June 01, 2017

Take me to church

There are few competing pipers and drummers who would list “Highland Cathedral” as their favourite tune. In fact, many of us dislike it, perhaps because so  many non-pipers/drummers love it. But we will play it exactly for that reason.

The piece was written in 1982 by German piper Michael Korb in collaboration with music producer and arranger Ulrich Roever. Unlike almost every piece of bagpipe music, “Highland Cathedral” was created with the key objective of commercial success. They looked past the parochial pipe music audience, apparently recognizing a way to go beyond the “Amazing Grace” Highland games cliché. Crucially, they composed not for a pipe band competition medley or a competition pipe band concert, but for the paying public.

I’d say that Korb and Roever have been extremely successful. For 35 years now “Highland Cathedral” has been played at weddings, on best-selling albums and, most importantly, at big tattoos around the world. A recent example was the 2016 Virginia Tattoo in Norfolk, where a full orchestration of “Highland Cathedral” was performed at each show, twice a day, to a sold-out arena of about 15,000 people who paid about $50 for a ticket.

In case you’re still thinking that there is “nae money” in bagpipe music, consider that “Highland Cathedral” is registered with various royalties collections organizations around the world, and is looked after and promoted by a major music publishing company. From the performances of their work at Norfolk alone, the composers of “Highland Cathedral” should have earned well-deserved royalties of five-figures. (If you happened to have a tune played at the same tattoo, be sure to register with a performing rights organization so that they can go get the money that you have rightfully earned.)

I say that they earned the royalties because they recognized in 1982 an opportunity to create a piece of music for a market that was under-served. The composers deserve to receive their fair share in return for making people happy with their music. To pipers, “Highland Cathedral” is no “Mrs. MacPherson of Inveran,” but, to the public, “Mrs. MacPherson” is just another bagpipe song that to their ear sounds the same as that other zippy jiggy reel thingmee.

It’s amazing and a little bit sad that for 35 years we pipers and drummers haven’t been able to improve on “Highland Cathedral.” We might snobbily groan at the piece, but what have we done to reach out and connect with a non-piping audience? Are we still naïvely expecting the world to wake up and realize the greatness of “Mrs. MacPherson”?

Korb (Roever died a few years ago) might be quietly wondering why the treacle-pop-pipe-tune hasn’t been bettered, or at least met with some other original musical competition at tattoos and weddings.

So, here’s my idea: let’s improve on “Highland Cathedral.” Someone with serious piping chops, with a gift for recognizing a simple, easy melody, and who still has the creativity gene that generally declines after age 30, should collaborate with a current music producer and arranger to create a piece that everyone – pipers, drummers and non-playing public – can enjoy repeatedly playing and hearing.

It can’t be an esoteric jazzy work like “Journey to Skye,” or a hand-mangling blur like “Hellbound Train,” or derivative arrangement of Pachelbel’s “Canon.” No, what’s needed is a simple, original air, with a beat, that lasts no more than four minutes, respectful to the great music of the Highland pipe, with a name that conjures up a nice, Highland image, like “My Scottish Hearth and Home,” or “Tartan Mist,” or “Song for Auld Scotia” – something warm and evocative anyway. Make it in a happy, major key, and orchestrate the poignant piece with someone who knows what he/she is doing in multiple ways for various ensembles to accompany the pipes and drums: brass band, orchestra, rock band, Celtic folk, and so forth.

And after that, find and sign with a serious music publisher (one expert in the non-piping world) that will work to get the music out there at shows, tattoos, commercials, movies, TV shows . . . A good music publisher knows how to do this, and will work hard because they stand to make at least 30% of the royalties from the shared success.

If you do it right, you will have created a piece better for piping and drumming than “Highland Cathedral,” which the non-playing public will grow to love, and which, as a bonus, will earn you a lot of money.

In return for this great idea, I’d be happy with a 5% split of the royalties. Let me know how you get on.



  1. But who wants to deliberately set about writing a tune to try and topple somebody else’s tune, then employ agents to ensure it gets pushed and pushed down people’s lug holes whether they like it or not, with the purpose of ‘making’ them like it. The words ‘force’ and ‘greed’ come to mind. Oh and making sure every step of the way that money is going to come pouring in and as much of it as possible. What happens to true music, generosity of spirit, free creative flow, and inspired quality artistic endeavour. Leave me out of this competition – it makes me fear for the human race!!!

  2. Wow. No one’s forcing anything on anyone. By your apparent ethic, composers and songwriters creating music specifically for a movie score, or a stage play, or anywhere else with a specific need or design in mind is wrong? Don’t pipe music composers occasionally sit down and think, “I’m going to write a strathspey today.” Is it wrong that they didn’t instead wait for the muse to strike? Just saying that there’s an opportunity for pipers to make an even better piece that represents Highland bagpipe music even more proudly and tastefully — and be compensated well and fairly for their success.

  3. The problem is one of representation, as Andrew says. The general public, by and large, doesn’t have any experience hearing really good bagpipe music, and what they “like” tends to be for the wrong reasons – what it symbolizes or evokes, ethnic pride, nostalgia, nationalism (which are fine, but we’re talking about music here) – and not because the actual melodies or tuning or execution are inherently good.

    The general public need to be shown: “You think you know bagpipe music? Listen to THIS.” They’d be shocked – in a good way.

    That which is popular should be of better quality than it currently is, for the same reason that buskers should be much better than they are.

    Then again, maybe the general public don’t have good taste, and would actually think a ragged “Highland Cathedral” on poorly-tuned instruments is better than “The Mist Covered Mountains” by a grade-one band. Seriously.

  4. Key* word: modulation. The modulation from D to A is a key** factor in the tune’s success. The ABA ternary form makes the short tune eminently loop-able, lending itself well to both protracted orchestrations and dependable filler for a processional of undetermined length without testing the further reaches of tedium. Why do you think the Skye Boat Song is the theme tune to a popular TV show? This new, wildly-successful chart-topper should probably also have a modulation.

    Also: repetitive groove. Each of the four two-measure phrases in the 1st part have the exact same catchy rhythm, with only the melody changing. A regular groove or ostinato rhythm should probably figure prominently in this Highland Cathedral Challenger.

    *Of pun-ish intent.
    **Sorry, I can’t help myself…

  5. For all the hype it is still a good tune. well liked by all and I enjoy playing it as it gives me pleasure to play and my audience likes it. If it brings someone financial success then more power to them.
    Surely the piping world can cope with a variety of styles melodies and complexities that appeal to a wider audience. If they can’t then go out and write something themselves!
    Another thing. A lot of the tunes pipers like.are difficult to play and a good performance is a matter of personal satisfaction in executing a difficult tune.Other pipers recognise this and heap on the plaudits
    I have had my rant



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