Using colour to convey musical pitches – Part 5

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

Part 5 concludes case study 1. In Part 4, I began identifying issues that arise when music from canntaireachd sources is shared in the conventional way, using staff notation and audio of performances on the bagpipe. In this part, I identify two more reasons why this cultural behaviour is worth noticing and doing something about.

3 steps away from the source

Vince Janoski sent me this score in March 2015, humbly describing it as ‘a work in progress’:

I applaud Vince’s positioning of his name where we would expect to see the name of the composer. This avoids the misleading impression that Colin Campbell provided these rhythmic details. He didn’t. They are not implied by his notation. They are largely a matter of guesswork.

In this guesswork, Vince and I basically agree. His staff notation captures something relatively close to my tempo rubato which can be heard in the audio illustrations to Part 3 and Part 4. What his ‘work in progress’ doesn’t make explicit is the scansion, or calpa supporting the melody. Joseph MacDonald describes the practical application of the calpa with the words: ‘it was by the four Fingers of the Left hand that all their Time was measured and regulated’.

In Part 3, I made the scansion clear in the audio by hitting the table. This follows the practice of 20th-century masters, notably ‘wee’ Donald MacLeod (1917–1982), who clarified the metrical syntax not only by hitting the table, but by singing numbers on each beat: ‘and one, and two, and three, and four’ or such like. The beats are of unequal duration, stretching and contracting in a living, spiritual way. Not predictable; that’s the point. In Donald’s recordings, the prominent thumps on the Fort George table make it clear how this tempo rubato hangs on the supporting pillars of an underlying metre.

Understanding this relationship means you can pull the time about in a way that doesn’t contradict the sense and flows from your own musical conviction. This has more authenticity than pulling it about without understanding why, or not understanding that something regular is being pulled about. In 1784, Patrick McDonald explains how the metre ‘must always be kept in view’ while exercising ‘freedom with the measure’:

slow plaintive tunes… are sung by the natives, in a wild, artless, and irregular manner. Chiefly occupied with the sentiment and expression of the music, they dwell upon the long and pathetic notes, while they hurry over the inferior and connecting notes, in such a manner as to render it exceedingly difficult for a hear to trace the measure of them…

No person of feeling or taste, recites an affecting piece of poetry, with a strict attention to the measure. A general outline of measure is observed; but this is variously shaded or filled up, in the different parts. It has now become the practice of the most polished and improved musicians, in execution a pathetic air, to use freedom with the measure, for the sake of expression and effect. It is professedly an object of attention and discipline with them, occasionally to disguise the measure. This is returning to nature: it is the genuine dictate of emotion and sentiment…

All music however is now written in just measure. This is necessary, in order to point out the accented and emphatical notes, without attending to which, it is impossible to enter into the meaning of the piece. This is the standard or line, from which deviations, within a certain limit, may occasionally be made; but which must always be kept in view, if it is wished, that the performance should be accurate or pleasing.

Patrick McDonald, A Collection of Highland Vocal Airs [1784], Preface, pp. 2–3

Vince has done what Patrick’s younger brother Joseph did, which is to capture the wild rubato of ‘the natives… without regarding the equality of the bars’. I share Patrick’s view that making the metre visible is important – because it helps a reader ‘to enter into the meaning of the piece’. Without perception of the pillars (and particularly with perception of different pillars), transformation can slip from the positive zone of progress and renewal into the negative zone of instability and destruction – a dynamic that causes sparks in every generation.

In December 2016, Vince revised his notation and published it at Pipehacker with an illuminating audio discussion and excellent recording on the bagpipe:

Vince has produced two solutions that fit the modern pibroch idiom like a glove. There are major differences, however, between his two settings: December 2016 and March 2015. Is it possible to say that one is closer to a 1797 reality than the other? Yes. Explaining how brings two more issues into focus.

To Colin’s mind, rhythmic information of a ‘sketchy’ nature was evidently sufficient. The indications in his notation consist of line breaks, commas, the occasional tilde over an o (õ), the grouping of syllables into vocables, and potentially also the variable size of space between each syllable. His usage of these devices is inconsistent, but that is only to be expected in a handmade book of this magnitude.

Looking at the facsimile (see Part 3), lines 1 and 3 each have eight vocables. This points unequivocally to eight Fingers per Quarter, or 4/4 in staff notation. Line 2 can easily be resolved to 4/4 too, so why did Vince choose a 3/4 metre? Perhaps he was looking at his 2015 setting rather than at Colin’s vocables. Whatever the reason, his 2016 setting contradicts the basic rhythmic information which Colin provided – the grouping of syllables into vocables.

