Using colour to convey musical pitches – Part 4

PART 1. The rift between vocal and written canntaireachd
PART 2. The rationale behind a proposed colour scheme
PART 3. Case study 1: Hiharin hiodreen – One of the Cragich (PS 36)

Part 4 is a continuation of Case study 1. Experiments with different desktop printers prompt me to lighten the colour of high A in order to make the proposed set of nine colours as easy to distinguish in print as on screen. In the audio illustration, I test a coloured vocable score with a class of music students. Their comments sharpen my understanding of its uses and limitations.

Reading canntaireachd is brain-exploding stuff. The point of this series is to change that. I am motivated to make canntaireachd texts easier to handle for two reasons. First, I have found singing to be an optimal tool for introducing pibroch to a wider audience. Secondly, the serious difficulties of reading canntaireachd have prevented pibroch learners from enjoying the benefits of vocabelising for over a century. This is both unfortunate and unnecessary.

Vocabelising does the job it was designed for magnificently. I now invariably give learners and the general public no option but to sing, regardless of vocal capacity, not because it is part of the heritage or because it is historically accurate, but because the feedback I have accumulated suggests it is the most efficient, effective and energising method for learning pibroch.

When committing a pibroch to memory, does it make a significant difference if the neural pathways are laid down primarily by vocabelising and secondarily by fingering? If a scientific trial were to test this, here is how it could be designed. One group would do most of the memorisation by vocabelising – singing before playing. Perhaps 70% of the learning journey would be spent singing aloud, 30% blowing a practice chanter or bagpipe. The other group would not sing aloud at all. The investigators would attempt to measure three things:

  1. Speed of memorisation – how long it takes to get a whole pibroch ‘off’ accurately on the pipes.
  2. Musicality – do vocabelising learners play more musically, bringing out the ‘song’ more successfully than non-vocabelising learners?
  3. Retention – 12, 24 months later (ideally 10, 20 years later), do vocabelising learners remember a pibroch better than non-vocabelising learners?

This would test the efficacy of the learning method reported by J.F. Campbell in 1880 (see Part 1).

Vocabelising and playing pibroch are two parts of a whole. The practice of vocabelising lapsed during the 20th century and as a tool of learning is almost extinct. Teachers do it; learners don’t. Historically, however, the fingering and the singing were intimately bound together in the mind.

When a staff-notation realisation of a canntaireachd source removes the vocables from the page, or an audio interpretation excludes singing, a vital connection with the practice of the composers and generations of pibroch teachers is broken. Part of the cultural picture is lost. This leads to misunderstanding, which triggers conscious and unconscious transformation.

Here we have the first issue that troubles me with conventional staff notation and audio interpretations of canntaireachd:

Issue 1: Without vocables, the picture is incomplete. Breaking this link to the composers and teaching dynasties increases the risk of misunderstanding.

Before the mid-19th century, the tool used for memorising and transmitting pibrochs was not staff notation but vocabelising. Written scores are a recent innovation. In 2004, Andrew Wright, then the President of the Piobaireachd Society, said:

All teachers of piobaireachd say that singing is a necessary teaching aid and to me it would appear that those teachers who are good singers could easily pick up a formalised form of canntaireachd. To use it would dignify the teaching and the music and it would do away with, dare I say, a lot of mumbo jumbo that is sung.

Proceedings of the Piobaireachd Society Conference, vol. 24,
‘The Campbell Canntaireachd as a working tool’, p. 7

I wholeheartedly agree with Andrew. There are two points here: some sort of canntaireachd is necessary and a heritage sort is dignifying. Necessary, because learning a piece through vocabelising makes you think in a different way as a player. Dignifying, because how you vocabelise matters. It is a noble art with a deep history. Until the 20th century, it functioned as the spine of the tradition, holding it up. Now that the textual evidence is universally accessible (C, G and SC), there is less excuse for mumbo jumbo.

Pibroch learning has become so focused on scores, it is easy to forget that reading played no part in the transmission of pibroch throughout its heyday – the 1600s and 1700s. That focus comes from a fear of being marked down by adjudicators for deviating from the text. This is a very recent development in pibroch’s timeline. I certainly like having a sheet to refer to – something to glance at while memorising a tune, to keep in my pocket while walking outdoors, or to use with students in a class. But the utility of my sheet is not about achieving a standard or sounding the same as an idol. What I want is an aide-mémoire that doesn’t close my mind to other possible interpretations.

Testing a printable aide-mémoire

Last week I gave a 90-minute canntaireachd workshop at the University of Glasgow. This was part of the course ‘Notation and Performance Practice’ offered to 3rd and 4th-year students on the Music BMus and MA programmes. It is my eighth year giving this workshop and I am grateful to David McGuinness for inviting me back, and to the students for their permission to publish an audio excerpt.

I took the opportunity to test out my latest thinking on how to make canntaireachd less brain-exploding. In the process of adding a coloured vocable score to the handout – my pocket aide-mémoire – I noticed that the colours I originally proposed in Part 2 of this series were not as easy to distinguish in print as on screen. Changing high A from Royal blue to Sky blue appeared to strike a better balance between success on screen and success in print. I have updated parts 1–3 accordingly. Further testing will doubtless prompt further revisions.

In the following audio excerpt, I introduce the class to pibroch’s tonal system. At the end, I ask them to comment on their experience using a coloured vocable score. Here is a PDF to view while listening to the audio: a reference sheet designed to keep minds open to other possible interpretations of Hiharin hiodreen – One of the Cragich (PS 36).

The students’ responses brought me back to earth. All scores, however brain-friendly, are of limited use. Full human contact – face to face learning – is more successful. Notation will always play a subservient role. Nevertheless, using colour to convey pitch information does appear to make learning and teaching easier. In sixteen years of giving such workshops, I have never heard words like ‘surprisingly intuitive’ used for a first experience of reading canntaireachd.

