The structure of piobaireachd, 2


By Capt. John A. MacLellan MBE

We have seen in the previous article on the structure of piobaireachd how the various classifications which are part of ceòl mòr influence its meaning.

Pipers do not necessarily recognise the same elements in a piece of music. To some, a lament may appear as a salute and vice versa. The interpretation of music is a very personal thing to be worked out by musical background, ones own personality and to a degree by the mood of the moment.

One classification however does not alter and that is the phrase construction of the piece. There are seven categories into which phrase patterns can be classified.

Phrases themselves are constructed from a number of motifs which are small rhythmic units consisting of two or more notes. Many of these motifs will be found to repeat themselves from phrase to phrase.

When a piece of music is sung or hummed over it will be found to fall easily into sections that are called phrases. There are no strict rules that govern the length of phrases, their length is often dependent on the time signature of the music. However, most phrases in piobaireachd are two bars in length and in some types of variations such as Taorluath and Crunluath Singling these end with a cadence.

A larger segment of music is the ‘musical sentence’ that is constructed from a number of phrases. In piobaireachd, which is nowadays laid out in Lines, a line would be synonymous with a musical sentence. Thus, we have Variations of so many lines; lines made up of a number of phrases, which are in turn constructed from musical motifs.

The manner in which the phrases are arranged in patterns make up the construction of the tune and has no bearing whatsoever on the mood of the tune or on its variation pattern. We often speak of ‘good phrasing’ in piobaireachd playing. This does not mean dividing a line of music into so many apparent phrases, or a variation into apparent lines, but rather the linking of the phrases into lines and the lines into variations with artistic attention to good punctuation. This should be carried out unobtrusively, yet, with good musical feeling and not being a mere intellectual analysis of the melody so that the music does not appear boxed off in so many compartments, but rather sounds as a continuing whole built up from the elements just described.

These phrase patterns have been given the following classifications:


With the exception of No. 7, irregular, the pattern of phrase construction is stereotyped within each category and such patterns are normally consistent through the Ùrlar and variations. However, be warned, there is no one hundred percent rule in piobaireachd, there is often the odd man out.

General Thomason.
General Thomason.

General Thomason who published a collection of some 265 piobaireachd in an abbreviated form was the first publisher to give names to some of the phrase patterns. He also laid out the tunes in lines and detailed the phrase construction of each piece. These are:

This is, in fact, a simple binary form where two phrases A and B are used to build up a piece of music 16 bars in length, which is divided into three lines. Lines 1 and 2 are each 6 bars in length and the third line 4 bars. The bar count per line is 6, 6, 4 and is called the metre of the tune.

The phrase pattern is as follows:

Line 1 – A A B – 6 bars
Line 2 – A B B – 6 bars
Line 3 – A B – 4 bars

Small melodic changes often occur when a phrase is repeated within a line and can be expected for instance in line 1, second part of phrase A the second time it is played. In line 2, phrase B often has a slight change in the second half of its structure, and in line 3, phrase A might have an alteration in its second part, and phrase B a change in its first section.

Like the Primary construction, Secondary tunes are set in three lines in 6, 6, 4 metre. The difference is in the number of phrases that are four in number — A, B, C, D, set out as

Line 1 – A BC D – 6 bars
Line 2 – C BA D – 6 bars
Line 3 – c D – 6 bars

It should be noted the phrases A and B are each half the length of C and D and only one bar each in length.

The musical construction of phrase C will often incorporate phrase A, as either its opening statement or as its closing statement.

The order of phrases B and A in line two can appear at times as A and B. As well, these phrases in line 2 can undergo considerable melodic change.

Other melodic changes can occur in phrase C in Line 3, particularly at the end of the phrase.

While phrase D usually has the same melodic content in lines 1 and 2, in line 3 there is often a change of melody as the phrase commences.

It should be noted, that the term secondary does not mean that tunes in this category are in anyway inferior to primary tunes. Indeed, because of the enlarged phrase structure, secondary tunes are often less repetitive and more interesting for both player and listener. In addition, because of the enlargedphrase structure, secondary tunes are for the most part lengthier.

*From The International Piper January 1981.

• The notation of piobaireachd
• The structure of piobaireachd, 1
• The structure of piobaireachd, 3
• The structure of piobaireachd, 4