Is Piobaireachd “Folk Music”?

One of the more unexpectedly controversial claims in the APC Guide to Pibroch that seems to stirred up the blood of folks who are not in the United States is the assertion that pibroch is not classical music, but “folk music”.

It has been suggested that this is not an accurate description. Like classical music, (some) pipers were elite musicians; there were schools of instruction; pipers were patronized by the ruling or landed elite, given tracts of land (often in exchange for having to perform when called upon and at certain occasions); some compositions were authored and not anonymous. Taken as a whole, this looks to be very similar to the circumstances of “classical music” and musicians.

Except that classical music was literate – composed on staff notation, distributed through the agency of printing, and consumed (learned/taught) from the staff.

Such did not take place until well after the cultural contexts of piobaireachd playing had been lost. Only by the 19th century was any effort and writing and distributing staff notation undertaken.

Still, there seems to be some discomfort regarding the moniker “folk music”. I have been told that it carries the connotation of untutored performers “working semi- or wholly unconsciously in an informal milieu.” Folk music seems to imply a “country simpleton” music for many.

Well, in the United States, with the impact that Pete Seeger, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and others had upon their generation, “folk music” is perhaps better understood as something more along the line of an authentic, complex and vibrant musical scene whose voice represented marginalized members of a society and culture.  Oral tradition was at its core, but there was nothing “simpleton”, “untutored” or “unconscious” about these musicians. Their music was “real”, “true”, “authentic”, powerful, creative, and alive.  And as a result of it, young sociologists and anthropologists suddenly found themselves creating the field of ethnomusicology (out of the flawed “comparative musicology” field) and heading out with tape recorders in an effort to save this precious cultural inheritance before it was lost to mass, centralized communication.

So, for me, personally, as an author out of the US, “folk music” is not an epithet. It is a moniker of legitimacy and respect.

My suspicion is, however, that many might like to substitute the moniker “folk music” with that of traditional music “traditional music”.  And if that’s the case, then there is no disagreement in concept; only terminology.

But what piobiareachd is not, is the “classical music of the pipes”. At least, it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century when score compositions (though not many of them until after 1904) became the norm.  There were certainly certain social similarities, but fundamentally it was the oral nature of the music that distinguishes it from its perhaps more “respected” cousin.

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12 thoughts on “Is Piobaireachd “Folk Music”?

  1. There seems to be a confusion around the term classical music. Of course piobaireachd isn’t ‘classical music’ understood as the Western art music (spanning from Gregorian chant until contemporary music), rather it is one of the many classical music traditions out there (e.g. Indian classical music, Japanse Gagaku,…).

    The question whether or not music is notated isn’t the only criterium used in assessing whether music is ‘classical’ or not. Of course classical music is usually notated, but this isn’t always the case (cf. graphic scores and text scores from the 20th century). Notation furthermore doesn’t necessarily lead to a strict, standard interpretation (e.g. Gregorian chant, baroque music (which contained a big degree of freedom in the notation of for example the figured bass), rubato in romantic music, arias in classical music (which also contained a big degree of freedom and were expected to be improvised upon by the singers trained in that particular style. This of course ties in exactly with the point that you are trying to make with regards to there being freedom in traditional piobaireachd performance, but seemingly disregarding the fact that these performers were part of a context of which we are now completely severed. What about the recordings made of pipers trained in the late 19th century/beginning of the 20th century, who were (orally) taught by the pipers (or their contemporaries or at least first line descendants of these), who wrote down the 19th century manuscripts and who were trained before the standardisation effected by the Piobaireachd Society. Why has there been no mention of these recordings? They sometimes play different setting but how they play it isn’t really (too) different of what we play today. Disregarding this is in my opinion extremely problematic (especially considering the oral nature of the music, and the fact that this is really or only aural artefact)) (but this is a different point altogether, I know)

    Claiming that piobaireachd isn’t a form of classical music based on this one argument is really a form of cherry picking as it negates the other components which make it a form of classical music. It is misguided (and possibly in bad faith as well?) as it won’t remedy what you hope it will; less standard or uninspired interpretations (Maybe teachers are at fault here? Bad musicianship? Etc).

    The obvious arguments that claim it as being ‘classical music’, have already been mentioned: the position of the pipers, their training, the bardic elements, the intricate system that is canntaireachd,… But the music itself is of course the crux of the argument: what about the highly complex and intricate nature of the music itself?

