November 22, 2014

Repetition, repetition

RepeatSignPipe bands and solo pipers are generally reluctant to introduce unfamiliar tunes into their competition repertoire. It’s usually regarded as an unnecessary risk to unveil a medley of all, or even half, newly minted, previously unheard content. When it comes to MSRs, those of us who have been around a few years have heard “The Clan MacRae Society,” “Blair Drummond” and “Mrs. MacPherson” ten-thousand times.

But why is this? I repeat: Why is this?

I read an interesting article last spring on the National Public Radio Shots blog about repetition and familiarity in music. “Not only does every known human culture make music, but also, every known human culture makes music [in which] repetition is a defining element,” the piece said.

Essentially, the premise is that repetition in music works because of what’s known as the mere exposure effect. People are generally tense when it comes to the unfamiliar. Humans through millions of years of self-preservation are naturally suspicious and wary of change. Only after a while, when we get to know someone or something through repetition and familiarity, we tend to warm up to them.

It’s a fascinating little piece that produced a eureka moment for me and pipe music. Pipe music is similar to other music. The rock song that we didn’t much like the first time gets better and better with repeated listens. More frequently the instant likeability of a new song is due to that song being a lot like a familiar song – derivative, even. (I was happy to remember that I alluded to that in a review of a St. Thomas Episcopal School Pipe Band CD almost 15 years ago.) Record labels often encourage their artists to go after a familiar and popular sound. Why? It’s more likely to be liked.

We know, too, that pipe music derived from Gaelic song, which some feel is in part derived from birdsong. It’s music that repeats itself, through a communal chant while waulking cloth, or a curlew repeating its song to attract a mate, or “Cameronian Rant” riffing on the same theme for eight or 20 parts, or the hypnotic effect of a piobaireachd like “The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy.”

Bands that have competed with a wholly new set of tunes can only hope that the judges will do the unnatural thing and react positively. Like it or not, it’s instinctive to reject altogether unfamiliar music, no matter how well it’s performed. We can admire the artistic effort, but, if we don’t like the music, pretty much no amount of tuning, unison and tone will overcome that natural rejection.

And that is why pipe bands and solo pipers stay with the familiar. They want to succeed, and to succeed, the music – on the whole – must be liked. And to be liked, it bears repeating.

And that is why substantial change in styles of pipe music takes generations to take hold. At best, a band that values winning (and what’s the point of competing if you don’t want to win?) might throw in a few original, but certainly derivative, tunes in a medley, or make a jig out of a well-kent strathspey’s melody-line.

Certainly and, perhaps, sadly, ScottishPower intertwining “A Flame of Wrath” in a medley tempted some fate. It’s a familiar piece to any solo piper, but, the trouble is, there are very few serious competitive solo pipers who are RSPBA adjudicators. Judging from the results, I think many adjudicators must have been dumb-struck because, to them, it was for all purposes unfamiliar and they reacted naturally. If the band stays with it in 2015, the overall reaction to the now familiar music will likely be friendlier. They should warm up to it.

The rare instances of pipe bands that competed with non-derivative, completely original, “avant-garde” selections (78th Fraser Highlanders “Megantic Outlaw” 1991; Toronto Police medleys 2008-2013) might have been noble and ingenious efforts to push the art ahead quickly and dramatically on the competition field, but accepted that the art was more important than the winning. There are exceedingly few competitors who will voluntarily reduce their chances of competition success to make a musical point.

And so our art, because it is so wrapped up in competition, progresses at a snail’s pace. Each new generation of pipers discovers “Blair Drummond” or “Itchy Fingers” and enjoys the first few thousands plays at least. The few who stay with competition for three of four decades find that, at an advanced age, it’s very unlikely that musical change can be effected when new generations of wide-eared young pipers and drummers keep coming in, marveling at every last over-played note of “Cameronian Rant.”

We relish the familiar. Repetition gains familiarity, which in turn gains warmth and acceptance, and if familiarity breeds contempt, by that time, it’s too late to effect serious change.

Sadly, sadly, it is forever, forever so-so.


  1. Andrew while I agree with a lot of these points I must also say there are organization s that adopt new tunes continuously but fail to focus on proper playing of any of them. I would rather see a band have a limited play list and execute them at a respectful level than to play hours of music that is all over the place. It is all about finding a balance. Good read though!!!

