In his far-reaching blog posted on this site last week, Stuart Letford questioned whether the Set Tunes should continue to be set solely by the Piobaireachd Society’s Music Committee. I suggest it is time to actually abolish the Set Tunes altogether.

I have spoken on this topic before. Indeed, this was the subject of my presentation to the Piobaireachd Society when I was invited to speak at its annual conference 2013. For the benefit of a larger audience, I would like here to revisit the points I made.

Essentially, the traditional justification for the Set Tunes was, and is, that they expand the repertoire and, in fact, provide an appropriate repertoire to match pipers’ ability. In addition, others have suggested over time that they facilitate more equitable competition through the standardization of the repertoire. They also make judging easier: Pipers and judges, know them. However, in common with many other musical traditions around the world, this narrowing of the piobaireachd repertoire has more far-reaching effects so we might ask ourselves:

  • What have been the effects of setting the competition ceòl mòr repertoire?
  • How can we know that the Set Tunes have been successful in expanding the repertoire?
  • How do other music cultures expand and renew their repertoire?
  • What alternatives or modifications might be possible within a highly competitive solo performance context?

Firstly, what do the Set Tunes actually do? Well, the main argument in favour is that the Set Tunes system widens the repertoire and ensures historically authentic repertoire is performed by competitive pipers. The Music Committee of the Piobaireachd Society prescribes both the tunes and the settings, and in pragmatic reality, the publication to be used (e.g. the Piobaireachd Society volumes themselves, and ocassionally settings from elsewhere such as the MacArthur-MacGregor (2003) Pipe Major Donald MacLeod compositions (2019), and Capt. John A. MacLellan compositions have also been set in recent years). Nevertheless, setting the tunes creates a conservative and tightly controlled canon of ceòl mòr repertoire where the authority and creative choice are put into the hands of the few and removed from the hands of performers. The Music Committee in effect establishes the performance repertoire for the coming year.

In addition, setting the published sources removes all creativity from the process of repertoire selection. The Set Tunes remove much creative choice from performers (not competitors), leaving only sound and duration (style) as the only categories for individual creative practice. Setting the tunes removes any (pragmatic) motivation to compose new music; why compose new music when it won’t be heard?

The false logic of the positive impact of setting tunes
The setting of The Piobaireachd Society’s alternative options for ceòl mòr has been promoted by some. For example, Music Committee member, Malcolm McRae suggests:

“… time and again the skill and musicianship of the players has produced memorable performances of previously unknown tunes, sometimes in unfamiliar styles … I believe that the Senior competitions at Oban and Inverness deserve the support of the piping community – audiences, players, judges and sponsors – as occasions for broadening horizons and pushing forward the frontiers.”

Piping Today (issue no.7, 2003).

However, it leaves aside any question of the musical quality of these tunes in and of themselves. It may well be true that unknown tunes in unfamiliar styles get an airing at the major solo competitions each year (and I’ve even heard some people make a great job of tunes like Fair Honey or Grain in Hides etc.), but many of us as both competitors and judges know, that there are quite a few of these ‘gems’ that could, or should, have been forgotten long ago!

Cecil Sharp.
Cecil Sharp.

The system therefore eradicates collective memory and forgetting; Cecil Sharp, England’s most prolific folk music collector of the last century encapulated these principles in his evolutionary model of folk music transmission that very simply involved, continuity, variation and selection by the community. If the community of performers has no chance to vary or select its own repertoire, then all we are left with is a blind faith in historical continuity, regardless of the creative potential of present-day composers and players. As a result, we now have a broadly static repertoire of around 240 piobaireachds which is going nowhere.

As former President of the Piobaireachd Society, Jack Taylor noted in a paper presented at the Jimmie MacGregor Seminar in March 2013, since its introduction, the Set Tunes system has perpetuated the same tunes since roughly the end of the 19th century. However, it has until very recently excluded modern compositions. This has also had the effect of narrowing and stagnating the concept of ceòl mòr itself. Consider what ceòl mòr might sound like if there had been no Set Tunes system.

Memorable individual performances of unusual tunes are not evidence of an expanding repertoire. Rather, it is evidence of highly successful and inventive performers. Evidence that counts is the repertoire taught at summer schools, played on recordings, in recitals and shared with other musicians, and composition itself .

Case study 1: Pipe band medley and MSR competitions
Clearly, these are ‘close to home’ but they are very different to piobaireachd. The last 20-30 years has seen some wonderful innovation in pipe band medleys. In addition, there is a very strong canon of tunes in MSR competitions although ‘change’ in this genre does tend to come slowly. But crucially, in this context, the music performed is chosen by the competitors in a highly competitive context.

ScottishPower Pipe Band at the 2018 World Pipe Band Championships.
ScottishPower Pipe Band at the 2018 World Pipe Band Championships.