    With regards to the argument of the ‘folk music’ of Dylan, etc. This argument subverts your own claim: in how far does the music of Dylan etc represent the ‘folk’ or traditional music of America? Hasn’t there been a change in how they present, perform,… the music? Isn’t this kind of change in a way the kind of thing you are trying to counteract with this website? Giving a modern version of a certain kind of ‘folk music’ as an argument in this context is in other words quite ironic.

  2. Yes. Many of these points have been made elsewhere. It seems I have touched on a nerve, a not uncommon experience in the piobaireachd world, I’m afraid.
    I suppose I wonder how the idea of piobaireachd as “folk music” is such a threatening one? It is not meant to undermine the legitimacy, complexity or beauty of the music.
    How is the phrase “traditional” or “trad music” inappropriate? What is rhetorical impact of this label upon our conception of the music? its history? its role in Gaelic (and modern) society and culture?
    What is important about associating piobairechd with “classical music”? is it a sense of complexity that would not otherwise be ascribed to folk or trad music? Is it a good assumption that folk or trad is not complex?
    Is it a sense of “legitimacy” and “respect” that the term brings? Is that sense threatened by choosing not to use it?
    Or is it that you think I am simply “wrong” in describing piobaireachd in that way? That maybe the idea of “folk music” doesn’t quite accurately or fully describe piobaireachd, in the same way I suggest “classical music” over-emphasizes some things and under-emphasizes others.
    I’m curious…

    1. Firstly, your suggestion of piobaireachd as ‘folk music’ is indeed wrong. You can’t just reclassify a whole (broad) style of music based on one argument, that is highly debatable, all the while disregarding the evidence that proves you the contrary.

      Secondly, why would you ‘rebrand’ a whole style of music just to prove that there are more performance styles possible? It is redundant and quite frankly ludicrous.

      Lastly, I guess elements of respect, legitimacy,… certainly play a role. In my humble view, it does indeed detract of the music when you refer to piobaireachd as ‘folk music’. Not to say that folk and traditional music can’t be extremely beautiful, or that it isn’t worthwhile, ect but it is a distinct category of music as opposed to classical music (or better yet, different traditions of classical music). (And sure we could have an endless debate about the merits of (non-)classical music, but I guess not everyone shares the postmodern view on music wherein no distinctions between high and low or any value judgements can be made. (This is what I at least gather from your writing, please excuse me if I’m wrong.)

  3. To get my fingers warmed up for a reply to the post after this one I thought that I would throw a hat into the ring, despite making a private comment to David that trying to answer the questions was rather like trying to nail a blob of mercury to a laboratory bench. So to start on the right lines I checked how the various terms being used were defined by the OED. So taking the description Classical first, it originated in describing things pertaining to ancient Greece or Latin. The earliest use in connection with a type of music was not until the early 19th C. However it can also be used to describe any art form when it had reached a peak of its style, so that certainly would describe piobaireachd in its historical period.
    Turning to ‘Folk music (or Song), the term folklore was first coined circa 1900 with the Folklore Society and the study of that subject. The first OED reference to Folk music was from the early 1960’s and descriptions were quite wide, including funnily enough in one it being described as ‘traditional music’. Likewise the term ‘traditional’ described any music or other actions which had been practiced for a long but ill defined period.
    Being conscious that the language used on the other side of the great pond and that used here differ I also consulted the Oxford Dictionary of American English and that did provide some slightly tighter definitions albeit they produced some more problems of their own. For example the only use of traditional connected to music listed was to Jazz. Then moving to ‘Folk Music or Song’ it was defined as that which over time has lost any knowledge of it’s composers, (hence in UK speak it is traditional).
    This leaves a large question mark over work by Seeger and others whose names are known and are usually dropped into the box labeled ‘Folk’. It also poses a problem with piobaireachd as we think we know the composers of some tunes so therefore is it only those by un-named composers that called be called ‘Folk’.

    So to sum up, when the words being used in the discussion are in themselves so imprecise that like Humpty Dumpty they mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean then the chances of any discussion actually reaching a conclusion is low.


