The structure of piobaireachd, 1


By Captain John A MacLellan MBE

Piobaireachd, or ceòl mòr as many pipers prefer to call it, can be classified under various headings, all of which have some effect on the production of the music. Some of these classifications are more important than others.

Probably of least importance, is the classification that takes in the mood of the music. One might think this should be a most important aspect of playing and indeed it is, the trouble being that because of name changes through the ages one cannot be sure that they always convey the mood of the piece, so although pipers must obviously make up their minds as to the mood in which they are to play the tune, the name is not always a correct pointer in this direction.

This classification takes in the categories as follows:

Laments — Descriptive pieces,
Gatherings — Marches, Battles,
Salutes — Farewells

and what has been described as Pastoral Pieces of which the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music describes as:

1. From the 15th century to the 18th a type of stage work
2. A type of — instrumental composition generally in a compound time (e.g. 6/8 or 12/8) and with something of a musette (bagpipe) suggestion.

Handel’s Pastoral Symphony depicts a melody played by Italian shepherds on their bagpipes.”

Thus, the player must decide whether his playing is to reflect animation, sorrow, joy, or in fact be descriptive, as in The Bells of Perth or The Desperate Battle of the Birds.

Variation patterns
A more important classification is the one which encompasses types of variation and these fall into three basic categories.

Every piobaireachd begins with an Ùrlar, which means the ‘Ground’ or ‘Floor’ of the tune. This initial statement of music is usually a highly embellished part of the tune and may be followed by one or two variations on the Ùrlar, also highly embellished. These have been referred to as Second or even Third grounds,

It is after these earlier parts that the piece will develop into stylised variation pattern. The chart marked A, below, shows the various types that are generally used.

For instance, note that examples of the Siubhal variation are shown at 1, and that the first example (a) is usually followed by Taorluath Fosgailte — 2. And in turn by Crunluath Fosgailte — 3. ‘S’ means Singling, which often is a piece of music in which each phrase ends with a Cadence. ‘D’ means Doubling in which there are no Cadences to interrupt the flow of the main melody.

The Dithis variation — 6 is usually followed by the variations numbered — 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11. Musical examples of all these variations are also shown on the chart — A.

The Taorluath Breabach variations have one note between each Taorluath beat. This single note may be a main melody note as in the first example — 4(a) or a short connecting note as in the second example 4(b). Often, Taorluath Breabach variations are preceded by a Siubhal timed as at 1(b).

Crunluath Breabach variations consist of two notes between each crunluath beat. Two examples are shown which can have various methods of timing, i.e. short first note, long first note, or both notes evenly timed.

Ceòl mòr, being music of Gaeldom, is often pentatonic in key structure. There are three such five note scales used in piobaireachd playing, as well as the full range of the nine notes of the pipe scale. These scales are reproduced on the chart marked B and are usually known by the first note of each scale —G. A. D. It is customary to incorporate the octave of the key note within these scales and such notes are shown as open headed notes in brackets. In the pentatonic scale of D, because the highland bagpipe scale ends on High A, it is necessary to return to B to complete the five note scale which began on D. A tune that falls into this category is MacIntosh’s Lament. The word ‘inverted’ has been used to show that the 5th note and 6th note are inversions of what would normally be used had the pipe chanter a greater range.

These pentatonic scales are at times referred to as ‘Gapped Scales’. These gaps are clearly shown at X on Chart B.

*From The International Piper, December 1980.

• The notation of piobaireachd
• The structure of piobaireachd, 2
• The structure of piobaireachd, 3
• The structure of piobaireachd, 4