Using colour to convey musical pitches – Part 1

This series of posts seeks to elucidate canntaireachd, pibroch’s oldest tool for memorisation and musical understanding. In this part, I notice how the difference between sound waves and light waves has severed the vocal practice of canntaireachd from its written forms. I propose that colour could heal this rift, making canntaireachd less confusing and more useful in the 21st century.

200 years ago, John MacCrimmon fingered his walking stick and sang ‘hininin do… hininin do’. To all ears, it was clear that hininin was on low G and hininin was on low A. Unfortunately, this difference is invisible in MacLeod of Gesto’s transcription:

These are the opening vocables of The End of the Little Bridge (PS 169). They were printed in 1828 from a manuscript collection that existed in 1815. This contained at least 22 pibrochs transcribed by the laird of Gesto from the singing of his neighbour, Patrick Og’s grandson.

To anyone who heard John MacCrimmon sing, the pitch difference between hin and hin would be obvious. A problem only arises when writing down the vocables in black and white. Vital information is lost. We meet the same problem with the vocables hodroho and hodroho in War or Peace (PS 204). They look identical on paper, but the other sources of this tune leave us in no doubt that MacCrimmon sang two different pitches, this time C and B:

To distinguish hodroho on C from hodroho on B, some supplementary visual signal is required. We have switched from sound waves interpreted by ear to light waves interpreted by eye. The difference is profound.

Human beings will make modifications – we are genetically and neurologically wired to do so for survival. The adaptations made by Colin Campbell in response to the change of medium caused a split between the singing and writing of canntaireachd. The result is that canntaireachd has become scary, obscure and unsatisfactory. Far from being a good learning tool, it is now a minefield.

Let us begin with the root of the problem: ambiguity. Vocables with a pitch difference look the same on paper. The two examples above are just the tip of an iceberg.

One possible solution is to use diacritical marks – for example, hodroho hódróhó. In Scottish Gaelic orthography, ó indicates a darker vowel colour and, in both pibroch and work-song vocables, darker vowels tend to be used for lower pitches. Another solution is to use upper and lower case letters – hOdrOhO hodroho. Here, the capital letter indicates the higher pitch and the lower case letter the lower pitch. A third solution is to use bold face – hodroho hodroho. This makes the more dissonant pitch against the drones, B, more prominent to the eye.

In this series, I introduce a fourth solution. Colour is no longer the expensive luxury it has been for centuries. We live in an age when writing is predominantly created and delivered on screens. For the first time in history, hodroho hodroho is available at no extra cost. I believe that colour could revolutionise how we communicate pibroch, getting better results faster, making teachers’ and learners’ jobs easier, and adding the feel-good factor of a stronger connection with the MacCrimmons and Rankins, pibroch’s ‘first Masters & Composers in the Islands of Sky & Mull’ (J: 1r).

Colour offers an elegant way to heal the serious rifts and confusions that have arisen, some owing to the change of medium, others owing to the linguistic transition from Scottish Gaelic to English. For the practice of canntaireachd, these rifts and confusions have had catastrophic consequences. Something that used to be appealing and easy – fit for purpose – has become unattractive and unfriendly. Who can blame learners for avoiding canntaireachd when the early sources, literature and teachers all disagree and the only orthodox system is fundamentally flawed?

Divisions between vocal and written forms, and between Gaelic and English phonologies, have proved fatal. For most pipers, canntaireachd is now an esoteric irrelevance.

Until around 1900, the opposite was true. Canntaireachd was the foundation stone for learning and teaching. And the walls, roof, decoration and furnishings. One of pibroch’s greatest composers was blind – Iain Dall, the Blind Piper of Gairloch – but even the sighted ‘Masters & Composers’ appear to have spurned notation. Throughout the 19th century and for most of the 20th, staff notation was viewed with deep suspicion and mistrust. There was near-universal agreement that the best way of learning was through singing.

J.F. Campbell, whose nurse on Islay was “John Piper”, Colin Campbell’s son, wrote this:

They first learned to chant words with tunes; then to finger tunes silently by memory; and at last to sound them, by blowing a musical instrument…

J. F. Campbell, Canntaireachd: Articulate Music (Glasgow: Archibald Sinclair, 1880), p. 8.

This is normal practice outside Western music. In India, a guru might have you singing for six months before allowing you to touch the instrument. Masters of the heritage instrumental traditions in the Far East and Middle East, similarly, make their students ‘vocabelise’ before they play. I have come to appreciate that skipping the singing stage does the learner a disservice. Rather than a shortcut, it makes the journey longer and harder.

When Colin Campbell and Angus MacKay tried writing down canntaireachd from the singing of their teachers, they each developed unique solutions to the problem of ambiguity. Colour was not an option for them. Nor was it an option for Thomason or Kilberry, whose books in 1905 and 1948 brought a wider repertoire within the pockets of ordinary pipers – in Thomason’s case, literally. His book was both affordable and pocket-sized.

In my last post, I applied colour systematically to the Gaelic lyrics of The MacFarlanes’ Gathering (Too Long in this Condition), simply because that was less effort than preparing staff notation! I liked the result because it accommodated expressive variability better than staff notation and was visually less noisy – the brain didn’t have to work so hard.

This gave me an idea. Why not apply colours to canntaireachd vocables? This elegantly solves many of the problems I have been wrestling with in my thesis. For example: ho and hio. Colin Campbell used these as a scribal solution to the ambiguous ho. Rather than introducing something new, like a diacritical mark or capital letter, he altered the meaning of a pre-existing distinction.