  2. I wonder if celebrity would play an affect in this process of advancing music. What if we looked at a couple bands that placed in the top 5 in a previous year and introduced either new tunes or innovative ways of playing tunes and tracked the reception of the judging…Or what if a top 5 band challenged the paradigm and made a deliberate attempt to play unfamiliar music in the “big circle”, and watched the judging results and comments. I think either of those ventures would be worthy of some study.

  3. I do agree with the premise that repetition so ingrains music in modern society that we consider it part of our culture, but I disagree with the premise that we do not welcome change at times. As an example, and since it is close to Christmas, one has only to have a look at the relatively recent “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” to see that change can be welcomed. This Christmas song has been accepted as part of our culture, and there are very few places where Christmas music is played that you will not hear “Rudolph” I ask anyone who was listening to the 2014 Worlds if it was not a breath of fresh air to hear Inverary play the wonderful and relatively unplayed march by Donald MacLeod, PM J McWilliams? I do not think that it diminished their chance of a prize. Quite to the contrary. If we look back to the, shall we say, big piobaireachd contests, many of the players played the same tunes. Why? Because they were the favourites, the most musical, or for whatever reason. Hence, the same tunes were played again and again.This I believe was stopped by the Piobaireachd Society, when they started to publish lists from which to pick tunes. Do we not have almost a parallel situation with the MSR Pipe Bands. Now I do not advocate total change, but perhaps some mechanism could be derived to give us a breath of fresh air as did Inverary.

  4. A good article. Pipe band contests are designed to create over-inflated risk-averse logic. Bands at the very top set the trends and standards. This goes for tunes also. They are the most risk-averse bands because the only way is down if they tinker with a winning formula. With rare and noted exceptions, most of the elite bands forget that they could play anything well because of their amazing unison playing, ensemble and tuning. It is not broken, so we won’t fix it.

    When Strathclyde dominated in the 80’s, the variety in MSRs across the board was far greater. Listen to Strathclyde’s MSRs and you’ll work out why.

    Let’s be honest. For all the carry-on about progress and ‘modern medleys’, we still only have 9 notes to work with, a set drum corps, and insist on following virtually the same contest format we have for decades. The will to win (fear of losing) drives everything.

    The MSR has been the ‘test piece’ to progress through to the final at the worlds for a decade now. I’d love to see if there is a correlation between the emergence of the ‘qualifier’ and the decline of MSR tune variety.

    These days, it is the quality of sound, ensemble and the size of bands that bedazzles us. It hides the sameness more than it used to. Moreover, what is played gives way to how it is played and what the instruments sound like.

    What really irks me is the doctoring/simplification of tunes. Again, for no other reason than to reduce risk. But it also compromises the music in the process. The powers-that-be should mandate that original settings be played. Want to play ‘Mrs McPherson of Inveran’..? Ok, Here is GS MacLennan’s book. He wrote it. This is the only acceptable version. Now, go practice your F doublings!

  5. What about SFU’s Cosmos medley in ’08, or even the Air in B Minor medley of ’04? Both immensely popular, significantly-enough innovative for pipe bands (maybe I’m wrong?) and competitively successful. Terry intuitively finding that sweet spot between novel and popular/familiar. Obviously there is a personal-taste factor in subjective judging, but overall who doesn’t like catchy-melodies, good playing, good sound and good ensemble?

    1. I think this proves nothing more than the longer you’re in it, the more of the same-old you’ll hear. But listen to a commercial radio station for just a week and you’ll experience what we pipers and drummers do in a decade, so far as repetitions go. It is a fact of life.

      Cameronian Rant never gets boring if one listens to Strathclyde Police, clipping their way through it with unbelievable ‘snap’ in the early 90’s. Basically, putting on an MSR clinic. But in the hands of a lesser handful of bands….? Zzzzzz…….

      Every now and then, a performance comes along that makes everyone stand up and listen. I’d have to go back about 4 years to recall one that really grabbed me for its musical content alone, which would never have been the case when I was younger and waited months for grainy videos and tape recordings (copies of copies of copies) of the worlds to start emerging. But was that just my age/inexperience factoring-in?

      These days, I’d prefer to hear a classic tune, either reworked (just a bit) or as is, in a medley, than the ubiquitous ‘Hornreel’ that is as utterly forgettable as it is rife.

      That said, classic tunes can be mistreated also. The ‘Flame of Wrath’ example is a good one. Here is a magnificent and well-known tune, whittled down to almost nothing (read: ‘radio edit’), and stripped of any inflection and scansion to suit the metronomic nature of the pipe band context. In a bid to be musical and edgy, the music was the first casualty. It didn’t work for me, or others as it turned out. Points for the attempt, though.

