Theory Top-Up: triple time trouble

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By TIM CUMMINGS.
Piping Today #97, 2019

“What’s the first thing you think of when I say ‘triple time’, in the musical sense?”  I have just asked this question to the barista at one of the coffee shops I frequent when doing my laptoppery (such as writing this article).  This particular barista happens to play a bit of jazz guitar when not pulling shots of single origin espresso; and after a brief reflective pause, he said, “Probably a waltz.”

I tried to conceal my holier-than-thou judgement of his response.  You see, a little further back in history, in 14th-century Europe, the jazz-playing baristas at medieval third-wave coffee shops might have associated triple time with nothing less than the Holy Trinity.  Indeed, 9/8 time, a metre involving three triplet beats per measure, then enjoyed the designation of tempus perfectum (major), or ‘greater perfect time’.  3/4 time, with its pattern of three duple beats, was known as tempus perfectum (minor).  Yes, that’s right, if you want your pipe band to be extra pious and holy – and don’t we all – you’ll need to confine your repertoire to slip jigs, 9/8 marches, and perhaps 3/4 airs and retreat marches, keeping in mind that 3/4s have a minor, lesser, status to anything in 9/8.

It hasn’t always been the case, but these days I often equate triple time – especially the lesser, ‘simple’ triple time – with the human heartbeat, or at least the frequently characterised rhythm of the human heartbeat: thump thump [rest] thump thump [rest] thump thump.  To me, that lines up very nicely with a time signature in 3:  3 1 [2] 3 1 [2] 3 1.

We don’t have many tunes in our common piping repertoire that explicitly emphasise this particular triple time rhythm in such a visceral way, but having recently learned a small handful of bourrées 3 temps from central France and some Scandinavian dance tunes (e.g. the Norwegian pols), the heartbeat effect is now brought to mind when playing in a simple triple rhythm as such.  The pols in particular features dance steps, and thus musicians’ foot-taps, that coordinate with the first and third beats of each bar.  Though the melody may do something on the second beat, often the feet do not – at least not anything percussive – and so there is almost always the pronounced and irresistible rhythm of thump thump [rest] thump thump [rest] thump thump underlying each bar of music, be it from the dancers’ footsteps, or the foot tapping of the musician(s).  Notably, this second beat, not having any foot movement assigned to it, is thus freed in such a way that many Scandinavian musicians toy with it to greater and lesser extents, often ‘stretching’ the beat in a curiously dizzying-yet-charming way that is difficult to imitate unless you know the dance well and/or you’ve been long steeped in the musical tradition.

All that aside for now, please let me ask: What pipe tunes do you associate with triple time metre?  If waltzes, mazurkas, retreat marches, slow airs, slip jigs, and 9/8 marches come to mind, you’re on the right track.  But how many of you have a complicated relationship with some of these tunes?  Those of you raising your hand in response to this last question, I thank you for your honesty.  Those of you in steadfast denial, or perhaps just completely confused by my question, it’s not your fault.  I can explain.

There have been, for many decades now, at least two curious inconsistencies related to common pipe tunes in simple triple time, that is, tunes that feature three beats in a bar, and whose main beats are divisible by two – in other words, tunes in 3/8, 3/4, or 3/2 metres.  For the vast majority of pipers, 3/4 is the only familiar one of those time signatures, and indeed this is the one that has been problematic (from my point of view, at least).

Regarding the first concern, allow me to highlight the first pipe tune I ever learned, possibly the first pipe tune you learned as well: Scots Wha Hae.  

Poor Scots Wha Hae.  It received only 6% of the votes in a 2006 poll for the Scottish national anthem; and for many decades prior to that, the tune was written in 4/4 time, with the vast majority of pipers (including yours truly), ignoring that notation and playing it with a more graceful, waltz-like rhythm, as though it were in 3/4.  A quick surf in YouTube reveals that most singers sing it that way, too, with the notable exceptions of Dick Gaughan (in a very free 2/4, perhaps) and Dougie MacLean (in 12/8?).  More recently, The College of Piping tutor improved the rhythmic discrepancy by writing it in 6/8 time, which is more accurate in a way, but perhaps still less than ideal because the manner in which most pipers play it doesn’t really match the groove of anything else we generally play in 6/8, namely jigs and 6/8 marches.  Practically every piper I’ve heard play Scots Wha Hae has produced something much closer to a waltz, or if at a significantly slower tempo, a 3/4 slow march or air (which, arguably, is also a slow waltz).  Let me clarify that I think it is in fact good to have many different versions of Scots Wha Hae, but I think it’s also important to have written music that accurately represents whatever version is being played, especially if it’s the very first tune a piper learns!

