February 11, 2022

Opinion: Isn’t it time we formally rewarded the difficult?

The Winter Olympics are on, and of course that makes us think of piping and drumming. As bands and soloists around the world prepare their music for what they universally hope will be a return to traditional in-person competition, many or most will be pushing themselves with more technically challenging tunes and arrangements.

We can all agree that competitive piping and drumming is an artistic sport, along the lines of, say, figure skating or snowboarding. These sporting events are judged both objectively (you either execute the quad correctly or you don’t) and subjectively (the choreography and interpretation of the performance with the accompanying music).

The results of sports that are based on strict measurements like speed or goals scored are cut-and-dried. There’s a clear prize-list based on irrefutable stats. Piping and drumming has none of that, and, as far as we know, New Zealand was the only jurisdiction that once had a timed pipe band contest. Bands, without the aid of stopwatch, would try to deliver a musical performance to exactly four minutes. Closest to four minutes won. It was unusual, and they abandoned it years ago.

So, piping, drumming and pipe band contests are a combination of the objective and the subjective. And it’s subjectivity that always trips us up.

Sports with subjective judgment often have measurements of difficulty. A competitor will tell the judges the moves that they will include. In diving, for example, they rate dives by their difficulty. A reverse 4½ somersault in the pike position is rated at 4.8. The snowboarding halfpipe triple cork 1440 is a trick that entails spinning four full rotations while simultaneously inverting three times. These are apparently incredibly difficult and, quite rightly, executing them well gets more points. It’s a risk-reward proposition.

There are no rules in piping, drumming and pipe band competitions that govern difficulty.

There are no rules in piping, drumming and pipe band competitions that govern difficulty. In theory, a Grade 1 band’s MSR could be “Walter Douglas MBE,” “Orange & Blue” with two new simple parts, and “Captain Lachlan MacPhail of Tiree.” All wonderful melodic, brilliant tunes, but there’s a tacit understanding that they’re not suitably difficult for the grade. They’d be laughed out the park and likely finish last, regardless of how technically and musically flawlessly they delivered it.

Judges will reward “difficult” when they can’t decide between two performances. The one that’s harder music gets the nod. It happens all the time, and judges will openly admit it.

Then again, how many times will a judge say, “I’d much rather hear an easier tune played well than a hard tune played poorly”? It’s contradictory.

With that, isn’t it time we formally rewarded levels of difficulty? It’s a heretical idea, and we will generally say that a tune or score that’s hard for one set of fingers or wrists might “suit” another. But the same can be said of the reverse 4½ somersault in the pike position. Difficult tunes or snowboard tricks “suit” more skilled performers, so why not reward them accordingly?

How will we ever decide what’s difficult? Jim McGillivray has done it for decades on his PipeTunes.ca platform. To help guide customers, each composition is given a difficult rating of Easy, Intermediate or Difficult. “The 51st Highland Division at Wadi-Akarit” is Easy. “The Pap of Glencoe” is Difficult.

We recognize that grading medleys would tricky. Four-or-more-parted 2/4 marches, strathspeys and reels could be much more straightforward on a scale of, say, one-to-five. “Walter Douglas” would be a 1.0. “The Pap of Glencoe” maybe a 4.6.

But then, you might say, lower-grade bands will submit harder tunes in an attempt to get their difficulty score up. Okay, good. What’s wrong with challenging bands to be better? But there will also be bands that understand the risk outweighs the reward. Why sacrifice technical and musical excellence in the name of difficulty?

Perhaps some sort of international database of compositions and difficulty ratings could be established, and perhaps easier than we think to accomplish: create a list of published MSR tunes and piobaireachds, pick 50 respected pipers, and ask them with an online survey to rate each composition by their level of difficulty. The average rating would be the result. No doubt the RSPBA would want to own and control this, but we’d suggest a more international and agnostic group manages the central database.

The submitted MSR would then have a difficult rating based on the average of each tune. That difficulty rating would be factored into the final points awarded to the contestant.

Recognizing and rewarding degrees of difficulty would be difficult in itself, at least at the outset. But the potential rewards are clear: eliminate the traditional squabbles over subjective results, challenge contestants to push themselves, and add a strategic and fun new dimension to our art-sport.

Otherwise, just go out there and play an immaculate “Walter Douglas” at the Glenfiddich, because, by the rules, chances are you should deserve the prize.

What do you think? Please feel free to express your thoughts using our Comments feature. 



July 14, 2015





  1. If you rated tunes based on their difficulty, would bands have to play “rated” arrangements? Or submit their own arrangements for rating? How would judging be implemented? Surely, competitors could only be awarded points for tunes that meet some level of proficiency, so how would THAT be evaluated? How could we quantify things like “acceptable degree of unison” or what constitutes a “missed movement” in a pipe band performance? How many errors would be permitted before a given performance no longer qualifies for difficulty points? Would there be specific deductions for specific infractions like there are in figure skating? More difficult tunes make it harder to blow tone, too. How would that be scored?
    It’s harder to get a larger band executing accurately and tuned/blowing well, but a larger corps also dilutes the contribution of each individual chanter to the overall sound… So, how would the number of players be factored into degree-of-difficulty scoring?

  2. I think the problem isn’t just being rewarded for difficulty. Actually, I think that, to some extent, you are penalized for attempting difficult tunes. Always play simple tunes well was the creedo.

    Anyone who studies piano, for example, following the Royal Conservatory of Music Syllabus will notice immediately that the RCM music committee has sat down and come up with lists of pieces that can be selected to be played during the examination. These lists focus on various aspects of the repetoire, difficulty, style, technique, modern, classical, etc. They have examiners that take the application though all the requirements of the grade as well as just the repetoire. See https://dacapomusic.ca/rcm-piano-repertoire-all-pieces/ and https://dacapomusic.ca/rcm-piano-exam-mark-guide/ for example.

    Having compete in PPBSO bagpipe competitions and also in drumming competitions it always struck me that everything was very un-like the RCM way. Other than being asked to play a 4 parted 2/4 March, for example, there was never any guidance as to which march, what tempo, what style, what technique, how you are promoted, how you are judged and so on. When the RSPBA introduced the MAP tunes for Grade 4 it was a blessing! Finally there was guidance as to the tunes expected to be played. When the PDQB introduced technical requirements for a grade another blessing! Now you had black and white expectations of what technique in expected in each grade. Thank you RSPBA and PDQB!

    Being rewarded for playing the expected technique, in the expected tempo range, in an expected style, at an expected difficulty, from a grade appropriate list of tunes would be a blessing. At least the performer would know how the playing field has been leveled and that s/he was competing with other players on that same field, using the same criteria to assess the performance.

    Difficulty, I think, is the least of it.



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