New Angle on Old Embellishments

by J David Hester, PhD

You think you know how to perform pibroch movements. But the more familiar you become of the primary sources, the more unfamiliar they will become.

Let’s start with one of the earliest collections of pibroch staff notation we have:  the anonymous author of the Hannay-MacAuslan collection has captured an astonishing array of movements.


Let’s start with double-beats:

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Two important things to note about them:

First, they are the inverse of echo beats

Double-beats generally appear in primary source versions of tunes where modern scores place echo phrases.

The rhythm of double-beats, however, can often be opposite of that of the echoes: dot-cut to a 1/4 note, whereas echo beats are cut-dot to 1/4 note.

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The result is a musically coherent, almost rhythmical “rhyme” to the melody.  Rather than disrupting the flow of the tune, these double-beats keep the momentum of the melody moving forward

Additionally, double-beats do not have a held grace note, whereas the chief characteristic of a pibroch echo phrase is its held second grace note.

(How do we know? If you take a look at the manuscripts, many of them struggle with capturing the rhythm of movements, as you will see below. But nowhere do they ever suggest the second grace note was held. The held second gracenote was a fascinating innovation by some unknown piper, and it was so unique and expressive that others caught on.  Unfortunately, it is now neither very expressive nor unique, but performed perfunctorily and repetitively without variation.  Too bad.)

Second, birls do not exist in primary sources.  Instead, low A double beats are used.  They are same rhythmic structure that extends to all other double-beats.

(Like modern crunluaths, they are the creation of the Piobaireachd Society and were without precedent prior to their appearance in the PS collection.)

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Modern pibroch birls are actually supposed to be played as double-beat phrases, thereby retaining the melodic structure of the urlar. Playing them will result in an astonishing return of an intact rhythmic structure of the melody.

Finally,  notice how all double-beats come with a cadence.  Try playing these cadences as “streaming” cadences to hear something really exciting and interesting.

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In sum:  the impression of a double-beat is that of a phrase that rhythmically sustains the main melodic line, whereas echo phrases are virtuosic disruptions of the main melodic line.  It is reasonable and interesting to consider echo phrases as virtuosic elements, and they should be approached as such.  But the power of virtuosity comes with its rarity and musicality.

Re-introducing double-beats brings a fascinating structural integrity to the tune that has never been heard until you play them.


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D-throws are a subject of some controversy: Should they be played light (as written) or heavy?  It is interesting that the primary sources show a wide variety of options.  In fact, some manuscripts show both versions present, sometimes in the same tune.

It appears that  heavy D-throws were distinctive enough to be captured specifically as such:

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While it is true that heavy D throws were favored by Donald MacDonald, Angus MacKay’s book favored the lighter.  With respect to Hannay-MacAuslan, it is fascinating to see where and when the heavy D-throw appeared in a tune, and to note that modern light throws show up very rarely (the lighter D “roll up” being the more favored version, as it appears in the D double-beat).

The Modern Traditional Piper would take the time to review the manuscripts and play the D-throws as indicated in the score, whether heavy or light.  Ultimately, it would fall to the performer to determine musically and stylistically when one would be played rather than other, the heavy D-throw being favored at moments when the theme note should be emphasized in the phrase.


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This is a strange and unfamiliar movement to most pipers.  It is only found only in Hannay-MacAuslan in the urlar of End of the Great Bridge (PS 171).


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Grips as we know them today do not make an appearance in primary sources until after the 1830s. That is not to say that pipers didn’t play them the way we do today.  But it is interesting to note that the earliest sources we have show something very different: As described very specifically by Joseph Macdonald, and later notated in the Hannay-MacAuslan collection, what we see is a two-gracenote combination that avoids the final low G we would expect.  Even in taorluath and crunluath movements in the Hannay-MacAuslan collection a low A is favored over that of the low G .

This is an extremely interesting, extremely difficult movement to perfect, but we note it here to provide both some contrast to what we grow up believing (a grip is a grip), and to offer some background for one of the alternative crunluath and taorluath styles we will be addressing, later.


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Note how the transcription of the bubble movement on B suggests a performance opposite to what we are inclined to play today.

Today we view the low G “melody” notes broken by a B grace note.

In the very early Hannay-MacAuslan collection, we get hints of another kind of expressive dimension to this movement: it suggests for the  rodin (bubble-note) the B that is the melody note, with the low Gs being the less dominant grace note sounds of the movement.  This gives the movement a predominantly lighter feel.


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The same characteristics noted for the bubble movement on B are shown here with the darado: it is the low G that is the grace note between the dominant melody notes of D-C-B.

Edre and Dari

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Note yet again the insight into performance of the edre and dari that primary source manuscripts bring: the main melody notes are E-F-E and F-G-F, respectively, with low A grace notes in between.  This is opposite of the way we have to taught to think of these movements. These, too, lend to the generally lighter impression of tone and melody.

High G Gracenotes from High A

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It is routinely assumed that high G grace notes from high A cannot be played.  This is simply not true.  The half cadences that make their appearance in primary source manuscripts coming down from high As are quite possible to perform, and and a lovely opportunity for expression.

Now, you may see a few other thing throughout the primary sources that strike you as odd and unfamiliar.  That’s fine.  If you decide to play the tunes from those sources, embrace them: play the movements as you see them.  Clearly, pipers from the early 18th century (and earlier) were very expressive experimenters of their instrument, certainly more so than pibroch performers are today.  It is exciting encountering these new, strange notations!

Return to Modern Traditional Piper.

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