Using hand signals to convey scale degrees

The hand signals that the students found helpful were developed in 2010 with Thomas Zöller. They emerged during a full-immersion canntaireachd weekend I led in Germany for the Dudelsack Akademie. The participants’ brains were frazzled and using my hands to conduct made a huge difference. Here is one of the five videos we made to document the gestures born that weekend:

These gestures are not traditional, but they have a powerful effect enabling people to participate vocally and gain a sense of confidence. The hand signals are the score, jogging the memory. I try to make them slightly in anticipation, like a cue, so people see what is coming next and we can all sing precisely together. I also tailor them on the fly, representing progressively larger chunks of music with each gesture as the piece is learned. Initially, more detail is required. Gradually, the gestures are simplified and removed, leaving them only where the memory needs support.

Looking back on this video, I notice that I have not changed the basic set of nine hand gestures in six years. I have moved on, however, in my use of vowels. The u vowel for F which I sang in this video is not supported by Hebridean evidence. The traditional way that Highland pipers distinguished bagpipe scale degrees will be examined in Parts 8–10. For now, suffice to say that a consistent mapping of one sound to one pitch contradicts the evidence, written and audio. Traditional canntaireachd makes relative distinctions, not absolute ones.

Using colour to convey scale degrees

As explained in Part 1, using colour to convey absolute pitch means that written canntaireachd doesn’t have to contradict the heritage vocal practice. It eliminates the brain-frying problems that prompted me to devise these hand signals in 2010. When colour carries absolute pitch information, the relative and expressive distinctions of traditional vocabelising can be left untouched.

Harmonising the written and vocal forms of canntaireachd lifts the major impediment to its uptake by learners today. It allows the non-specialist for the first time to tune into what worked for pibroch learners and teachers in the 1700s. With a coloured score, people can get their mouths around heritage vocables without automatic negative judgements.

Rather than feeling frustrated and perplexed, wanting to fix unintelligible or un-singable aspects of the text, we can relax. From this new position of calm, we can start noticing and appreciating how the heritage craft works. Its diversity and expressive variability are no longer critical problems.

In Part 5, I conclude this case study by looking at some conventional staff notation. Two contrasting realisations of the same phrase bring further issues into focus.

As this series unfolds, critical feedback is most welcome. Please leave a comment below or write to Here is the current plan:

PART 6. Case study 2: Little Prince, he makes me happy (PS 147)
PART 7. Case study 3: Slàn dhuibh (PS 105)
PART 8. Audio evidence 1: Mary Morrison (Barra, b. 1890)
PART 9. Audio evidence 2: Rona Lightfoot (South Uist, b. 1936)
PART 10. Audio evidence 3: Bob Nicol (Aberdeenshire, b. 1905)
PART 11. Application 1: the canntaireachd of John MacKay, Raasay
PART 12. Application 2: the canntaireachd of John MacCrimmon
PART 13. Application 3: the canntaireachd of Colin Campbell
PART 14. Application 4: Gaelic lyrics associated with pibrochs
PART 15. Application 5: making tonal contrasts visible
PART 16. Conclusions


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

  1. Just to say all of this work is extremely important and thought-provoking. I especially agree about singing as a necessary teaching aid.

    The formal written canntaireachd systems we have are indeed wonderful “high” pieces of heritage. But I would be interested in seeing more structured and sympathetic analysis of related traditions of lilting or diddling for other instruments as well as pipes; “mumbo jumbo” seems a little perjorative.

    One wee request; can we have downloadable MP3s of these long audio demonstrations? I don’t see a way to download from Soundcloud. Having to sit at the big computer to listen for half an hour is not so convenient, I’d rather be able to put it onto a portable player, and listen (and re-listen) out and about.

  2. Thanks Simon. I have made all the tracks in this series downloadable and (subject to permissions) will continue to do so.

    Check out Christine Chambers, ‘Non-lexical Vocables in Scottish Traditional Music’, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1980.

    In fairness to Andrew Wright, his words only come over as a little pejorative when taken out of context. He is referring specifically to pibroch teachers. Immediately before the sentences I quoted, he said:

    Today’s teachers could take the attitude that what was good enough for their teachers is good enough for them, so they don’t bother to learn the formalised canntaireachd. To sing the correct canntaireachd requires an extra degree of concentration and mental discipline. But if we are going to sing the tunes why don’t we use it?

    In place of his words ‘the correct’, I would use ‘traditional’ or ‘heritage’, but our intentions are the same: we believe it is important to avoid a discrepancy between what is written and what is sung. That discrepancy is misleading and undesirable.

    I was present at this talk and thought his words were well chosen, aimed directly at those in the pibroch community who suspend their critical faculties or simply get stuck in their ways through devotion to certain teachers. He makes another important point: that Campbell’s notation was only made available in 1925. Before then, pibroch teachers didn’t have access to a system or to the documentary evidence. We are in a much stronger place now.

    Thank you for prompting me to make the context of Andrew’s words clear.

  3. How many pibroch teachers had a copy of Gesto’s book? The canntaireachd of people brought up in Barra, South Uist and Benbecula that matches the Gesto evidence closest, though Bob Nicol’s is not so far away. The reason for that, however, is not access to Gesto’s book but a strong oral tradition.

    The snippets of canntaireachd published in The Oban Times and Charles Bannatyne’s table in Dwelly’s dictionary (1911) will have reached many more people than Gesto’s book. Bannatyne’s table, however, is seriously defective and misleading. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to have influenced what teachers sing any more than Rothiemurchus’s 1925 table.

    In other words, what did ‘count’ more than anything in print was oral transmission.

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