The Modern Traditional Piper

by J David Hester, PhD

(Re-)introducing a new (old) style

It is my intention here to provide key characteristics of a style of piping as represented in the early manuscript traditions and scores.

I do not wish to recreate ancient piping sound per se (and any effort to do so would be conjecture). Instead, I wish to review the pre-1820 manuscripts for indicators of different styles, multiple genres, and long-forgotten movements and consider how we may re-introduce them to modern performances.

My proposal is, by grounding ourselves in a well-considered appreciation of the tradition,  we can respectfully change modern pibroch performance.  My thesis is, the ancient text reflect aspects of living musical vitality that has been lost in the canonization of tunes and settings.


Many of the characteristics mentioned here are quite varied, emphasizing the point that pibroch performance was a living art form.  Many differences can be seen among the collections: MacKay’s book tended to favor E-cadences significantly more than Donald MacDonald’s scores reflect.  Peter Reid shows a dedicated effort to capture the actual nuances of expression in performance, and so his scores can reflect differences from either of the others.

It is, therefore, a sad thing to see how little of that variability is played today.  There are a number of reasons for the consolidation and calcification of performance an expression.

Some of it can be attributed to the very things that rescued pibroch from oblivion:  competition constraints and constraints of the notational system.  Ian McInnes’ dissertation outlines many of the details of how formative influences shaped pibroch performances fundamentally at a very vulnerable time for the art.

With respect to today’s performance, however:  as David Murray points out, much of the cause for the repetitive nature of pibroch expression can be laid at the feet of the members of the Piobaireachd Society in the middle of the 20th century.  A certain kind of orthodoxy took hold, as key members  wanted to standardize the scores, embellishments and expression as much as possible, to eliminate any ambiguity in the scores.

Looking Forward

Regardless of how we got “here” (wherever “here” is), it is clear that a new future for pibroch is shaping up.  There are a few reasons for this: the ease of access to original source material; the availability of recordings from neglected masters of the art; fresh, new and open perspectives from key institutions charged with supporting the art.

But perhaps most importantly is the return to secondary orality engendered by the rise of easy retention and distribution of recordings.  At no other time in human history has it been so simple to capture and share with the entire world the performance of anyone and everyone.

This does two things: show us the state of the art, and relieve us of the responsibility to conserve tradition at all and any costs.  I believe that as long as orality and notation were the only means of remembering tradition, it placed a huge burden on students to pass on the teachings of their tutors and masters. Otherwise, the memories and traditions would have been lost.

Now we know they are and can be safely stored away.  This allows us the freedom to explore and create.  A strange new world, one perhaps a bit more radical that many of the practitioners of the art would care to consider.  But nevertheless a profound opportunity for exploration!

The Plan

What I am hoping to provide here is information on stylistic characteristics representative of an early style of pibroch with greater interpretive flexibility than currently adopted today. In essence, prior to 1840 there was much broader interpretive performance coming from many schools and tuition tradition.

It is our intention here to reintroduce expression and movements, as well as structure and variations that were reflected these early collections, whose variability are not reflected in later canonical collections.  In this way, not only is the modern piper provided with an alternative interpretive framework and tools for interpretation, but can rest assured that these alternative choices are quite traditional and typical in the history of pibroch, and they can be identified as coming from a historically grounded tradition.

However, and to be clear: the intention is not to slavishly recreate an ancient style. Indeed, there are many movements whose presence in the old manuscripts are so foreign and odd to the modern player as to be off-putting. To play them would come across as doing things strangely for the sake of strangeness.

Instead, what is being proposed here is the reintroduction of stylistic choices which any modern performer would understand and appreciate immediately, even if they are not what s/he has learned.  These choices, when brought together, provide a coherent stylistic approach that is identifiable, based on tradition, and is musically informative without obscure.  For purposes of easy recognition and recall, we propose to call this approach the Modern Traditional style.

What follows, therefore, is a list of key areas for the student of pibroch to learn and understand.  It is a pedagogical approach intended to help performers orient themselves to the overwhelming variety of material that is presented when looking at primary source material: so much of it is quite disorienting.  We will break it down into fundamentals for consideration.

The performer may choose to adopt at will, within their comfort zone.  Of course, competitive pipers are universally terrified of making any changes to their performance unless it is explicated called for by the event organizers or judges.  We don’t expect this to change pibroch performances in such contexts any time soon, if at all.