The second inaccuracy involves 3/4 retreat marches.  Save some pity for the mistreated retreat march as well.  In both old and new collections of music these are rightfully notated with a time signature of 3/4.  No problem there.  But there seems to be some confusion about where the downbeat – that is, the strongest beat – lies.  First, let’s look at a common setting of a common retreat march:

Notice anything fishy about how it’s notated?  Perhaps not yet, but now let’s revisit the aforementioned natural accentuation of the waltz, the French bourrée 3 temps, the Norwegian pols, and the heart beating faithfully inside your thorax.  In all cases first and third beats are consistently the most accentuated, and, in my opinion, this feels very natural to the ear and the body.  (The first beat generally receives the greatest emphasis, of course.)

With that in mind, now sing to yourself When the Battle is Over, and notice which notes, which beats, you might be tempted to emphasise or accent in some way.  Next, try exaggerating those emphases a bit more, and pay close attention to which notes get the most weight.  There are bound to be different opinions, but my guess is that most pipers will put the greatest stress on the first three C#s of the tune, each placed on beat 2 in the above example.  Emphasising those C#s is my instinct as well.

You can probably see where I’m going with this: why would the note that feels like it wants the strongest pulse be assigned the second beat?  In ‘Western’ music, at least, the strongest beat is almost always assigned the first beat of a bar, no matter the time signature; thus emphasising the second beat above all others would be strange in any metre.  It seems particularly scandalous in a 3/4 metre, where the first and third beats demand the most emphasis.

With this in mind, have a look at this alternative setting of When the Battle Is Over, with the only difference being where the bar line has been placed:

Doesn’t this seem more natural and musical?  Now consider that all of the other 3/4 retreat marches in volume 1 of the Scots Guards collection are written with the same quirk, with only these few exceptions: The Kilworth Hills, Loch Maree, and possibly Youghal Harbour.

Even the 9/8 and 4/4 retreat marches included in the same section, namely The Battle of the Somme and The Meeting of the Waters, have exactly the same anomaly as the 3/4s with misplaced bar lines.  (Youghal Harbour seems to be a tune that succeeds equally with the bar line where it is, and with the bar line nudged one beat later.)

Generally speaking, if the tune starts with a dotted quaver (eighth-note) paired with a semiquaver (sixteenth-note), as with When the Battle Is Over, then that beat is best treated as a pick-up beat, not the downbeat.  You are welcome to disagree, but whichever, you can at least see that this inconsistency is enough to confuse any piper, and more than enough to bewilder and greatly irritate any pipe band drummer.

While writing this piece, I picked up my old-fashioned landline telephone, and called the director of the Vermont Institute of Celtic Arts, and Pipe Major of the Catamount Pipe Band, Iain MacHarg.  Iain picked up his old-fashioned landline telephone, and we had a good old-fashioned human conversation about things old-fashioned, like bagpipes and how on earth 3/4 retreat marches got knocked off centre by a beat.  Iain reminded me of the tendency of pipe bands to play a full, two-beat E as part of the starting roll-off sequence.  This seemed to me like a good opportunity to blame drummers, of course, but a more honest self-reckoning brought forth the likely reality that it’s the pipers not wanting to play anything other than a full, uncompromised two-beat E as part of the starting roll-off sequence.  And not only that, but we are perhaps trying to simplify another problem in regards to marching in triple time with two legs: that the left foot lands on the downbeat only on every other measure.  Put the two-beat E habit together with stepping patterns that feel awkward on every other measure, and things are bound to get out of whack.

