OT: 23 November 1929 – Malta “Piobaireachd and Staff Notation”

The Oban Times, 23 November, 1929

Piobaireachd and Staff Notation


Sir,–As a student of Piobaireachd I read the letter of “Lochgorm,” with interest.

His letter deals with three main points:–

(1) the so-called redundant A in certain variation beats; (2) the inadequacy of staff notation to record piobaireachd correctly, and (3) the question of chanter making.


(1) it is interesting to find your correspondent confirms that the A is played by certain distinguished pupils of Sandy Cameron. The opponents of the middle note who write in the columns of your esteemed journal adduce nothing in the shape of tangible evidence in support of their theory, whereas the other side seem to produce at least some logical evidence in support of their contention that the A exists!

(2) There is much in the point that staff notation is, in some cases, inadequate to record the expression one would like to give in writing a tune! In the old days when tunes were passed down by word-of-mouth (Canntaireachd) the word conveyed the beat with its time and accent. Today Canntaireachd is dead, it conveyed both tune and accent, and its “syllables” meant notes heard on the chanter. We are left with staff notation as the only means of recording tunes for the benefit of coming generations.

Does not your correspondent go rather far in asserting that Piobaireachd is practically irregular? What is irregular is, generally speaking, the players interpretation of the music itself. The early collections in staff notation record not necessarily the composers original measure but the versions as played at the time the tunes were collected! Few will gainsay the point that changes take place in tunes passed down by word-of-mouth, for the reason each generation may find a somewhat different expression to that preceding it apart entirely from the fact that mutilation takes place, often caused by imperfect learning. Indeed were Patrick Mor MacCrimmon to hear some of his tunes as played to-day by some of our leading players he might not recognise them.

Staff notation helps us to realise that the old composers, though they knew nothing of bars, crotchets or quavers, were gifted natural musicians and that their tunes conformed to the natural laws of music and, in consequence, fall into regular divisions; in modern terms–into bars and parts. Indeed, the careful writing of tunes in staff notation often brings to light errors which are the result, not of faults in the composer’s measure, but in the interpretation of players of comparative modern times! The difference in versions of the same tune recorded, say, by Donald MacDonald and by Angus Mackay is, in itself, quite sufficient evidence of this point.

Expression on the pipes can only be given by lengthening or shortening certain notes in a tune, no hard or soft “pedal” forming part of the instrument. Consequently in studying a tune with the view to rewriting in modern staff notation we must be careful to distinguish between genuine themal notes and notes lengthened by players as their interpretation or accent. In doubtful cases the variations are generally a safe guide, as, being so regular in time and accent, they are less liable to be varied by players who may develop an expression of their own in the Ground of the tune. Here one might perhaps ask your correspondent how he accounts for variations being, generally speaking, so regular if the Ground is not? If careful writing in modern staff notation places the E of the G,E,D cadence as an introductory note rather than a themal one, especially where variations point clearly to its true value, how can enthusiasts such as your correspondent claimant should be written as a Themal note, when such writing upsets the bar and causes other notes to receive less than their true value?

Surely, considering the distant future (if the pipes are not killed by senseless bigotry in the meantime), it is wiser to write tunes bringing out the real themal notes in mathematical correctness rather than confuse future generations by long drawn out Es not part of the real thing, as in many of the tunes and Angus Mackay? Careful writing of tunes in staff notation, is the only method left to us for the present and future generations. Let us avoid the insertion of long drawn out Es as false themal notes, when we can show them as introductory cadences and thus assist future generations to get away from the errors of to-day, largely caused, it must be admitted, by many tunes being very badly written in staff notation. General Thomason quotes different versions all coming, originally, by the teacher-to-pupil method, from the one source.

The advantage of staff notation (of course assuming that tunes are really thoughtfully written) is that whilst it allows a player to find and give expression, it keeps him within bounds as regards rhythm and metre. Consequently, tunes are not subject to mutilation as they would otherwise be, and future generations will have the same advantages as the present one enjoys.

(3) Regarding the question of chanter making, nothing useful is gained by discussing the subject.–I am, etc.,