The medley competition performance at the major pipe band championships including the World Pipe Band Championships drives new tunes and forms. It is the most porous form of pipe music in relation to other instrumental traditions today. The situation in the world of solo piping is quite the opposite. The canon of competition tunes here also changes slowly but it is controlled by judges. (Interestingly, the Breton piping tradition also has a major discourse around authenticity, but is also much more innovative and has a vibrant compositional tradition.) Irish uilleann pipers have a core repertoire of the ‘big tunes’ too, largely based on what the great historical pipers played, but anyone taking a peek at the uilleann piping tradition today would realise how much more composition is accepted as a vital part of traditional practice.

Case study 2: Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (Association of Irish Musicians)
This is the principal association for furtherance and tuition of traditional music in Ireland and in its diaspora. It was founded in 1951 and is state-sponsored. There are 400+ branches with more than 35,000 members worldwide. This organisation operates a system of competitions – ‘fleadhcheoil’ – including the All-Ireland Fleadh Championship as well as local branch championships. It receives a significant amount of support and controversy surrounding its competitions: both as useful education and as standardising performance.

Some musicians have voiced concern over the emergence of a ‘comhaltas style’ playing that sounds mechanical and too standardised (Fleming 2004:245). Local styles of playing have been marginalised including certain types of tunes (slides, polkas etc.) in favour of jigs, reels and more flashy virtuosic playing. This has been published in ‘session tune books’ and a system of graded exams. Comhaltas effectively is regulating the production, consumption and to some extent, the reception of authenticity in Irish traditional music. But our system of Set Tunes in piobaireachd is even more closed than this and has effectively eliminated the development of ceòl mòr as a musical form in favour of extremely tightly-controlled authenticity.

Hardangerfiddles are intricitately embellished and are truly beautiful. instruments.
Hardangerfiddles are intricitately embellished and are truly beautiful instruments.

Case study 3: The Norwegian Gammeldans controversy
‘Gammeldans’ means literally ‘old dance’ and sits in contradistinction to older ‘folkemusikk’ which are older fiddle tunes. Competitions began in earnest in the late 19th century for Hardangerfiddle. Ironically, it was in 1902 and 1903 that the promotion of these competitions was instigated to give ‘new stimulation’ to the old national music. It was judged by those who knew little about its performance …

The National Fiddlers Organisation (NFO) coalesced in 1923. Performers were expected to perform Hardangerfiddle ‘folkemusikk’ tunes of some age and authenticity. Trouble began with people introducing non-local tune types and Gammeldans tunes.

Controversy erupted in 1980 with comments from various performers about the narrow definition of what was competition-sanctioned repertoire and instruments revolving around four themes:

  • what tunes deserved sponsorship (internal characteristics, geography, complexity etc.);
  • what repertoire needs to be promoted;
  • faithfullness to NFO history etc.;
  • future health of fiddle tradition and NFO.

Eventually, in 1985, the NFO had to have a vote on whether to have a new festival of Gammeldans music. The vote passed narrowly for a trial period of three years. The 1989 vote to retain or not the Gammeldans festival was an overwhelmingly positive endorsement of the form. The incorporation of the Gammeldans form into the NFO festival programme and of the newer folk repertoire has been a success. The older tunes have not died, but remain in their own competitive categories and are still popular.

The future of piobaireachd composition

“The Set Tunes are used widely throughout the world as the curriculum for study at piobaireachd workshops. The evidence is that a very wide range of tunes is played nowadays for which the setting of tunes must, in part, be responsible.”

(Anonymous, The Piobaireachd Society conference, 2013).

It is competition as context itself that ensures that very narrow canons of repertoire develop; not any lack of creative imagination from competitors. As that Marmitic figure, Archibald Campbell himself explains:

“A new series of books was started after the 1914-18 war containing, for each tune, a detailed and carefully written editorial note giving all the authoritative alternative settings known to the editors. Nevertheless, the mischief created by the Society, as it existed before 1914, seems still to have its effects, in spite of the annual advertisements of set tunes for the competitions stating in the plainest language that settings other than those in print in the new Series 1-8 [of The Piobaireachd Society’s publications] can be offered by competitors.”

(Campbell, Archibald. 1958).
Last year's competitors.
Modern technology has now resulted a global audience tuning in live to listen – and see – The Glenfiddich.

Local to the global
The time of composition for many of our tunes was the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. One major change in the performance of ceòl mòr has been the changing melodic aesthetics of the society, which have changed dramatically. Today, our music is heard in global aural contexts, far removed from the sonic world of the MacCrimmons, MacArthurs and Rankins. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that the melodic conventions should also change with the social context [Stillman, 1995]. Given that we continue to adhere strictly to historical ideas about what makes a good piobaireachd may be one of the reasons that ceòl mòr may well be unpopular with contemporary audiences used to a very different idea of melody.

