February 05, 2009

Bass-section or mid-section? A ruling

Percussion section is a good name when pipe bands aren't judged.The surge in popularity of pipe band tenor-drumming might well be the most talked about topic of the last 10 years in our world. There’s no denying that the change that has been brought to bands through the development and use of more tuned drums has been profound. Love it, hate it or ambivalent to it, this section’s importance is here and it’s not likely to diminish any time soon.

But, what to call this evolved aspect of pipe bands? Traditionally, the drums that weren’t the snares were referred to as the “bass-section.” I guess that was because that “section” always, at a minimum, included a bass-drum. Before 1995 or so there would be one, maybe two or, at most, three tenor-drummers, some often not even audibly playing the drum. Bands often competed with no tenors at all.

The bass back then was the undisputed focal point of the section. So “bass-section” made sense.

These days, tenor drums of various sizes and tones, while not yet required, are at least expected in a competing pipe band. Upper-grade bands bring out three, four, five and even as many as nine drums in these burgeoning sections.

So, it makes sense that the appropriate name for this part of the band is “mid-section.” That name is inclusive of all the instruments found in the section today, and leaves room for who-knows-what instruments will be added tomorrow. Further, the section doesn’t yet lead the band, and is in middle of it – at least in today’s typical formation – so the “mid” is descriptive of where they stand.

I’ve heard traditionalists who take umbrage at the use of “mid-section,” demanding that “bass-section” continue to be used. But the truth is these sections are a bunch of differently pitched drums in the middle of the band. Others make the apt point that the bass and tenors are simply part of the “drum-section,” so that term should be used. Ideally that would make sense, but, so far, anyway, pipe band drumming judges (who are always snare-drummers) don’t appear ready or, many contend, qualified to judge today’s tenor-drumming. Bass and tenors are clearly a separate-but-integrated aspect of pipe band competition, and thus deserve a separate descriptor.

So, at least here, “mid-section” it will be.


  1. You say “Tomaeto”..I say “Tomatto”…You say “Potaeto”…I say “Potatto”…
    P.S. I learned how to spell from the current British schools minister…

  2. I’m happy with that and shall, henceforth, refer to said ‘section’ as such. I will do so in general conversation and when I write judging sheets (as I shall this Sunday at Berwick – the one south-east of Melbourne, Australia).

    I have spoken of this before and won’t labour it, but I am one adjudicator with recent (2008) experience at a contest level on both snare and tenor (and bass longer ago). I am not the only one… we do exist. Does that make us better qualified to comment upon the snare and mid sections?


  3. That is a good call I think ‘Mid Section’ describes it much better. Bass Section is like calling your three drones Bass Drones. The tenors outnumber the bass!!!

  4. Then to be clear it would be best if the “Drum Section” from now on was referred to as the “Snare Drum Section” or “Snare Section”. In this way there would now be three distinct and separate sections to the band with no ambiguity concerning the roles and responsibilities of each. The judges would now have to be named “Piping Judge”, “Ensemble Judge” and “Snare Drum Judge”. This would clear up the ambiguity of who was judging the Mid Section. For those of you who have not caught on yet, it would be the responsibility of the “Ensemble Judge” only.

  5. I’ve never quite understood the terms, but this makes it a bit clearer. So the mid-section consists of drums which may be at different pitches. So this makes sense of Robert Wallace’s PT Editors blog in which he described people writing a drum score by one of them working out the harmonies on a keyboard and that informing the drum score. Does this mean then that it’s a common practice to work out the harmony and depending on what notes are in a particular chord, you have one or more of these notes sounding in the mid-section,— and so on throughout the piece.? So in theory in the future, the mid-section could potentially provide a harmonic accompaniment to the piece? This would mean then, that people writing drum scores would need to study and understand harmony. That’s quite a study – at least if it’s not going to end up sounding like a dog’s breakfast. In an orchestra of course, all manner of drums etc would be lumped together under ‘Percussion’ section. Auchenshoogle Pipes and Drums, or Auchenshoogle Pipes and Percussion?? mmm – maybe the two p’s are quite good, but I can’t see it taking off. However, I see there’s more to drumming and drummers than meets the eye.

