On Pibroch Genres – Part II

We are beginning the process of collecting information on the structure and scope of ancient pibrochs, using A Map of the Pibroch Landscape, and identifying empirically observed characteristic traits for classifying specific genres of pibroch.  The current process uses titles as a starting point to collect materials, surveying the materials for commonalities, inductively positing a definition based on survey results, and culling the materials in order to identify a “core” of tunes whose characteristics match the proposed definitions.

We started with “Life & Fury”, based upon a statement made by Donald MacDonald that cited two specific pibrochs as examples of tunes that particularly inspired listeners.  These tunes were PS 164 The MacDonald’s Gathering and 167 The Cameron’s March.  Interestingly, both share identical characteristics:

  • (triplet-pattern) fosgailte toarluaths as the fundamental rhythmic structure to their Urlars;
  • simple, memorable tunes structures

Assembling all the tunes whose titles included “gatherings”, we surveyed them to see if others had a similar structure.  And in fact, PS 162 Clan Cameron’s Gathering, PS 163 The Gathering of the Clans, and PS 174 The MacDonalds of Clanranald’s Gathering showed the same characteristics.

We then surveyed all pre-1840 pibrochs to see if others did, as well.  And indeed PS 165 The End of Inchberry Bridge, PS 169 End of the Little Bridge and PS 309 Dispraise of MacLeod also met the criteria.

Two more made it into the list: PS 204 War or Peace.  This did because, while it is not a fosgailte taorluath rhythm, it is taorluath-based (we would argue a type of taorluath a-mach) that also remains within the woven family of tune structure, and as such is what we would argue a “meta-genre commentary” upon the gathering genre (interestingly reflected in the title of the tune itself).

Finally, PS 170 Glengarry’s March also seems to fit the pattern, though (as with War or Peace), the rhythmic pattern isn’t strictly speaking a triplet fosgailte taorluath.

Such an approach as this one may initially appear to be quite restrictive from a certain point of view (“How could so many ‘gathering tunes’ be excluded?!”).  And yet, shifting this perspective a bit, the restrictions allow us potentially to discover  developments of genre through time or across space (geography).  They may also help us identify previously unknown groupings of tunes. Or, perhaps they may offer us a way to note hybrid-genre mixes.

In this way, we are not at all attempting to sterilize and stabilize groups of tunes, but to explore and become more sensitive to the myriad of styles that come to light when beginning the process of empirical analysis.  The collection of pre-1840 material is not large, but is very organic and we would expect it to be very messy and difficult to catalog.  So, our purpose is not to force tunes into ill-fitting categories, but to offer tools by which we can appreciate both subtle and profound differences.

JDH – We may find, if we allow ourselves to cluster empirically derived definitions of genre, that more genres exist than we ever thought.  That is, people may have said, “Here’s a bunch of gathering tunes,” but in fact, no, these tunes that had been thought of as gathering tunes share a similar structure to one another that doesn’t look like what we’ve defined as a gathering tune. So, we either expand the definition, or we identify them as a different kind of gathering tune.

We may find that evidence of messiness is only messy because we set our categories too broadly.  Whereas, if we refine our categories, we see lots of new categories and the terrain starts to get nuanced.

BB – Yes, nuanced and multi-dimensional, because regarding those kinds of extra categories: you are thinking of them one way (one-dimensionally), but you must also think through time.  A gathering could have been played in a listening environment where nobody is being gathered.  We’ve got to bear in mind that new gatherings could be composed with a “gathering” title because it was written to flatter a chief who didn’t have a gathering, though he thought that he ought to have.  Now, the piper who composed that gathering may not have had any desire to compose a gathering tune in the classical style. He may have been an innovator and could produce a gathering that sounded like some other genre.  So you get muddying of other distinctions.

JDH – That’s what happens with genres: the delight comes when one has the expectation of, “Oh, you’re going to play for me a gathering tune,” and the creative artist says, “Yeah I am, but watch what I do to it!”

BB – I think we have a lot of that messiness in this stuff.

JDH – What I want to do is offer these definitions to isolate “core” characteristics, precisely so we can appreciate the hybrids, the developments of creativity and time.

Other genres we are exploring include:

Rowing Tunes

(noted in the previous discussion)


Introductory Material, MacKay Book (Deuchainn Ghleus)
PS 50 A Prelude: Hioemto Hinem 8-pitch, Free Lyrical
PS 127 A Prelude: Hihorodo hioenoem 8-pitch, Free Lyrical
PS 146 A Prelude, or Lament for Dunyvaig Castle 7-pitched, Interlaced

BB-  You have a prelude and a fugue.  This represents a very, very widespread tradition: before you play the heavy piece, you warm up.  I think this sort of musical practice would have been very familiar right from the 14th century. So, anyone with a musical education would have known that is what you did: warm up.  I suspect this is what musicians have done for millennia.

The Art of Preluding is a title of several treatises in the 17th century.  It was an art. If you were a harpsichord player, the art of the prelude is part of your skill and training. It’s an “amuse bouche” for the audience. It’s the starter before something heavier.


  • double-beats, typically in the top hand
  • pitch height
  • more lyrical structure

BB – What I would suggest is statistically significant about the lament genre is pitch height. You generally have a higher tessitura.

You also have a higher preponderance of double-beats representing the weeping, the rhythm of somebody sobbing.  That’s obviously part of the higher tessitura: in order to have a higher tessitura, you stay on those double-beats, particularly on the top hand.

The other thing that you get is fewer geometrical designs and more lyrical designs. So there’s less formulaicism, it’s much more rhapsodic and free-flowing in terms of the thinking behind the tune.  You don’t have the spell-weaving behind the tune.  It’s freer.

Much more to come (particularly regarding laments)…


1 thought on “On Pibroch Genres – Part II

  1. It should be noted that MacKay has spelled ‘Gleus’ differently from his predecessor Joseph MacDonald who spelt it ‘Gleusd’, and provided examples of the preludes – they are distinctly different from the ‘adagios’ or urlars, which suggest the ‘Preludes’ above would not correspond to his definition of ‘prelude’, and should not be renamed as such.
    Moreover, Joseph MacDonald provides as an example of an ‘adagio’ or urlar of a proper tune, one of the ‘preludes’ above: ‘Lament for Castle Dunyvaig’, which suggests he did not regard it as a prelude. Should we ignore his example?

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