I love a well-played melodic tune: Tunes like The Park Piobaireachd, Donald Duaghal, or Nameless (Cherede Darievea) and even shorter tunes like The Viscount of Dundee are musical masterpieces, that deserve a wide airing far beyond the confines of the solo piping competition. But these tunes stand out amongst many less satisfactory piobaireachd, and persuade me that if we were to abolish the set tunes completely, then we would (in the long term) open a door to a renewed and flourishing piobaireachd tradition with a much deeper and vibrant repertoire for all of us. I also think arguments that blame the players of piobaireachd for any lack of creativity or invention are misguided; if people knew that their compositions might be heard played by a fabulous piper on a world stage, then we would have a huge repertoire of piobaireachd from around the world to dwarf the historical canon within a few short years. Some of the best and most creative musicians I have ever heard are our leading competitive pipers — and their ability to turn a bit of a featureless tune into a memorable musical experience is evidence of their creativity, not affirmation of any success of the Set Tunes.

Possible models for encouraging a more creative tradition in competition ceòl mòr
Clearly, people will compose and explore the boundaries of pìobaireachd if they think that someone might play their music. So here are a few suggestions that we might adopt in the coming years to gradually replace the Set Tunes system:

  • Pipers should be able to submit their own lists without repetition over X number of years.
  • There could be long lists for Silver, Gold, Senior – with non-repetition caveats database held by competition organisers and/or other bodies.
  • The introduction of a new music competition or a split list of Set Tunes and own choice (2 + 2).
  • The setting of the technical specification but not the specific repertoire.
  • Judges do not select tunes for performance—audience selection or voting.

Further, there should be tune composition competitions with special prizes at major gatherings for the best new pìobaireachd. And how about introducing the pìobaireachd form for musical projects in schools as a means into exploring wider compositional styles and cross-cultural ideas about musical form and development? How about dedicated performance sections and collaboration with other musicians as new competitive events?

I believe that the Set Tunes should be abolished in the long run. If this is a bridge too far, an interim measure might possibly be the devolution of the Music Committee. As Mr Letford touched on in his blog, the ownership of the Set Tunes should as a minimum be devolved to performers and other possible constituencies, potentially through a voting system.

Chris Armstrong’s splendid composition, ‘Lament for Mary Kerr’ – an example of what we might be missing.

I stated a few paragraphs above that people will compose and explore the boundaries of pìobaireachd if they think that someone might play their music. The reverse is also true: composers will not compose if no one will play them.

How can we provide the correct context for the revitalisation of the ceòl mòr tradition? As I have stated, abolishing the Set Tunes is, in my view, the best long-term answer to this question. Immediately, this might narrow the canonical repertoire but in the long-term it would open up not just new composition, but crucially, would encourage much greater diversity in performance style.

Abolition would necessitate submission of scores as well as tune titles but this could be managed online, focusing upon non-standard sources.

Other musical traditions demonstrate that opening up repertorial canons is generally not a threat, but a benefit in encouraging new performers and enthusiasts. The abolition of the Set Tunes would encourage composition of ceòl mòr as individual composers will feel that they may have a chance of hearing their tunes played.

Devolving the make-up of the Music Committee would be a first step towards a more outward-facing and flourishing ceòl mòr tradition. New compositions and free choice would encourage competitors to listen to other tunes – and to see past the placings.

* Dr Simon McKerrell is a Reader in Music and Society at Newcastle University and has previously worked at the Universities of Sheffield, Glasgow and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He is a former President of the Competing Pipers’ Association. Competitively, his most significant prizes have been: winning the A Grade MSR at The Northern Meeting in 2007, the Dunvegan Medal plus four Clasps to the medal in Skye.


  • Anonymous, ‘How are the Set Tunes Chosen’, The Piobaireachd Society, Published online:].
  • Campbell, Archibald, (1958).
  • Fleming, Rachel, ‘Resisting Cultural Standardization: Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireannand the Revitalization of Traditional Music in Ireland’, Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 41, No. 2/3, Special Double Issue: Advocacy Issues in Folklore (May -Dec., 2004), pp. 227-257.
  • McRae, Malcolm, (2003) ‘Choosing tunes’, Piping Today, issue no.7, 2003.
  • Stillman, Amy Ku’uleialoha, ‘Not All Hula Songs Are Created Equal: Reading the Historical Nature of Repertoire in Polynesia’, Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 27, (1995), pp. 1-12.
  • Taylor, Jack, ‘The Set Tunes’, paper presented at the Jimmie MacGregor Seminar, March 2013, [available to download from CPA website].

• The views expressed in all blogs that appear on Bagpipe.News are not necessarily the views of the National Piping Centre.