Campbell’s choice was unfortunate. There can be little doubt that in his singing, hio indicated a cadence on either B or C and ho indicated no cadence on either B or C, as it did for John MacCrimmon and John MacKay (Raasay). Evidently, Campbell’s objective was not to document his singing, but to document his fingering. This hardly a surprise. Vocabelising is not an end in itself, but a means to better instrumental playing and more efficient learning.

Campbell’s willingness to change the meaning of hio reveals something significant: in his mind, cadences did not need to be committed to paper. This does not mean that he played without cadences, simply that they were a matter of taste rather than part of the music.

Since 1909, ho and hio has been a minefield through which no-one has passed unscathed. I believe colour could clear the mines, making the field of canntaireachd safe once again. Here’s how.

The first step is to apply a distinct colour to each scale degree:

low G | low A | B | C | D | E | F | high G | high A

Now, let me sing John MacCrimmon’s vocables for the first quarter of the Crunnludh Singling of In Praise of Morag (PS 83):

Hiadatri, hadatri, hodatri, hiodin,
hodatri, hodatri, hodatri, hoin,
hindatri, hodatri, hindatri, hodatri,
hodatri, hodatri, hodatri, hiodin,

These are the vocables Gesto published in 1828. Thanks to the close agreement of three other ‘witnesses’, or early settings of the same piece, we know for certain what pitches John MacCrimmon sang. Applying colour to reveal these pitches turns an unsatisfactory text into something comprehensible. The result is written canntaireachd with no rift: you can sing what you see.

Next week, in Part 2, I will explain the rationale behind this colour scheme. In Part 3, I will look at Scottish Gaelic phonology and the unorthodox spellings of Gaelic words used by our three witnesses – Colin Campbell, Niel MacLeod of Gesto and Angus MacKay – to work out what their canntaireachd sounded like.


4 thoughts on “Using colour to convey musical pitches – Part 1

  1. Interesting proposal Barnaby, but not problem-free. Reproduction on b/w laser printers and photocopiers. Legibility of pale coloured text, discrimination between different colours. Especially in low light.

    Personally I would favour the use of accents, as a “normal” orthographic tool not just from Gaelic but many other languages as well. And they also tie in to the origins of Western music notation (neumes) with the grave accent indicating a lower note and acute indicating a higher note.

    1. Thank you Simon. It would be lovely if grave and acute accents solved the problems here – I wish they did!

      The first thing to notice is that Scottish Gaelic usage (between the late 18th century and the SEB/SQA spelling reform of the 1980s) is the opposite of Classical and Late Antique usage. We have acūtus (ὀξεῖα) meaning “sharp” or “shrill”, and gravis (βαρεῖα) meaning “heavy” or “deep”, but if you flick through the three volumes of Campbell and Collinson’s Hebridean Folksongs, you find that is usually lower-pitched than in the same waulking song chorus. This is because the vowels in ceòl mór are [ʲɔː] and [oː] – o grave is brighter (open-mid) and o acute is darker (close-mid).

      But the two main reasons I find colour preferable are these:

      1. We’re not just dealing with the issue of ambiguity (two different things written down the same way); we’re also dealing with expressive variability (the same thing written down several different ways).
      2. It is not easy to put accents on the letters m and n, which are interchangeable in all the witnesses of singing. This is another of Campbell’s unfortunate choices adapting canntaireachd for the page, as I will explain in Part 3.

      My purpose here is to make the source materials more accessible – particularly Angus MacKay’s specimens of his father’s canntaireachd and Gesto’s transcriptions of John MacCrimmon’s. Colour enables me to add less to the page and can also be used for Gaelic lyrics. You couldn’t make the pitches of ’Thogail nam bó clear using accents – that would be like reading medieval neumes!

  2. Fascinating idea. I’m a relative newcomer to pibroch, but this technique dispels everything I found ambiguous and inefficient about canntaireachd as it’s been dictated in the past.

    I think Simon’s concerns above are not unfounded, though the state of the common technology in 2017 hardly stands threatened by the limitations of B/W printing tech. Looking to years ahead, I think it would be a stretch to say we depend on B/W printers for the preservation of this artform, if the increasingly widespread availability of color printing (and even 3-D printing) is any indication. Additionally, if the source material is hosted online (or on various different servers and cloud drives) in a lossless digital format, the colors would be preserved in their original hue, it stands to be reproduced infinitely at no cost, and would certainly outlive physical paper.

    If I can offer any additional thoughts gleaned from my marginal colorblindness and courses I’ve taken on color theory: I think an asset to the color strategy could be to ensure the widest spread of every hue’s “value,” that is, its brightness/darkness. This would mitigate issues encountered both by the colorblind and with B/W printers; in a scenario where a colored canntaireachd piece is converted to B/W, the shades of gray would all vary distinctively enough to tell them apart. This seems feasible with the highland pipe since it has only 9 notes and the shades of gray could all vary starting from 10% gray, 20% gray, 30%, all the way to 100% (black). Not a perfect solution but a helpful possibility to keep in mind, and the colors selected above appear to follow this thinking quite well.

    I think it’s a very innovative idea and look forward to reading more about the rationale.

  3. The idea of using colors seems to be a refinement of what was used to indicate Ground, Variation and Crunluath, Taorluath in Binneas is Boreraig. The use of colors was to make memorization easier for the piper, perhaps this will do the same for interpretation!

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