by J David Hester, PhD

Cadences are perhaps the most important and most musically impactful movements in pibroch. I would go further to state: they are the most expressive embellishment in all of bagpipe music.

Modern Cadence

The modern cadence is a tool of expression which, in the hands of a creative musician, can bring a sense of flair and grace to a tune.  It is a movement whose presence in the tune should act as a supplement to the melody, adding (sometimes considerably) to the timing of the ensuing phrase which it introduces.

There are several different forms and names given this movement.  According to Andrew Wright, General Principals of Piobaireachd (ch 7: 16-18; ch 10: 28-30), we have: 

  • the “single-note cadence” used to introduce  a lower (non-embellished, non-grace noted) note;

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  • the three-note “step-down” cadence (“These are not connecting notes, but melody notes forming part of the phrase”)

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  • the “step-up” cadence (preceding a note at the end of a phrase that is higher up in the scale), and

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  • the five-note “run-down” cadence (descending from E, D, B A and ending on G)

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Setting aside the subtle and important nuances and differences between them that he elaborates, what every single one of those cadences have in common is the prominence of the high E in the series.  In every case, the E is given rhythmic priority in the run, whether significantly or just as a slight pause before descending.  This is called appoggiatura – a classical music term that David Glen mentions.

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For this reason, that is, because of the prominence of the high E in the movement, the cadence is known generally as the “E cadence”. And, generally speaking, every cadence in modern pibroch is an “E cadence”, even when it is argued that there are subtle differences.  There’s just no escaping it: the high E dominates the movement.

The appoggiatura cadence, in fact, is the only form of expression performed today.

The Murkier History of Cadences

Now, the very respectable and famous piper and law scholar James Campbell (from Pembroke College; a member of the music committee and honorary president of the Piobaireachd Society) published what he considered to be his most satisfying work, “The Elusive Appoggiatura” in The Piping Times.  In it, he argues that the modern form of the cadence (the appoggiatura) was, in fact, the same throughout pibroch performance history as it is today.  Looking through the primary source material this may not be obvious, but nevertheless, pipers did not play what was written, but favored the appoggiatura nonetheless.

Now, this is a very interesting argument.  It is, in essence, an effort to argue for the historical and traditional roots of our modern practice.  Which would be a comfort to performers, certainly: You could feel confident that what you are hearing today is what was always played.

Only, you’d be mistaken.

Setting aside the clearly apologetic interest on the part of Campbell to defend his own editorial agenda, there are two problems with his argument.

First, the appoggiatura is clearly known and written by primary source transcribers when they confronted it in a performance.  In other words, primary sources knew when they heard an appoggiatura cadence and they wrote what they heard.  So, when they didn’t write it, it was because they heard something else.

For example, let’s take a look in Hannay-MacAuslan.  Here’s an example of an appoggiatura cadence:

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Or let’s take a look  in Peter Reid:

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So, clearly the primary source transcribers knew how to write an appoggiatura.  One would have a difficult time, therefore, arguing that every cadence was written one way, but played differently: that is was merely a “custom” to write the cadence with three 32nd (or 64th) notes in a row. If there was a custom in notation, it could be more fairly argued that something like this would be it:

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Why would a transcriber write a full cadence down to D in front of a melody D note?  That’s impossible to play. How can we explain it?  Quite simply, actually: the transcriber was habituated to writing a cadence with 3 notes, and simply wasn’t thinking. But just as clearly s/he was not writing an appoggiatura cadence, or else it would have been written differently: at the very least, the run would have ended on an E (pride of place), or the E would have been written as a melody note.

Second, Campbell’s argument is limited to a three note cadence. That’s all he was concerned with, and limited his evidence for the predominance of the appoggiatura strictly to it.

But if pibroch players always held the high E, what did they do when they encountered this?:

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Here is run of four notes.  This type of run can be found in MacArthur-MacGregor (e.g. PS 17 – Daughter’s Lament), MacDonald (e.g. PS 30 – Glengarry’s March) and Reid (e.g., above) manuscripts.  It is written in the same rhythmic pattern as the three-note run.  How are we to interpret the rhythm of the four note run, if the three-note run isn’t supposed to be played as transcribed?  If the transcriber did not mean to write three notes of equal length, did she or he not mean to write four notes of equal length?  If that were true, how would the four-note run sound?