(Our drummers may in fact be deserving of praise in regards to their approach to 3/4 retreat marches.  To quote an anonymous contributor to the Bob Dunsire Forums’s discussion on this topic: “To my ear the best drum scores for 3/4 retreats make clever use of ambiguity as to the location of the downbeat, allowing the ear to find the natural downbeat, yet accentuating what would otherwise be a pick-up just enough to stay true to the pipe band idiom.”  I couldn’t have said it better.  And I’ll let you decide if the ScottishPower Pipe Band’s drum corps succeeded in this way in their 2018 British Championship-winning medley that began with the 3/4 retreat, The Dream Valley of Glendaruel

Perhaps my question about a “complicated relationship” with pipe tunes in 3/4 makes a little more sense now.

Incidentally, in our pursuit of the absolute, righteous, and holy truth, Iain went so far as to dig up a pre-WWI pipe setting of the traditional Gaelic milking song Crodh Chailein (Colin’s Cattle), whose melody almost certainly predates pipers marching in military bands.  That led me to unearthing the setting of Macgregor of Ruaro’s Lament (MacGregor of Rora) in book 9 of the David Glen collection, printed sometime around 1890.  Both of these are written with the pick-up beats and correctly-placed bar lines.

In more recent years, the bar line confusion seems to be continuing.  I was chagrined, but not surprised, to see some recently-composed 3/4 retreat marches misaligned in a collection of pipe tunes printed in 2018.  And I was heartened to see Kenneth Macfarlane’s Douglas Mair’s, a 3/4 retreat march composed this year, properly set on page 24 of the previous issue of Piping Today.

Wherever you decide to place the bar lines in your 3/4 retreat marches, there’s still the issue of when a pipe band is to start the tune in an opening roll-off sequence.  While it may prove to be more musical, ultimately, to play the pick-up notes as genuine pick-up notes, doing so would require shortening the two-beat E.  Instigating a change of this nature would likely produce accusations of fake news, and in turn mass confusion, chaos, and tragedy on the massed bands paddock.

As with a lot of music theory, some of these fine, persnickety theoretical details may not have an immediately obvious effect on the greater function of our music making.  But sometimes these subtle points can matter more than we may think at first, such as when we’re trying to produce better phrasing in our music, and when we’re playing with other, non-pipe band musicians.  Whichever, improving our understanding of our music, and improving the quality and accuracy of our written music, even on a microscopic scale, will generally have the effect of making us better musicians, both individually and collectively.  Armed with an expanded knowledge of our craft, we’ll be speaking the language of music evermore fluently, better able to connect with fellow musicians of all stripes.  Not a bad goal, perhaps.


Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Theory Top-Up series ran in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.


Theory Top-Up articles published on Bagpipe.News so far:

  1. Tunes in the key of D-Major
  2. Tunes in the key of A-Mixolydian
  3. Tunes in the key of A-Major
  4. Tunes based on a ‘gapped’ A scale
  5. Tunes based in A-pentatonic major
  6. Tunes in B-minor
  7. Double Tonic Tunes
  8. Tunes in the Dorian mode
  9. Tunes in G-Major
  10. Exotic tunes and tunes that change key
  11. Compressing tunes with low F-sharp notes
  12. Compressing tunes with high-B notes
  13. Theory Top-Up Harmonics: an introduction to the mysterious overtones in our music
  14. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 2: continuing the discussion on overtones
  15. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 3: using harmonics to fine-tune our pipes
  16. Theory Top-Up: An introduction to writing harmony for ensembles
  17. Theory Top-Up: writing harmonies of thirds
  18. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 1 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  19. Theory Top-Up: discovering chords 2 (as a basis for crafting harmonies)
  20. Theory Top-Up: Elaborating on chord based harmonies
  21. Theory Top-Up: writing chord-based harmonies for slow airs
  22. Theory Top Up: harmonies that imitate uilleann pipe regulators
  23. Theory Top-Up: harmonies derived from hymns
  24. Theory Top-Up: learning tunes by ear
  25. Theory Top-Up: the signature of time
  26. Theory Top-Up: simple matters
  27. Theory Top-Up: triple time trouble