This page reveals an arcane Scottish tradition, providing composers with a springboard for new creativity. Although written with the revival of the northern triplepipe in mind, it offers any composer, educator or music-lover wishing to connect with one of Europe's most intriguing and remote musical cultures a crash course.
Pibroch flourished in Gaelic Scotland between 1550 and 1750. An elite class of pipers became the highest-ranking court composers, accompanying chieftains on official trips and composing works to mark events, display power, summon clansmen, for contemplative pleasure, or to contact divine forces. Their excellence became a vital status symbol and many patrons achieved immortality, insofar as their laments are still played, year after year, three or four centuries later.
A repertoire of about 300 works was written down by pipers in the early nineteenth century after generations of oral transmission. At this stage, it became known as ceòl mór, or "big music". This distinguished it from the dance and military music which was rising in status while pibroch was becoming archaic.
The following MP3s illustrate pibroch's defining characteristics and range of musical diversity. In some you hear a traditional teaching chant (canntaireachd). This imitates the sound of the bagpipe and is a time-proven method for making its music easier to comprehend. The examples are organised by Urlar design, a system of classification developed by analysts since the 1890s. As full works last 7-12 minutes, these examples are all excerpts, summarising in 40 minutes the tradition as it stood around 1800.
Geometrical Urlar designs are a higher level of binary measure: each unit (A or B) typically incorporates a measure (such as 1 0 1 1). In many cases, the measure of A is inverted in B, so if A is 1 0 1 1, then B would usually be 0 1 0 0. To make these analyses more clearly relate to real music, A always represents the more consonant unit (because the pitch of the drone is A) and B the more dissonant one (as it usually prolongs the pitch B). Half-length units are represented as a and b. This group of five design families accounts for 68 per cent of the pibroch repertory.
A A B A B B A B — Woven
Barnaby Brown 1999 (first released at Pibroch.net)
Barnaby Brown 1999 (Band-Re: Strathosphere)
Ex.3 An Tarbh Breac Dearg — The Red Speckled Bull
by Ronald MacDonald of Morar (1662-1741)
In the Doubling variations, unit B is halved in length. Asymmetrical phrases used to be normal in pibroch, but fell out of favour after 1850; another example is Colla mo Rùn (Ex. XX below).
Allan MacDonald 2005 (Dastirum)
Highland pipers have omitted the key signature of two sharps in bagpipe scores since the 1820s. Music readers, beware! In the following scores, all Cs and Fs are sharp. Modern instruments also sound a semitone higher than written.
Woven designs often begin with the more dissonant unit B:
Ex.4 Ceann na Drochaide Bige — The End of the Little Bridge
In this excerpt, units expand from 2 to 4 beats, then contract to 3 beats. The tonality brightens as pitches rise, one by one, in successive variations.
Allan MacDonald 2005 (Dastirum)
baB A B abA B A — Well-woven
Port Luinneagach na An Ailteachd — The Comely Tune or The
Barnaby Brown & Gianluca Dessì 2004 (Band-Re: Strathosphere)