  4. I understand the point you are making. Piobaireachd was certainly “ceòl mòr”, and not “ceòl beag”. Much of the music’s titles seem to suggest that it was played for ceremonial occasions: funerals, salutes; But also occasions from which can be inferred a retainer relationship: gatherings (in battle), rowing tunes (long oars?),
    The stories shared about the compositions of many of the tunes (even if or when apocryphal) show pipers were among the retain class of Highland chieftains. Reports are also mentioned of piping schools (or “colleges”, and MacKay described them). An notational system, albeit oral and not standardized, was developed.
    Many aspects of ceòl mòr certainly find an analogous relationship with classical music coming out of the Continent at the time.
    And yet, there are some questions that still linger and suggest a different kind of musical milieu out of which it was developed.
    A simple comparison: Out of curiosity, prior to the effort by HSL and HSH to write the music down, how many of the few pibroch pipers whose names we know were trained in musical theory and composition in the way that, say, Bach and Hayden were? Unless you buy into the interesting claim the MacCrummen was sent to and returned from Italy, I cannot remember of hearing of any other piper laying claim to that. It was really only into the mid-to-late 19th century when any effort was made to use staff notation, for example. That’s several hundreds of years of music development before we can say with any certainty that pipers were trained in “classical music”.
    Certainly, there seems plenty of evidence of schools where pipers were sent. And those schools appear to have been very successful. But they were also taught from the oral tradition. Nothing like what we know of training in “classical music”. Perhaps a different kind of “formal training” occurred there than in the classical tradition; but it would have been a different kind of training.
    And from the work of Havelock and Ong, one could infer a lot of similarities between oral folk telling tradition and oral music. As well as explain some of the later dynamics that took hold when musical literacy became more prominent.
    And there’s the connection between Gaelic song tradition and piobaireachd tunes. Allan MacDonald’s thesis is suggestive of links to a more folk-centric origins of piobaireachd.
    (On the other hand, Interestingly, many of songs from this same tradition made their way into “classical” music: Hayden, Beethoven are a couple of composers Allan has identified as musically referencing Gaelic song tradition. Which keeps the waters a bit muddy, doesn’t it?)
    I’m not even sure just how long the concept of “classical music for the bagpipe” has been around. Is this a phrase used in the 18th century? Joseph MacDonald very clearly does not like the association with “Italian” music (for a number of reasons). Donald MacDonald, in his preface, calls it Martial music. Angus MacKay mentions “national music”. I haven’t been able to find in the secondary written sources that I have (Ross, Glen, Thomason, for example) any prefaces to see what they might have to say. Do they mention “classical music of the pipes”?
    All I have found so far was the use of this phrase, “classical music for the pipes” in the first series of the Piobaireachd Society – that’s 20th century.
    Now – why does all this matter?
    Perhaps it doesn’t.
    But when I approach the musical scores from a “folk” or “trad” perspective, it help bring into relief for me as a piper the fluidity and multiplicity of performance witnessed in the primary written sources: we see distinctive styles between MacDonald, MacKay, MacArthur and Campbell, for example. This can more easily be explained by an “oral” and “folk” framework than a literate “classical music” framework, to my mind.
    Additionally, I worry about the kind of implicit reverberations of authority that “classical music” might bring if one were to teach and approach the music with that frame of mind. Here is the score. Here is the style. Play that style from that score. It certainly was the case in the development of the Piobaireachd Society that scores were “corrected”, made “orthodox”. Heck, there was very explicit direction from the very first that the competitors were expected to play in the particular style dictated by the Piob Soc (it says so in the first series; it was for this reason that a second series was developed: many of the competitors did not, in fact, play in that style, and a kind of “coup” took place where new officers took over and new Music Committee members came on board to “fix” the situation).
    And frankly, I personally associate the moniker “classical music” with precisely this history and this effort.
    Mostly, to my mind, it is a misnomer. Perhaps “folk music” is also a misnomer – but it brings enough of a different perspective to the music that I find helpful and that also is helpful to students in the perspective they bring to piobaireachd. And it is a perspective often overlooked and under appreciated.

  5. The ‘highland pipe’ is, or rather was a solo instrument. It’s music in terms of what we loosely call ‘pibroch’ today was certainly connected through the grounds to Gaelic song, a point well made in Allan’s thesis but also made by others before him. Notably William Matheson who also points out that the particular metre used known as Amhran was International in origin and could be found not only in Gaelic Scotland and Ireland but also in Lowland Scotland, England and on the continent of Europe. He notes in one particular example how the tune for Oran do Iain Breac Mac Leoid can be traced back to a French song dating from the fourteenth century.

