Registered Charity No. XT38066

nireland college of piping

City East Business Centre, 68-72 Newtownards Rd, Belfast, BT4 1GW   |  Telephone: 028 90941659

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EST. 1980

Piping and Pipe Music

Piping and Pipe Music:    


Pipe bands may be seen as a relatively new phenomenon as distinct from the bagpipe itself (which has no clear origin, being found in countries throughout the world for thousands of years) and not particularly Scottish, having developed from the formation of army bands around the end of the eighteenth century. At that time the British Army boasted twenty-two pipe bands made up from eleven Highland Regiments, one from each of their home and away battalions. Two centuries later, whilst the regiments might have changed somewhat, the number of bands within the British Army has remained fairly constant, seventeen being currently listed.


There was a time, however, when the Scottish bagpipe and its music might have been lost forever. After the defeat of the Jacobite army at Culloden in 1745 and the passing of the Disarming Act of 1747, the bagpipe, though not mentioned in the Act, was treated as an instrument of war and was therefore forbidden along with weapons and Highland Dress. The Act was repealed in 1782, probably to facilitate the raising of Scottish regiments.


The first Highland Regiment to be raised was in 1757 and in 1854 the fifes of the English regiments were replaced by the pipes of the Highland regiments. Even to-day the army refers to these pipe bands as “pipes and drums”. Pipe bands throughout the world now all use the terms “Pipe Major”, Drum Sergeant and Drum Major, whilst the “quickstep” or competition march developed through the need for pipers to play for soldiers on the move.  


The Scottish bagpipe, however, was not originally intended to be used as a group instrument and has been preserved in its present form, not by bands, but by a type of music known as piobaireachd (pronounced “pibrock”), simply meaning “pipe playing”, or Ceol Mor (the big music), dating back to the fifteenth century. Its origin is obscure, but it is associated with the legendary piping family of the MacCrimmon’s who are said to have run a piping school at Boreraig on the island of Skye until 1773. The MacCrimmon’s were the hereditary pipers of the MacLeod’s of Dunvegan who lived in Dunvegan Castle and in 1967, Dame Flora MacLeod instituted the Annual MacCrimmon Memorial Piobaireachd Competition at Dunvegan Castle. The trophy is a silver chanter and the competition is open only to winners of the highest piping awards.


From the year before the repeal of the Disarming Act the Highland Society in London held an annual bagpipe competition, coinciding with the Falkirk Tryst or cattle-market. In 1784 the competition was transferred to Edinburgh and from 1785, as now, competitors were required to wear Highland Dress. This explains why, when you see someone playing the Scottish bagpipe in any part of the world, whatever their cultural background, they are wearing the kilt. It is, in effect, showing formal public defiance at the English because of the prohibition on Highland Dress and bagpipe playing enforced as a result of the Disarming Act. The wearing of a dagger (skean dhu or sgian dubh) down the side of the sock both illustrates and proves this point.


Piping competitions were solely for the playing of piobaireachd and it was not until 1859 that prizes for strathspey and reel playing (Ceol Beag – little music) were introduced in the Northern Meeting in Inverness. Marches, that is, pipe tunes for marching, originally referred to as quicksteps, were introduced at around the same time. Angus MacKay (1813-1859), Queen Victoria’s first piper, is credited with introducing the competition type march and he left a collection of piobaireachd in both staff notation and in canntaireachd (pronounced - canterrock).


Until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, pipe music had been transmitted from player to player by canntaireachd, which is a form of singing where each note is represented by a different vowel and embellishments are represented by consonants. This form of teaching is regarded, even to-day, as the proper way to learn piobaireachd, but the move towards staff notation was probably necessitated by the inevitable acceptance of Ceol Beag as a legitimate form of pipe playing.


The MacCrimmon tradition disapproved of the playing of light music and it was forbidden in their school, probably because it could be played on other instruments, unlike piobaireachd and was not therefore, strictly speaking, pipe music. Nevertheless, by the mid-eighteenth century, reels and jigs had become an integral part of pipe playing. The Highland Society believed that strathspey, reel and jig playing helped in the fingering of piobaireachd. Clearly this could have been a face-saving way of allowing their introduction into competitions.


