Stuart Letford

The medley has now been a feature of pipe band competitions for 50 years. Prior to this, it was MSRs all the way.

Today, the pipe band medley at the top level is far removed from those early years – and even from fairly recent years. Listen to most Grade 1 bands, for example, and you’ll hear some really clever musical ideas going on: inventive harmony and clever counter melody, key changes and incredibly dynamic things coming from the sides and bass sections. In the lower grades, though, more often than not it hasn’t changed too much from those heard in those early years.

At its best, the pipe band medley is great to hear and I have said elsewhere that in my view the finest pipe band medley I’ve heard in recent years was that played by ScottishPower in 2019, the one that opened with My Dream Valley on the Road to Glendaruel and included Craig Muirhead’s arrangement of Lament for Mary MacLeod in it.

It wouldn’t be too controversial, though, to say that too many modern pipe band medleys just don’t work. Too many modern compositions are heard only in the pipe band medley and nowhere else. This is probably because most modern compositions aren’t actually suited to the solo pipe. Far too many of these compositions – and medleys – are created to fit a temperate scale. The great highland bagpipe, however, is pentatonic and pure in harmonics. It does not fit into temperate music, in terms of sound and music theory. The creators of these medleys may think they’re being clever musically but they aren’t.

(Note to those pipers with an ear for composition: the music played on our insturment should not be written using sharps. For example, C is not a sharp but a full harmonic note with the bass drone fifth harmonic. Low G is in the middle of the baritone, third harmonic and low A, fourth harmonic, etc. And please desist from trying to change the bagpipe to being a temperate musical instrument, which it isn’t.)

However, I digress. As ever.

1971 Grade 2 World Champions, the Glasgow Skye Association Pipe Band.

The medley was officially introduced in 1971, a year of progressiveness in many other cultural forms. The first experiment with the medley format was actually in 1960 – when it was called an ensemble contest – and there were various trials over the years. The first medley at the Worlds was in 1970 but this, again, was another trial. The medley was introduced officially in 1971. At the time, there was some disquiet from pipe band judges, many of whom said they simply did not know how to judge it properly. In 1971, though, most pipe band people were eager for the introduction.

It may be instructive to look at what else was happening in the wider cultural world back then. 1971, the year the UK and Ireland changed to decimalisation, was an incredible year for music. Records released that year included Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, Paul McCartney’s Ram, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, John Lennon’s Imagine, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, The Who’s Who’s Next, The Doors‘ LA Woman and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On – shoot me down if you will but it is, in my view, over-rated. The year also heralded the start of the digital age when the microprocessor was invented.

In cinema, 1971 gave us the sort of worldwide creative output that few could turn their eyes from, whether it pleased or offended them: A Clockwork Orange, Get Carter, Dirty Harry, Shaft, Play Misty for Me … the first internet chat rooms appeared in 1971 and the Open University broadcasts began in the UK.

To the Thinking Piper, it seems that with so much progressiveness going on everywhere at the time, it was inevitable as well as desirable that the medley be introduced.

However, the year seemed to mark the beginning of an uncertain age. It stood at the precipice of a wild decade. Interestingly, by 1971, film production in Hollywood had actually slowed to a trickle, and cinema admissions were less than a quarter than what they had been during their 1940s heyday. Meanwhile, in the UK, there was rebellion against the droning conformity and classism of a society still hanging onto pre-war values, mounting sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and the rise of fascism.

Most films produced today don’t ask much of the audience. They are in the satisfaction business. Is this true of the modern pipe band medley? I think so. Ultimately, while many medleys may have an instant ‘hit’ with the audience, this dwindles very quickly. How many medleys can you truly recall in recent years? I can count six. After 50 years, it could be time for another rethink. I maintain that it is now time the medley was expanded to ten minutes in Grade 1 competitions and for points to be deducted for the inclusion of tunes not suited to the pipe – and added for those medleys that showcase our instrument’s rich harmonic dimension.

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