Scoring it right in 2/4 marches

Published: September 30, 2006
(Page 1 of 1)

by Jim McGillivray

I was reading an annotation of a pipe tune in another piping publication recently and thought it time to point out a deficiency that has long existed in the way we notate pipe tunes.

In a recent issue of the EUSPBA’s magazine, Chris Hamilton discusses the rarely heard 2/4 march, “The Dundee Military Tattoo.” In his comments on the first bar, Chris states, “The post-taorluath low A is also a key note. A quarter note can be considered an eternity in a 2/4 march. That being the case, a dotted eighth note can be considered almost an eternity. Make it so. Don’t be afraid to stretch it out into an essentially double-dotted eighth note. The next note, C, in effect, becomes more of a thirty-second note.” The bar Chris describes is the first complete bar in this passage:

Chris’s suggestion for pointing the dotted eighth like a “double-dotted eighth” is apt, but should be taken one step further: this note should in fact be written as a double-dotted eighth, and the following sixteenth as a thirty-second, like this:

This is to say that we have perhaps been writing out this note pattern incorrectly in 2/4 marches for – well, a century or more.

This became clear to me as I was typesetting marches using the high-end “Sibelius” orchestral engraving program with a very accurate playback. Whenever I came across this couplet in any march, it played back much rounder than anyone would actually play it. It clearly wasn’t right. The only way I could make the playback accurate was to double-dot the eighth and add a cut to the sixteenth, as above.

The pattern can be considered a variant of a very common three-note march pattern that consists of: eighth note/dotted sixteenth/thirty-second. The first bar above might more accurately be written as:

In typesetting more than 50 2/4 marches in recent months I’ve encountered this quirk over and over again. Here, for example, are the first three bars of the popular “Scotland is My Ain Hame.” The pattern appears in bar 1 and bar 2, and here is how it has traditionally been written:

Here is a more accurate way of writing this passage. I’ve used two notational methods for comparison:

Of course there are countless other examples, notably the first two notes in the first complete bars of “Road to the Isles” and “The Earl of Mansfield.” Below are three examples. The first is the traditional way we usually see the first complete bar of “Road to the Isles” scored. The second two examples are more correct notations:

Traditional

Method 1

Method 2

Similarly, here is the traditional way of writing the opening of “The Earl of Mansfield” followed by two more valid methods. Again, note the first complete bar of the tune:

Traditional

Method 1

Method 2

Writing these bars out as such is quite a departure from tradition. But the times they are a-changing, and the best modern music-writing programs demand a greater level of accuracy if they are to play back accurately. These programs point out the error of our ways. Let’s hope we can learn from them.

Jim McGillivray has won both Gold Medals and the Clasp at Inverness. Active in performing, judging and piping education, and owner of McGillivray Piping, he lives in Aurora, Ontario.

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