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Matt Seattle explores further aspects of Border pipe music.

Although I was asked to write a bit more about harmonics for pipes for this issue, and     although there is plenty to say on the subject, I thought it would be more useful at the     present juncture to explore some of the essentials of Border pipe music, a subject surprisingly conspicuous by its absence in our beloved Journal.

There is a strong case for saying that traditional Border pipe music by its very nature does not require additional harmonies: harmony is already there, implicit in the melody and its relationship with the drones. Traditional Border pipe music is a complete music on one   instrument: the tunes are constructed in such a way that even without any accompaniment it is impossible to separate the elements of melody, rhythm and harmony. One can look at them separately in a given piece, but one finds that both the harmony and the melody have rhythm, and the melody in turn gives rise to rhythm and harmony, while the rhythm provides the framework within which melody and harmony can operate.

In its forms Border pipe music shares much with the other pipe musics of these islands, but in the light of the William Dixon manuscript it is now possible to say that, in its heyday, Border piping was the most sophisticated of any of the bagpipe traditions, and in its use of harmonic extensions it probably remains so to this day. The thing about bagpipes is that they are essentially easy: to make them worth bothering with you have to make them       difficult, and the different traditions do this in different ways. Very approximately, and with much simplification, these ways include extending the melodic range by overblowing (Uilleann pipes) or keywork (Northumbrian smallpipes), and increasing rhythmic definition with prescribed cuttings or grace notes (Highland pipes). Border pipers look a different route, and made their music more difficult by creating variations within the structural confines of the particular tune, in some case stretching those confines in unorthodox but consistent ways. Whether variations were ever actually improvised or always composed in advance we do not know, but there are some parallels with jazz: the melody, rhythm and harmony are defined for any given piece, but the ‘original’ melody is abandoned after the first time through (typically two repeated strains in Border pipe music), with the ‘new’ melody (the variations) staying in the same rhythm and following the same harmonic progression (chord sequence). As in jazz, certain chord substitutions may also be introduced, but we’ll leave those for a future episode. For now I just want to look at one simple tune, but to make things difficult I want to look at three different versions of it.

It is possible, if you are so inclined, to read the titles of all three versions as having to do with aspects of ‘the ranty-tanty O’: the invitation, the act and the consequences.

Rather than looking at the differences between versions let us concentrate on what they have in common, their rhythm and harmonic sequence. The 3/2 hornpipe rhythm is a characteristic Border bagpipe form, now usually known as a ‘double hornpipe’, but more usually called a ‘single hornpipe’ in the 18th century. The harmonic sequence is straightforward, 3 bars of A major and one bar of B minor. Although the B minor chord ends each strain we feel the tune to be in A major, so we call that the ‘home’ or tonic chord. It is also the chord consonant with the drones, but in some tunes the drone chord is the ‘away’ chord. B minor is the ‘away’ chord here, and although it is the supertonic it functions as the dominant, therefore I call it the functional dominant. Using X and Y symbols (see The Master Piper), the harmonic rhythm or structure of the tune (all versions) is XXXY. This overrides other considerations such as the exact contour of the melody and the number and sequence of strains, which may vary from version to version of a tune, though with this tune all three versions have six strains.

We can describe this tune as an ‘underground’ hit. Although two of the versions were published around the end of the 18th century the different titles and melodic details show that it was a tune which spread more by contagion than by publication, and the surviving versions probably give no more than a hint of its real life. All three open with the same two strains in the same order but with differing details (see below concerning Reavely’s strain 2); they also have three other strains in common which differ in sequence as well as in detail. This is not a very unusual state of affairs when comparing versions of tunes. It is pretty pointless to ask which is the ‘right’ version, but you might try to find which one you like the best, or to combine elements from them into your own version, or to add strains of your own. If we want Border piping to become a living tradition once more we have to make these kinds of choices, and it is good for the tradition if we do not all make the same choices. The notion of ‘standard settings’ imposed by some ‘authority’ is death to creativity, and although we are fortunate that our forbears wrote down a lot of great music for us, we are even more   fortunate that they hardly ever agree with each other on details.

The rhythm, melodic core and harmonic structure all combine to form the essence of the tune under consideration here. ‘Lads of Alnwick’ has exactly the same rhythm and structure but a different melodic core, so one would not confuse the two tunes. It is in the area of variations that some tunes start to overlap, and strain 5 of Dixon’s ‘Apprentice Lads of Alnwick’ is pretty close to strain 6 of Peacock’s ‘All the Night I Lay With Jockey’. This kind of thing can give variations a bad name: tunes are both less appealing and harder to learn if they are too similar to each other. There is a practical solution to this problem, which I hope to talk about in the next exciting episode.

Notes on the tune/s:

Only Riddell is originally scored in 3/2; the others are in 3/4 with half the note values given here.

All are originally scored a tone lower in G major rather than A major. The G# in the key signature here is ‘ideal’. If your pipe won’t produce it, or will produce it only with difficulty, you can play G natural as all the Gs are passing notes and not structurally important - G or G# is absent from both the chords which underpin the tune. This feature is characteristic of many tunes shared by the (keyless) Northumbrian smallpipes and the Border pipes.

The tune opens with a strong F#, which is not in the chord of A major, and bar 2 of two versions also features F# prominently. This is a kind of ‘suspension’ (A6) where the 6th temporarily replaces the 5th of the chord: in all cases F follows in the same bar, and the basic underlying progression is unaffected. It is a particularly bold step to open the tune with this note, and it gives the opening a soaring, uplifting effect.

Table of strains


Riddell                                    Peacock                                       Reavely
Lassie gie milk  on my Cow Hll If you will not rock it, let it lye and blare All the Night I Lay With Jockey
1 1 1
2 2 2(B)
3 5 3
4 3 4
5 4 5
6 6 7


The table uses Riddell’s sequence of strains as its starting point, but could have used any version. Note that Peacock has the same strains as Riddell but in a different order, though essentially only one strain (Riddell’s No.5) is ‘out of sequence’ in Peacock. Reavely has strains 1-5 in the same order as Riddell, but he has a completely different strain (‘7’) at the finish. Reavely’s strain 2 opens with the same notes as the other two versions but it is fairly different from them. It is arguably a different strain, hence it is labelled 2(B).

It is an interesting question whether there is anything about the music which means that one of these sequences is any better than the others, and why, or whether yet another sequence would be preferable. I do not have more than tentative answers myself at the moment, so I would be very happy to hear from anyone else who cares about such matters, either  privately or through COMMON STOCK.