of the ear and memory.

(f) Idle fingering.

In conclusion, there are no great players today who do not learn their tunes from the music. More frequent practice is necessary for a player to keep up his tunes correctly if he cannot read music.

Learning a new tune is a chancy business except from music. Even when once learnt correctly, the playing of a tune will often change slowly unless checked with the music occasionally. The most accurate ear and retentive memory are inefficient and slipshod when compared with the ageless and unchanging written word.

The composer’s own tune and title are sacred. Variations are free, and may even be better – but very seldom.

*30 inches is a miserable little pace and most pipers step longer. However, a soldier in full service marching order carrying his rifle, bayonet and perhaps 120 bullets, plus a good many other things is pretty heavily laden, and man, like a racehorse carrying handicap weights has his pace shortened and is therefore slowed down. I suggest 108 paces a minute of 33” unless you are a midget. At this rate you cover 99 yards a minute in comfort while the 120 pace marcher at 30” covers only one yard more while giving himself blisters and getting much hotter.