One of the principles to adopt as a Modern Traditional Piper is that the primary source manuscripts and scores were trying to be as descriptive as possible when representing performance.  Clearly, there is room for discussion about this point: Baroque and classical music was, by definition, more flexible than the rhythmic system of musical notation could capture.  Nevertheless, notating bagpipe music was new at the time, and customs of notation had not had a chance to get to the point where someone could say (like they do today all of the time), “Well, yes, I know it looks like you play it that way, but actually you play it this other way.”

Now, let’s be clear: once notation systems took hold, a change took place in the music.  This must happen – the shift from orality to literacy is a shift away from tonality.  It happens in every language system, whether we are talking about words on a page or notes on a score.  At some point, editorial choices are made.

In other words, there is an element of the  prescriptive in every transcriber’s choice of notating a song.  This is perhaps nowhere more clearly seen than in Angus MacKay’s book.  Here he made a studious effort to codify pibroch tunes according to his specific stylistic requirements. That’s not so bad, really.  But what is rather sad is he did so by eliminating a significant number of movements, and by standardizing all the rest. And among those movement he prescribed for standardized performance was a specific style of cadence: regularly, universally and consistently notated without exception or reference to any other type:

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All cadences became appoggiatura.  Even when the E of the cadence was not given so much significance as to warrant a full melodic note in the line, the typesetting continued to indicate its relative importance compared to the rest of the notes:

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In comparison, evidence of Reid, like we saw above, indicates a couple of ways in which a cadence may be played.  And if you look at other sources, you’ll see an overwhelming and unexpected variety:

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How to Play Cadences

Here at the Alt Pibroch Club, we identify up to four different ways in which a cadence has been and may be played. These are styles of performance, rather than length of cadence per se.

Begin learning an urlar by NOT playing ANY of the cadences notated in the score.  This will allow you the opportunity to hear the actual melody, that foundation of music that the cadences are meant to supplement and enhance.

Then, consider employing any combination of these four styles of cadences:

First, there is the simple high G.  Campbell Canntaireachd uses a single notational vocable for all cadences: “hi” (pronounced “hee”). It can represent any of the styles we mention here, including a simple high G.

Second, there is the “held” cadence. There are two kinds: a two-note (which may or may not include a high E – notice in the examples above that there are high Fs that could be held!), and a three-note.  This is the appoggiatura cadence, where the second note is used for effect before moving onto the rest of the cadence or onto the melody note.  It is very powerful, but can tend to dominate to the point that it takes away from the tune.

Third, there is the “tripping” cadence (Wright’s “step-down”).  This is a three-note cadence where the middle E is held slightly longer than the other notes, just long enough to be more prominent.

Fourth, there is the “streaming” cadence.  This idea comes from the Gaelic term in the harping world of the time for a similar expression, known as  “sruth”.   Its rhythm (as seen particularly in MacDonald’s and Reid’s collections) is that of a “trickling stream” – each grace note given equal weight, the movement itself beginning on the beat.

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The result is a lovely “waterfall”-like sound, comprised of 2, 3 or up to 4 grace notes landing on the theme note.

It may prove of value and interest to the performer, for the sake of experiencing the difference brought to a tune when performing the “stream” cadence, to play these two versions of Young George one after the other:

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And this from MacDonald (stream – do not hesitate on the E; play all notes big – like a trickling sound and on the beat) –

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The function of the “cadence” in pibroch is to bring emphasis to the theme note and melody.

The Modern Traditional Piper will find it a valuable extension of her or his performance to re-introduce the “trickling” and  “stream” into her or his repertoire, combining it with the appoggiatura, single note and “tripping” (or “step-down”) cadences throughout the Urlar.  The result will be an enrichment of musical expression available to the performer (and listener, when done well).

To hear the different styles side by side gives the listener an opportunity to note very distinctive differences to a tune, as a new kind of dimension to the melody is created through the use of the “trickling-stream” cadence.

With this in mind, you now have available to you the most expressively powerful movement in all bagpiping performance. Use it wisely to bring out the beauty and subtlety of the Urlar.

Return to Modern Traditional Pibroch.