    The ‘songs’ were however performed in a free rhythm, not a problem if performing solo and trying to accurately capture that musical form with written music is not really sensible. I once observed one of the staff at the School of Scottish Studies trying to accurately note what the singer on one of their tapes was actually singing. The eventual musical ‘score’ may well have been accurate but was also totally useless to use for anyone to play from. How do you cope with 3 different time signatures over 5 bars? In those circumstances the ability to write music was not really of much use and the oral/aural method of transmission even of complex music was far more suitable.

    The main reason that what developed into modern ‘classical music’ took to written notations is because they originated in the musical courts of France and Germany where the performers were no longer solo but groups of musicians, proto orchestras if you like. As these also grew in size written scores of each part help considerably in playing together although free rhythm tends to lose out to more rigid written musical ‘boxes’. Likewise to help keep them together a man waving a wee stick at the front also appears.

    All that however is immaterial to describing piobaireachd and would have been even more incomprehensible to our ancestors performing their own Gaelic arts. The real problem of course is that we in the modern world with it’s pendent for placing things in categories along with a modern expectation for ‘accuracy’ and in most cases no longer versed in that Gaelic world have the problem of looking in from the outside. A point I have made before is that piobaireachd simply means piping, in other words what a piper did, there was no further attempt back then to put the music in labeled boxes. It is we who, just like putting free rhythm behind musical bars, are trying to place the music itself into boxes.

    Regarding the question of whether any of the earlier pipers had studied written notation then certainly there was one of the Cummings who did study under a music master from 1735 to 1739. That, as far as we know, he did not feel inclined to use it for pipe or any other notation was possibly because it did not make much sense for Gaelic music. but he probably did pass it on to the next generation although significantly it was then used by Angus Cumming to compile a collection of fiddle dance music, ie music with a fixed rhythmic beat.

    You mention the PS as the first example of using ‘classical’ in connection to piobaireachd. This of course brings us to the ever present elephant in the room. Competitions. Would the PS have ever existed or if they did, try to publish standardised settings without the problem of competitions?

  6. To Keith Sanger: I can’t accept an argument based on definitions given in OEC. This is in no way a specialised source and it is invalid in this type of serious musicological debate. ‘Classical music’, ‘folk music’, etc. have distinct criteria as described by musicologists (there is of course overlap between categories and categorisation is always problematic), and via these criteria it is possible to pinpoint and categorise. A definition provided by OEC is of course much too open to categorise something.

    To David Hester: Regarding the argument of the (lack of a) classical, European/Western, training in the vein of Bach, Haydn et alia. As I have made clear in my comments above: there are different traditions of classical music next to the Western art music tradition and I consider piobaireachd to be one of these. As such the argument is invalid (or it would disqualify all these other classical traditions as well, something which would ‘touch a nerve’ with a lot of people too I guess). Consider for example Japanese Gagaku music: the Japanese musicians weren’t trained in Western theory either, rather they were schooled in their particular system. Likewise for Indian classical music and other such traditions. The lack of a Western musical training doesn’t qualify something as a form of art music. I should look up if research has been done about this, but I guess the pipers were trained in their particular system (which was probably largely based on canntaireachd ?).

    Sure there is a connection with Gaelic song, but isn’t there always musical exchange between music of different categories, styles, etc? Looking for example at Western art music, composers found a lot of inspiration in other music styles: the use of secular melodies in sacred music during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Sarabande in the baroque period, Mahler’s use of Ländler, Bartok and Kod ály’s use of Hungarian, Bulgarian,… folk music, or Erik Chisholm’s use of piobaireachd, etc etc………

    And yes: the name classical music does probably date from the beginning of the twentieth century. As does the categorisation of the Western classical music as ‘classical music’ (see …), the categorisation of ‘folk music’, etc.
    Regarding the reverberations ‘authority’ of ‘classical music’: I get your point, but it mainly stems from a too rigid, false view of classical music itself. I have given lots of examples of (degrees) of openness in classical music in my first post above. I think it’s perfectly possible to do what you want to do: show the multiplicity of the music, and perform it, from this perspective. Especially when you consider it as a form of classical music, and one in which the oral component is important. The new categorisation of ‘folk music’ isn’t necessary for this, in my opinion, and it negates all the elements of the music as discussed above, making it wrong as well. As far as I am concerned the hypothesis that piobaireachd is ‘folk music’ can be rejected, due to contrary evidence and a lack of substantial argumentation (unless you have more arguments?). Admittedly, (in my opinion) conceptualising piobaireachd strictly as Western classical music is indeed a bit misleading, but giving it another label is wrong. Why not consider it as ‘a form of classical music’, rather than narrowly thinking of it as ‘Western classical music’?