      As for MSRs – a number of Pipe Majors need to flip through more music books and stop viewing MSRs as a ‘necessary evil’ that is to be endured and survived. Simple as that. There are some gems out there, as Inveraray & District PB are proving. Grow some kahunas and have a go.

      Music is art. It should pose questions to the listener, not simply serve up what is expected. Leave that to mindless commercial radio, where air time goes to the highest bidders and we all get force-fed candy.

  6. Some excellent comments to this. I take your point, Reay Mackay, about the Inveraray march. But my point is that, while “P-M J. McWilliams” might be unusual in pipe band competition, it’s still a tune in the familiar 2/4 march idiom.

    If Peter MacLeod’s “The Conundrum” – a 2/4 march, yes, but uniquely structured and accented – were new this year and unveiled by a band in a contest, what would the response be? Probably rejected by many hearing it for the first time because it is totally unfamiliar to the ear in melody, accent and structure. It still is, but 75 years later it’s familiar, so not risky to play.

    I think the familiarity and repetition advantage might also be why many pop musicians break through by doing a cover of a familiar song. Their talent is heard over top of a classic song. That same talent might be unheard or rejected with an altogether new song. It’s a strategy for many budding musicians.

    “Andy” — perhaps you’re thinking of the Victoria Police famously simplifying “Mrs. MacPherson.” That’s another topic altogether. Bagpipe technique is used to separate notes, but mainly to add dynamics to an otherwise mono-volume instrument on its own. But a drum section supplies dynamics, so, in a band, how much does technique actually matter? Heretical thought, but still an interesting one – to my mind, anyway.

  7. Andrew a good point about “The Conundrum”. However this tune has unique rhythms that might not be accepted at the initial hearing. But surely there are many excellent tunes that as you put it, “in the familiar 2/4 march idiom.” that could be played. For that matter Strathspeys and Reels as well. We get same-same-same! This will continue until as I put it, “some mechanism is used to stop it as was done by the Piobaireachd Society many year ago for the very same reason.
    As for your “heretical thought” let us take this to the extreme and remove the gracings from “Mrs MacPherson” entirely and just use the drum corps for rhythm and dynamics. How would this be accepted. Obviously unfavourably. There are only a certain number of gracings that can be removed, and as Andy put it no removal would be best.
    I do not wish to touch on medleys, as this is another topic that could be examined.
    Andrew perhaps blog on medleys would encourage a great number of replies. Just a thought.

  8. Good article, especially about competition tunes. I would add though that I find playing old tunes very satisfying, there’s something about playing your earlier tunes that is one of the best things about the great pipe. Tunes like Lochanside, for example, are very satisfying to play over and over again, and never get old.

  9. Whatever the merits of playing new compositions or unfamiliar tunes are to the art, I agree with the premise that people prefer the familiar over the unfamiliar. This, I think, would be more pronounced with medleys than sets, as the medley does not have the constraints of tune length, time signature, rhythm etc. that sets do. This is true for many types of music. For the past 25 years I have had a lot of experience with Irish traditional music, which shares a lot with pipe music. About 10 years ago, a well-known All-Ireland champion fiddler released a CD. Every tune was her original composition…..all great tunes when taken singly. But the CD IMHO was dull and uninteresting. There were none of the familiar tunes we all expected to hear. A mix of old and new would have produced a more interesting CD. Too much unfamiliar and our eyes (ears) begin to glaze over. New tunes and tune types need to be introduced in conjunction with the tried and true. New and innovative tunes stand out better when there is the contrast with the familiar. Years ago, I attended a week long workshop headed by Bob Shepherd. He commented that a certain Ontario Grade One band (that at the time was not frequently in the prize list) was being very innovative…..more so than any other Ontario Grade One band. He said that it was a mistake for them to do so for the reasons stated in this blog. To paraphrase,” You can do that once you’re at the top, but it won’t work for you if you’re trying to break through into the prize list, no matter how well you do it”

  10. Frank
    You are entirely correct when you distinguish the differences between the Grade1 MSR’s and Medleys.
    My point is that they are two distinct competitions and should be treated and examined as such, just like the solo piobaireachd and light music are.
    Personally my views differ quite considerably when it comes to, what I like to think are,
    two different competition venues.
    Reay Mackay



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