8 thoughts on “Cadences

  1. Would you consider the setting of ‘A Flame of Wrath for Squinting Peter’ (no. 30 in Angus MacKay’s MS) to contain cadences in the urlar, marked by MacKay as having considerable emphasis? They seem to dominate the tune, which only emerges in the first variation (which in the Nether Lorne MS is the urlar).

  2. True story: I was listening to a streaming radio channel I set up on iTunes. Over the course of an hour or more, I heard some marvelous pibroch pieces and performances. But then came this tune while I was busy doing other work and when the music has become background noise, and my ears immediately perked up. I thought, “What a cool tune! ” As you can guess, it was A Flame of Wrath.

    If you are asking how I would approach the tune, the first thing I would do would be to look at later motions to clearly identify the theme notes. That done, I would experiment with cadences to see what they may bring by way of contributing to the melody.

    But I can tell you this: what Angus MacKay captured in his score was simple genius.

    I do not begrudge held cadences. I’ve a grudge against thoughtless held cadences. I’ve a grudge against a lack of exploration into alternatives that may help bring new dimensions of the music to the fore and strengthen the melodic line. But of all the cadences we have available to us, the held cadence can be very dramatic. And it seems to me that in this particular instance that drama is well and fully expressed by their presence.

    But, who knows? Maybe other cadences might do just as well. Only exploration will tell.

    1. I was interested to see your casual instruction “stream – do not hesitate on the E; play all notes big – like a trickling sound and on the beat”.

      I’m very interested in the placing of these gestures and their relation to the beat. I suppose that on the pipes it can be more easily blurred, but on fiddle and especially on harp the decision becomes very critical.

      I have seen very clear notations of a stream-type cadence played before the beat, e.g. Patrick MacDonald’s fiddle setting of A’ Ghlas Mheur.

      Do you think that the positioning of a cadence relative to the beat is another area where the performer’s taste and discretion come into play? Or do you think Patrick is alreay messing things up?

      I am certainly sympathetic to the school of thought that all gracenotes should fall on the beat to give a crunch of dissonance before resolving into the melody note. I’m interested in the way cadences seem (sometimes) not to fit into this model.

  3. Yeah, okay: “on the beat” was a throwaway thought, really.

    I am coming to the point, if I weren’t there and on record with this idea already, that cadences should be completely discretionary – a means of expression to be used by the performer whenever and however s/he chooses.

      1. And I personally want to obligate the performer to choose well.

        One of the biggest hurdles we face in pibroch performance (and competition) is that players do NOT choose. They are afraid to make choices. They do not see themselves as contributors to the art, but as pass-throughs of a style or a tradition. And this worries me, as it makes this idiom a mere “museum piece” of performance.

        One of the most interesting things is to speak with competitors at the Donald Macdonald Quaich and here them talk about the struggles they had interpreting those scores – nothing was familiar to them. They were not sure what they could take at face value. They had to make choices. They had to take responsibility for these choices.

        I think it is for that reason that Bruce Gandy routinely suggests that the older manuscripts are not for the inexperienced newbie. He may be right. He may also be reflecting on the fact that EVERYONE is a newbie when considering them, because everyone has to take responsibility for their choices. And clearly, the more experience you have in pibroch, and/or as a musician, the better your choices may be.

        Somewhere I may have posted my score for Colin Campbell’s version of Unjust Incarceration, where instead of cadences (or even styles of taoluath and crunluath movements), I leave it up to the performer. Do you know how unsettling that is for people? It certainly was for me. Jori and I had to spend quite some time experimenting before we grew comfortable with our choices. Yet, even now I’ll change those choices, depending on my mood and to what degree I wish to re-explore the music.

        I honestly believe this, alone, will re-invigorate the idiom, since it will require the performer to bring her or his own interpretive stamp, each time s/he performs. It will enliven the art.

  4. It may be obvious due to some contextual knowledge I don’t have, but how come the E crotchets circled above in red aren’t considered to simply be graced melody notes, rather than instances of cadences?

    1. In the first instance, you may be right: the doubling motion (Urlar doubling) replaces the E with a high A. But note how the E disappears completely in later motions.

      In the second instance, however, it is clear that other sources do not have the E, but a cadence (PS 16).

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