May 13, 2014


Musical Edge [photo: Y2kcrazyjoker4 - Creative Commons]It’s generally a bad sign when someone comments that you or your band had a very “musical” performance. In piping-speak it’s a backhanded compliment that really means that the technique and tone weren’t so great, but they managed to listen through it to discern that you actually know how to deliver the tunes.

“He’s a very musical player.” “They’re one of the most musical bands out there.”

These comments are applied generally to the contestants who don’t get prizes. The precise opposite should be true.

I guess this follows on from the last blog post. As the grades rise, so should the expectations of judges to recognize – and reward appropriately – the overall musical presentation.

Does a virtuoso guitar player consider, say, the aptitude of U2’s Edge, who he himself admits is not even a good technical player? Do they dismiss what he’s able to achieve musically, unable to hear past the technical glitches, or do they sit back like the rest of the punters and allows themselves to be uplifted with the rest of the fans?

Does Itzhak Perlman enjoy Ashley MacIsaac’s fiddling, or would he cringe with every slip of the fraying bow, tut-tutting while the ceilidh dancing flies around him? One wonders.

And, somehow, “musical” is rarely applied to bands and soloists who are pitch-perfect and finger-perfect. We marvel at the technical and seem to forget the nuance of music. For my money, Field Marshal Montgomery, ScottishPower and Inveraray & District (to name a few) tick the Musical box even more than those for Tone and Technique – and that’s saying something. I admire the precision, but I am truly uplifted by their music.

It’s another of competitive piping’s bizarre traditions. “Musical” is code for inferior. That goes against just about every other genre of music where “musical” means superior.


  1. I disagree. As a judge I use the term frequently and mean it for what it says. I never use it as a euphemism for poor technique or sound. Speak for yourself Andrew 😉

    1. Here, here Phil. I too use the word in the positive sense when adjudicating too; I enjoyed the music, even to the point of being “uplifted”. There may well be some out there who use it as you describe Andrew, but perhaps not the majority?

  2. Tend to agree with Phil on this one Andrew, although I’ve been out of it so long I’m not up on the code words of the day but to me musical is just that, it is or it isn’t.

  3. I had always thought that when I got the comment “A very musical performance” it was a good thing. Why would a judge say one thing and mean another when all contestants are relying on them, as someone they trust and respect, to be honest, accurate and constructive? The only thing a competitor can do is take their comments to heart and work on improving based on them. Cynicism and irony has no place on a score sheet. I believe, that the judges have played for have always been honest, trustworthy, accurate and constructive. If I don’t do that then what is the point of playing for them?

  4. If it is pleasing to the ear I’d.consider what.instrument.voice or.culture.if it is trchincllay proficient it is.outside the norm ie free.jazz.avant guardcomposition.I..nature.i’d.consider it.musical.If it is poorly played or with undue overconfidence its just.crap.!

  5. mmm interesting, I’d never thought of ‘musical’ in piping meaning that. Of course I’m unfamiliar with insider judge-speak, but I often say of Gordon Walker – ‘he’s such a musical player’ but I don’t for a minute doubt his technique or tone! (who in their right mind would!). I’d be disappointed to learn that that is what is meant when pipers or piping judges use the term ‘musical’.

  6. Have to agree with the other judges – this term has always conveyed nothing but positives, and I hope the recipients of my sheets take it that way.

  7. All good comments. To be sure, anything I write on this blog is speaking strictly for myself, and only my opinion based on what I have learned. I guess “musical” is often a poor third child of the tone, technique/unison and expression/music trifecta. If the tone and technique weren’t rating, many like to say, “Oh, yes, but it was **musical.** ” as if being musical still can’t trump the technical, when in fact, it often (NOT always) should. In my experience, when someone comes at me first saying I or another performance was very “musical,” it’s generally being damned by faint praise. I believe that all of us who have been around awhile have heard dozens of technically and tonally excellent performance with ham-handed expression and a hammer-on-the-anvil-like touch winning prizes. It happens all the time, while the expression/music-rich renditions, but with flawed tone/technique, are thrown out.

  8. Personally, music, to me is music. If it moves me or affects me in a good, positive way, then I’d say it’s good. I’m not going to get into any deep technical over-analysis. Sure there may have been some miscues in a performance but it shouldn’t take anything away from the “goodness” of a performer’s music



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