March 31, 2001

Little Big Music

Piobaireachd: Classical Music of the Highland Bagpipe
by Seumas MacNeill

BBC Publications, 88 pages
Available from the College of Piping, 20 Otago St., Glasgow, Scotland. G12 8JH

Reviewed by Doug Stronach

Editor’s note: To get a more relevant perspective on this book, we chose a drummer to review it rather than a piper already familiar with its subject matter. We hope that readers agree that this makes a great deal of sense.

First published in 1968, and reprinted in 1976, 1995 and again in 2000, the eighty-eight page Piobaireachd: Classical Music of the Highland Bagpipe claims to “analyze piobaireachd as a serious branch of the world’s music.” Mighty words for such a small book (it measures only 8 x 5.75 inches). Seumas MacNeill wrote it not only for pipers and piping enthusiasts, but also for “classical music lovers” with an interest in piobaireachd. In eleven chapters, he explains the history of the bagpipe and its music, the history of piobaireachd, and an analysis of piobaireachd composition.

Basically the book splits into two halves. The first half, from the history of the bagpipe to the history of piobaireachd, is interesting and informative for anyone, including non-musicians. He discusses the bagpipe scale with specific emphasis on how it relates to Western tonality. He describes three pentatonic scales found within the bagpipe’s nine notes and he explains how they’ve become the basic diet for most piobaireachd. He uses traditional Western music terminology to clearly explain the scales, as well as to explain the individual notes of the bagpipe, even if at times he overdoes it.

The second half of the book, the piobaireachd analysis, will probably only interest readers who already have an understanding of piobaireachd and, in particular, the specific piobaireachds covered. MacNeill divides piobaireachd into five categories: primary piobaireachd, secondary piobaireachd, tertiary A, tertiary B and irregular piobaireachd. He bases his classifications on the structure of a piobaireachd’s main melodic theme. This makes for interesting reading, but there are too many exceptions to the rule in each case for the classifications to make much sense to the beginner piobaireachd listener.

Lacking is any elaboration on the timing of notes in piobaireachd. Any piobaireachd player will tell you that the rhythm of the notes in a piobaireachd is as crucial and as magical as its melody notes, yet most of MacNeill’s explanation on rhythm is devoted to the embellishments and not what happens between the embellishments. For the general musician, the rather loose method of notating the rhythm of notes in a piobaireachd serves more to confuse rather than to enlighten.

Even with MacNeill’s sometimes-wordy theoretical explanations, most musicians still won’t be able to make proper sense of the notation. For the general musician to get anything out of it other than some interesting facts and theories, the book will need an accompanying recording to demonstrate his examples. As it is, it’s probably of most use to the young piper who’s beginning to learn piobaireachd.

In fact, considering the lack of piobaireachd analysis publications on the market, every piper should probably have a copy of this book. As MacNeill says, the only other book that goes into any length on the subject was written back in 1803. It’s more than worth the cover price to read his research, think about his ideas, and promote the history of the instrument.

Douglas Stronach is a professional drummer and studio engineer with Eclipse Music Productions. He has played side drum with many top pipe bands, including Vale of Atholl and the Toronto Police. He lives in Fergus, Ontario.


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