In 1903 the Piobaireachd Society was formed to preserve the music which itself had preserved the instrument. It established a piping school at Edinburgh Castle in 1910 which was taken over by the army in 1959. The debt owed to the army for the development of light music, particularly marches, which provides the repertoire for pipe bands is widely acknowledged, as is its support for the preservation of piobaireachd, a form of music not usually associated with band performances.


The Scottish Pipe Band Association came into existence in 1930 and in 1980 was granted the title of The Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association. This is now a world wide organisation responsible for a range of competitions including the World Pipe Band Championship. The first pipe band competition on record took place in 1905, but the World Championship was only instituted in 1947, after the second world war.


This popular interest has had the effect of lessening the interest in piobaireachd, the very reason for the Highland bagpipe being extant. The attraction for most pipers lies in the competition type tunes, but recently there has been a resurging interest in piobaireachd and also in canntaireachd.


Band competition tends to focus on well tuned pipes, the absence of errors and an integrated band performance between pipes and drums. Drumming has now become a highly technical art, having moved from providing a tempo and basic rhythm to following the melody, but now contributing to the overall performance as a group instrument in its own right, giving extra drive and excitement.


The structure of the drum has altered to accommodate this change. Rope tensioned drums have been replaced by screw tensioned instruments with tighter heads, snares have been added to both top and bottom heads to provide a brighter and sharper sound and the shell of the drum has been redesigned to facilitate greater tensioning of the head. All of these were needed to allow the playing of an increasing number of strokes per bar and it is quite difficult to pick out single strokes in modern pipe band drumming.


Developments have also been evident in materials used in the manufacture of bagpipes, with synthetic bags, and plastic drone reeds being introduced to counteract the effect of moisture from the atmosphere and differences in blowing but the basic chanter reed remains unchanged. Reeds are made from cane and chanter reeds are “double vibrators” like an oboe reed but drone reeds are “single vibrators” such as a clarinet. The difference is that pipe reeds are blown through reed chambers with the use of an air bag where the reeds do not come into contact with the mouth of the player as in other reed instruments. This necessitates the skill of blowing evenly to maintain a steady sound as the player has to ensure that four reeds (chanter and three drones) are kept sounding at constant pressure.


Pipers thus learn their melodies on a “practice chanter” without drones or airbag and progress to the full pipe when this has been accomplished. In effect this means the mastering of two instruments rather than just one. The tuning of drones is accomplished by altering the length of the drone which is made in sections for this purpose. Drones are made up of one bass drone and two tenor drones, with the bass drone being an octave lower than the tenor drone, therefore being twice the length. All the drones are tuned to the fundamental note on the chanter which is an octave higher than the tenor drones. This is called “A” on the pipes but in pitch is just slightly sharper than B flat on the piano, maintaining a “pedal” note, that is, a sustained single note lower than the melody. As the melody moves about on the chanter the harmonics of the drones allows an internal harmony to be heard. Traditionally the drones were tuned by ear but now electronic tuners are often employed by pipe bands, though scorned by solo players, who continue to employ their tuning and blowing skills in order to maximise the internal harmonics of the instrument generated between the chanter and the drones.


There is no doubt about the appeal of the sound of the pipes to some and its offence to the ear to others. The pipe is very rich in harmonics like church bells and church organs which similarly attract or repel, but with a limited range of notes which do not produce a true diatonic scale. The limitation of pitch in which tunes may be written further alienates the critic. This does not make the bagpipe any less musical, only musically different and there is no doubt about the thrill and excitement that can be generated by the strident sound of a well tuned instrument played by a skilled exponent.


It is now possible to obtain electronic instruments and a range of small pipes with  chanters which allow the fingering of tunes to match exactly that of the Great Highland Bagpipe. These developments allow for pipes to be played more readily indoors and with electronic tuning, to be played in unison or in harmony with other instruments.


It remains the case that the playing of the Scottish bagpipe and pipe bands are growing in popularity throughout the world and across cultures, demonstrating the power of music and art to unite people from disparate backgrounds.


                                                                                    The NIPDS is an

                                            Associate College of The College of Piping, Glasgow

                                                           Funded by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland

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