But for those interested, whether as students new to the art, or as practitioners who think there must be something more than what we are hearing and playing, this is where to begin.

Modern Traditional Pibroch

Five areas of interest, any of which will bring potentially profound changes to your performance:

  • Cadences
  • Genres and Tempos
  • Urlar Refrains
  • Taorluath and Crunluath Styles
  • New Angle on Old Embellishments

Where to Begin?

Now that you’ve become familiar with the variety of options now available to you, where do you begin when you pick up a pibroch for the first time (or revisit a familiar tune)?

First, start here:  Musical Materials. Look up the tune using either the search field or “Explore the Tunes” page.

Then, download and compare the different versions to one another, and to the Piobaireachd Society, Kilberry or Binneas is Boreraig score that you were considering using.

Clicking on any of the links on the tune page will be extremely valuable: you may hear discussions, perhaps archived recordings, maybe read William Donaldson’s insights from his Set Tunes series.

Take the time to immerse yourself in the musical options.

Here are some General Principles (rules of thumb, really) to follow. It boils down to this: do not be afraid of the unfamiliar.  Explore options, compare manuscripts, note differences.  Then make decisions.  (Here’s an example of what Barnaby Brown and I went through with one pibroch.)

Finally, play the tune.  Make choices, record and listen again. Ask for help from your tutor, from sites like ours, from listeners completely unfamiliar with the tune.  Ask yourself, “Is everything I’m doing done on behalf of the melody?”  Remind yourself, “I am communicating – that’s what music is: communication. What, exactly, am I trying to say with this tune?”

If you ever decide to take your interpretation to competition, make sure you 1) bring the particular manuscript you’ve chose, 2) indicate any alterations you have made, and 3) state up front what you are doing.  There’s no guarantee: I’ve been thrown off the boards.  It is, after all, a difficult position for the judge to be in, if s/he has not heard a particular version before!

On the other hand, I’ve had Clasp winners listen very carefully, curiously, respectfully.  As Jack Lee says, bringing alternative versions means you have done your homework.  It’ll be up to the judge to decided whether you’ve done it well.

The Return of Something New

These few changes will spark the restoration of a traditional pibroch style and musicality long neglected in the historical march toward consolidation, standardization and canonization of scores. The Modern Traditional Piper will discover new interpretive dimensions and a distinctive approach to the tunes, becoming part of a historically important school of pibroch now recovered for the modern era.

3 thoughts on “The Modern Traditional Piper

  1. I like the idea of exploring older playing styles, and other alternative interpretations to embellishments and other movements, such as cadences, echos, and the like. It would be nice if you could include audio files of how the different notation styles are played. I get the gist of it in the descriptions, but I am really a better audio learner, and I know others, are as well. Good on you for putting this information out there, and I am sure you will have to endure a certain amount of guff from the purists and those who would homogenize piobaireachd technique.

  2. What George Moss has to say in connection with this is very interesting:


    PC: I noticed that in all •.• the pibrochs you play where there are
    beats on A, preceded by an introductory E, or a cadence E as some
    pipers call it, you play with a long first A, whereas I don’t hear
    any other pipers playing that way.

    GM: Well I’ve heard it often enough and pupils of John Ban MacKenzie
    ••• or rather pupils of his pupils, including pupils of his nephew
    Ronald MacKenzie- Se.aforths- played it that way. John McColl
    said that the old pipers always played it that way. Robert Meldrum
    said that Calum Piobair played it that way, and that transferring
    the duration and stress from the first A to the E grace note came
    in afterwards . And, the variations show clearly that the beat
    should be on the A. The A is the note that occurs in the variations
    all through- and in any timing. So there’s ample proof for
    the method of playing that I use and I see very little proof of the
    other way, because placing the beat on a grace note, that may be
    played or may not be played , according to the piper’s preference or
    choice- it’s just not right. The way I play it is the correct old
    way, not because I say so , but because the tune requires it.


    I’m new to Pibroch, but I’m already beginning to suspect that there has been a lot of obfuscation due to notational issues. If what has happened with the anacrusis in 3/4 tunes in light music is anything to go by, then there could be some systemic problems with pibroch notation too – e.g. the ornament for the first note of a tune probably shouldn’t be notated as in integral melody note on the first beat of a bar.

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