What is piobaireachd?

Piobaireachd is the Gaelic word for "bagpiping". In the days before 1745, it is likely that most of the music played on the bagpipe was not of the march, strathspey, reel, hornpipe, or jig styles that we are familiar with today. Piobaireachd is an ancient style of theme and variation in which a thematic melody (called the "urlar" in Gaelic where it means "ground" as in most basic part) is played followed by variations of increasing difficulty. It is the classical music of the bagpipe.

After composing the urlar, a simplified series of notes are selected to represent the musical theme. Structured variations are played upon these theme notes. The first variations may involve single gracenotes on the theme notes, but later variations can incorporate extremely ornate embellishments with more than ten gracenotes per theme note. Eventually the melody is repeated to complete the cycle.

The timing or pulse of the music is of the rubato form where a strict rhythm is not kept.  A bit of a beat is added here and taken away there - much as in jazz today.  To further complicate matters, there are cadence and connecting notes that "don't count" in the timing and which are interpreted differently by different masters of the form.

The timing aspects are sometimes known as "scansion", which refers to the "shape" of the piece. The development of a piobaireachd player may be likened to the maturation process of a student reading the words of William Shakespeare aloud in high school and then bringing more to those words through timing, phasing and emphasis as the student continues to grow and study with masters in live theatrical performances.

While sometimes considered an acquired taste, when well played, piobaireachd will induce a rhythmic swaying in the attentive listener. It speaks to the listener in a deeper and more contemplative manner than most light music.

Piobaireachds were often written to commemorate an event (e.g., Laments for death are very common as are Salutes for various occasions) or had practical uses in Highland society (e.g., Gathering of the Clans). These tunes are generally 8 to 15 minutes in length and, when well played, are some of the most inspiring music of the bagpipe. The music may be described as insistent and persistent - demanding to be heard and creating a need to be heard in order to satisfy the listener. Like many classical music forms, it may not have instant appeal to the uneducated listener.

The study of piobaireachd has two real advantages for the player who wishes to improve.

  1. Mastery of the embellishments builds dexterity of the hands.
  2. Placement of the pulses and development of phrasing and sub-phrases within the timing allows one to fully investigate and experiment with interpretation and finding the "music" within the written score.

One of my favorite quotations is from an incredible piper, teacher and judge who said, "If it wasn't for how I feel about piobaireachd, I would have given up piping long ago."


Copyright S.K. MacLeod 1996-2016