So, here is the second issue that troubles me with reliance on staff notation and audio recordings:

Issue 2: We lose sight of information in the source.

When the calpa is not kept in mind, clearly visualised, it is easy to transform the meaning of the music. Without it, something collapses, like a mast with no rigging. The music goes adrift, like a boat when the anchor breaks. Another meaning of calpa is financial capital. Apparently, the word that the MacCrimmons and Rankins used for metre was the same as the word used for gold in the bank: the capital that supported long-term security and enabled people to build things.

Losing sight of the calpa is not the only explanation for Vince’s choice of 3/4. Another issue troubles me: hiodin is an extremely common phrase-ending in pibroch, rarely used to open phrases. His 2016 setting moves hiodin from Finger 1 to Finger 4; from the start of a metrical unit to the end of a metrical unit.

When interpreting graphic evidence of any kind, we are biased towards what we already have inside us. We all prefer what we know. The storehouse of familiar sonic memories – the inventory built up from everything we have ever heard or imagined – influences our decisions more strongly than the sounds we have never heard or imagined. Here is my third issue, one much more difficult to deal with:

Issue 3: The more familiar overrules the less familiar and the unknown is excluded.

In the context of bridging the gap between a 1797 source and players today, we need to take stock of the fact that our musical inventory is unlikely to be the same as Colin’s. We cannot rely on our cultural preferences. Our idea of what is idiomatic will always be anachronistic. Evolution has run its course; stylistic drift, change of fashion and new environments will have altered things. One solution may feel better to us than another, but that feeling is based on musical experiences accumulated in our lifetime, not Colin’s.

The pool of music familiar to us contains so much besides pibroch, our pibroch inventory is inevitably smaller than Colin’s. As a result, we are inclined to substitute things that don’t quite fit. When projecting a small domain (what we know) onto a larger one (what we don’t know), it is easy to overlook or undervalue the difference between then and now.

How can we open our minds to imagine the unknown? As our inventories of sonic experience accumulate, we become less receptive to what we hear less often. We tune into our surroundings. This is being human. It is hard as an adult, harder still as an expert, to like the unfamiliar. Like it or not, we lose neural plasticity.

Interpreting Colin’s notation is an exciting and dangerous enterprise precisely because it involves imagination and adventure. It challenges us to keep our brains young. Exploring the unknown is risky business and I think it’s terribly important that we become good both at making mistakes and at encouraging each others’ efforts. Vince has not done anything wrong. I’m thrilled to have his companionship clearing the canntaireachd jungle!

Vince has courageously led the way with this tune. Here is a recording he published in 2013, blazing the trail, bringing a fossil back to life:

I trust that these reflections help to make the canntaireachd jungle safer, encouraging more players to discover its delights. An open source sharing of experiments is probably the best way to turn an obscure 1797 reality into rewarding music today. This is not about getting it right; it is about tasting the unknown, enriching the present, and keeping our minds young.

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


1 thought on “Using colour to convey musical pitches – Part 5

    Thanks, Barnaby, for your insight. The excellent points you raise in “issue 3” are always things I struggle with when dealing with this material. I think we can twist ourselves in knots dealing with them (at least I do!). But rather than always doubting ourselves constantly about what is known and unknown in this struggle, sometimes I think it is not out of line to embrace the fact that we are at a different point, with different cultural references than Campbell. Without full knowledge of the conditional aspects and social context that supported this tune, we run the risk of mangling it beyond measure in the interest of unraveling the mystery of Campbell’s intent. I was more concerned that I would get it “almost there,” only to have it sound truly strange to modern ears. I can never escape the fact that I am a piper who is a byproduct of the last four decades of modern bagpiping. So instead of fighting with that, my decision was to work to bridge (hopefully) the familiar/unfamiliar and generate something new in the process. Modern conceit? Perhaps. As I say in my audio discussion, I feel that that is what pipers of 18th century and before did all the time. We can still honor Campbell’s intent while at the same time doing our part to keep the evolution alive and moving. I’m currently deep into another “cragich,” i, 52, “Hindorodin hindodre,” and finding that modern notation is indeed ill suited to graphically displaying proper scansion for that tune. And so it continues…

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