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Donald Lindsay takes a look at composing music, and offers some philosophy.

Composition is a mysterious art - particularly on an instrument like the pipes. Often when I hear a new tune played, or start to write one myself, I wonder where the new tune begins and all the old tunes end. But then once in a while something special happens, and a com- pletely original tune is born. I set out here to think over some different approaches to com- posing that I’ve noticed. The most enigmatic approach is one I suppose you might call the ‘piper in your head’. A tune just begins to play in the imagination, maybe when you’re out for a walk or otherwise distracted. These tunes can have a very strong distinctive character, but they’ll rarely be complete. More often the ‘muse' just transmits a single line or verse, often lost before it’s been written down since it invariably happens in awkward places.

There’s a definite instinct that tells you if it'’ a new, original tune or not, but I always do a little research anyway before I go playing it and calling it mine.

Writing variations for existing tunes can sometimes open doors. When you go far enough with this you get a new tune, and the kind of ‘happy accidents’ that can occur during prac- tise of an already familiar tune can create interesting new variations. Tunes composed like this can sound derivative, but it’s a good way to get the creative juices flowing. In Charles de Lint's novel ‘The Little Country’, Cornish Northumbrian Piper Janey Little gets her best tunes this way(1)!

Working along similar lines, it can be fun to try ‘chopping & changing’, taking a bar from one tune, and a bar from another tune, or playing a phrase backwards or whatever. This can be a great party piece, and might make a reasonable tune from time to time, but it’s not really very musical or expressive. A lot of traditional pipe music is based around character- istic chord patterns, so it follows that if you string some good chords together in an original way it can open up a whole world of musical suggestions. Tunes like this tend to rely on the accompaniment in order to make sense, but then it’s no bad thing for pipers to spend more time playing with accompaniment!

A method I’ve rarely, if ever, used is that of starting with a story or idea and then trying to actually express it through music. This is the way in which a lot of classical music seems to be composed, but it is hardly ever used in traditional music - pipe tune titles are usually ei- ther a dedication or in the case of the oldest and most traditional reels, jigs and strathspeys they are a line taken from one of the (often forgotten) songs that go (or went) with the tune. An example is ‘The Bob of Fettercairn’, referred to in Orkney & Shetland as ‘Kale & Knockit Corn’ which is a verse sung to the tune. The title ‘Bob of Fettercairn’ seems likely to be from a song too, as the title fits the last phrase in each part quite nicely - I haven’t come across a set of words yet, sadly, although Burns set the excellent song ‘Had I the Wyte’ to the same tune.

Everyone can write a tune, although as with most things some people’s will be catchier, more original or deeper than others. How you write depends on who you are, and is almost as much an expression of yourself as the tune you set out to create.

References - 1. de Lint, Charles. 1993. The Little Country. Pan Books.


This version of A Man's a Man for a ’ that, with variations, comes from a collection made in 1799 by a musician in Kelso, Thomas Calvert. “Some of the variations”, Donald writes, “slip outside the pipe range for a note or two, but as the first two parts are firmly in the pipe scale 1 felt justified in encouraging them back in! The integrity of the tune is intact...”