  6. Janette….the goal is nine voices in the tenors tuned to each note on the pipe chanter. Chords and harmonics are the goal as I understand it. The analogy in the orchestral world would be tympani’s I would think. It makies tonal sense. The goal would seem to make musical sense. There are a number of very smart and musical people around the pipe band world working on this. It will be interesting to see the result. Anyway, this is how I understand it all from my tenor drunming daughter and her tenor drumming co-conspirators! It does seem that tenor drummers who understand and can play druming rudaments and riffs are the hotest commodity in the “off season”.

    So now we have the “front section” ie pipes, the “bum section” ie snares and the “mid section”, ie tenors and bass. I guess that makes the pipe band the “intersection” of the three. I should stop thinking musically about this and think more of a pipe band in terms of a Venn diagram or even Boolian Logic. Makes some sense when you consider the younger generation has been weaned on PC’s , computer programing, and C++!!!


  7. I went to see the strathclyde polis a few weeks ago and on the billing included the wonderfull breton band “cap caval” … at the back of the stage was a framework of around 6 verically mounted bass drums … I thought to myself “whit-the” but the proof was in the pudding.
    Their percussion section (snare ,mid, bass and various other items scavenged from a plumbers bag) proved to be fantastic. Their mid section gave subtle accompanyment in harmony with the main themes and their use of tuned bass’s realy punched through.
    It has to be remembered that the breton bands have many years experience in handling expanded enembles and woe betide any lower grade PB drum major who thinks similar additions will be an easy transition.
    Pipe bands will always be know as “pipes & drums” … i dont really care if the “drums” are an expanded ensemble covering a multitude of named and seperately judged sections … what matters is the production of music, and whether any such addition enhances the music.
    One final point though, when playing as a Bagad they invariably have a conductor orchestrating and directing … difficult outwith a concert scenario … more difficult again, within the competitive circle.


  8. I can see how using different pitched drums could be very effective, especially if sparingly and cleanly used. And especially too if the chordal structure was sophisticated and properly worked out. There would be a lot of potential though for a mess, especially as has been pointed out, with bands who want to have the effect but don’t really know how to achieve it. It’s obviously an area where enormous development is possible though, and that’s exciting.

  9. PJ….there is certainly a “push” towards a more concert or “orchestral” emphasis for pipe bands. The mid-section debate is just one aspect. One also sees the push for competitions on stage, in concert halls, eg the Gr. 1 Worlds.

    This “evolution” has been in the making for quite a while. In the 60’s the Edinburgh Police produced a wonderful LP “Princes’ Street Parade”. But shortly there after the InverGordon Distillery Band lead by Donald Shaw Ramsey and Alex Duthart produced “Pipes in Concert”. I think there was more to that title then anyone realized, then or since.


  10. I love all this talk about seven voices and comparison with symphony orchestras using timpani etc. It’s not very often that we see seven timpani, or even better, seven timpanists playing seven timpani. One player can usually manage three, sometimes 4 timps. Most orchestral scores can manage with two with the modern pedal timps allowing for re-tuning during a piece. In short, what I am saying is that if it’s music you are after, a greater number of players is not necessarily the answer. If it’s for show, then that’s diferent.

  11. There are also practical and logistical issues to consider.
    1) With 8 bodies standing in the middle of the circle, will the lead tip be able to see the Pipe Major?
    2) Given the trend towards modern ginormous bands, how do all of the members and their equipment fit into one coach? Is it now necessary to have two?
    3) What about the financial burden incurred by the additional voices (flights, uniforms, aforementioned second coach, instruments, accomodation, etc)?
    4) How often would you hear the “B” voice? And you would now really be limited to one voice at a time when harmonies are not called for since an A, B, and C played together (for example) would not sound very good.
    5) Would flourishing drummers also be added for even greater size.
    Pretty soon the Pipe Band will have changed from a minimum size equal to squad to a new size larger than a single platoon!
    Perhaps a member of a Band that has tried this could help explain?

  12. Oh, and I firgot to mention. I don’t think seven differently pitched tenors creates seven voices – rather seven notes. Additional voices would need to come from different types of (tuned) percussion like, for example, glockenspiel. Now that would cause some fun trying to tune an ensemble whose pitch is disappearing up its own arse. Concert ‘C’ would need to be retunable to concert ‘C’ plus a wee bit. How much is a wee bit? We are slowly isolating ourselves from all other varieties of serious music – but, you’re right, what do I know?….:-)



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