    Sure the standardisation of scores and the conformity (sometimes) produced by the competition format is problematic (even though I find the highest aesthetic and musical enjoyment in many of these performances), and I wholeheartedly support the performance of other versions of the compositions (let’s not forget that this was done by the likes as the Bobs of Balmoral as well) as well as the exploration of various ornamentations, … This last point of course only when it is done in good taste and playing traditions of the music are kept in mind (e.g. late 19th century/20th century pipers). Teachers of course have the responsibility to train able musicians, and not robots who just play the score literally (and in no way is this the case with classical music (as some popular views might suggest)). So, again, I don’t think you have to recategorize the music.

    Keith Sanger (2nd post): what you describe as the development of Western classical music notation is not correct. Notation was started to standardise Gregorian chant (only the tones were notated though), later rhythm was introduced with the system of rhythmical modes, later values where given to each individual note, etc. So music was notated long before courts had groups of musicians that performed instrumental music.

  7. Yes notation was used for chant but again the significant factor was the requirement for a number of ‘voices’ to work together. Dictionaries cannot just be dismissed as apart from anything else they provided some idea of first appearance of a use of word. You mention musicologists but having rubbed shoulders with a number of them over the years they have the same problem of definitions. I would though like to thank you for that mention of them since I find it easier to save time on going to conferences and just wait for the printed papers. To that end I dolled out a large sum last year for the collection of papers printed as ‘Understanding Scotland Musically; Folk, Tradition and Policy’. (eds Simon McKerrell and Gary West). My outlay has now been further justified by your post.

    One paper in particular called ‘The problem with ‘traditional’ is very relevant. The whole paper is worth reading but under one subsection with the title ‘Defining ‘traditional music’: try, give up, move on’, it quotes the present rules of the International Council for Traditional Music.

    The objective of the Council shall be to assist in the study, practice , documentation, preservation and dissemination of traditional music and dance, including folk, popular, classical, urban and other genres, of all countries’.

    However to clarify my position which perhaps I should have made clearer. Although when the terms ‘Folk’, Traditional and Classical are used in regard to piobaireachd I can usually identify what the person using them means, I have no particular ‘position’ because I would not use them myself. As I have pointed out before they are all modern descriptions coined long after the event, they mean different things to different people and would certainly not have been understood by anyone in Scotland, Gaelic or Scots speaking at the period of when ‘piobaireachd’ was at its height. They are therefore useless to me when considering how at that period the practitioners of the music actually thought and viewed it themselves.

    1. But notation was developed before there were multiple voices as Gregorian chant is monophonic. And yes the number of voices is important, but this was all developed long before the courts had groups of musicians who performed instrumental music.

      My point is that a definition given in a non-specialised dictionary is too broad to discuss a specific issue. The first appearance of a word furthermore isn’t of relevance here.
      And yes, there sure is debate among (ethno-)musicologists.

      Yes I agree with you; they are indeed modern names, and meaningless to the people then and how they considered their music. But the discussion here is about how we call it now. If it the name wasn’t of any importance, why would Mr. Hester feel the need to change the nomenclature at all?

  8. And with that, I think we’ll close out the thread. As I mentioned, there has been a lot of ink spilled about this issue, and I think everybody has a good idea why.

    Thanks to both Keith and “Piob13” for the discussion.

    I’m sure there will be many more occasions for us to interact and learn from each other.

  9. My thoughts are here:
    Keith makes an extremely valuable point above, which I would like to reiterate. The terms ‘folk’, ‘traditional’ and ‘classical’ mean different things to different people and would certainly not have been understood by anyone in Scotland – Gaelic or Scots speaking – at the period when pibroch was at its height. They are therefore useless when considering how, at that period, the practitioners thought about and viewed the music themselves. The binary distinction ‘ceol mor’ and ‘ceol beag’ is, for the same reason, useless and seriously misleading if our goal is to bridge the gap between then and now. Pibroch only became ‘big’ in the 19th century, loosing what was ‘little’ and ‘popular’ about it in a gradual monumentalising process.

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