Classical Bagpipe Music and Great Highland Bagpipes – an overview

Classical bagpipe music? Now that’s tricky business.  It’s spelled funny, pronounced strange.  Like other things Celtic, classical bagpipe music is connected to “story”, yes — but we’re not always sure which one, or which version of which one.  If you endeavor to perform the music, it’s not about the tale — it’s about your notes, and how, in each different composition, the notes relate differently.  For listeners, the title (which for you might frame a “story”) is all you might have to reflect on.  Complicating matters, the music is passed on orally, say since the 1500’s.

I’ve been playing the Classical music of the Highland bagpipe since 1991.  I’ve won competitions in performance of it, and I’m even writing one.  But that doesn’t mean I know it all; to some, I’ve only scratched the surface.


So let’s define some terms.  Classical bagpipe music — specific to the Great Highland bagpipe — is known as Piobaireachd, or the shorthand and much-easier spelled “pibroch”.  Brass tacks are the following…

  • Classical bagpipe music is based on a theme and variation structure (yes, there is a structure).
  • Tunes have histories of composition from the 16th – 21st centuries.
  • Timing is irregular — and based on a “pulse”.  Consider here that the Great Highland bagpipe (and associated bellows pipes, meaning Small pipes and Reel pipes) have a continuous sound.  Notes are not broken by silence, so the “pulse” is created by exaggerating or denigrating bagpipe chanter note length, as our melody notes harmonize with our unyielding drone sound.
  • The music is learned by singing, not by reading the staff.  The continuous sound of pipe’s can’t be reflected by the math of staff notation (which is why we had our own language to represent the notes of the sung music, teacher to student; staff presentation began after 1780, inconsistent presentation wasn’t widespread until 1900).
  • The official site for all classical bagpipe music matters is the Piobaireachd Society’s website.  Sign up and be member (I am!).
  • Tunes may feel slower, but are not supposed to drag!  There should be consistent shape, movement and flow to the music expression.


Whether you’re a listener — or player — a visual analogy to classical bagpipe music (hopefully close to coherent) might be Celtic Knot design.  Lines and curves flow somewhat regularly – and yet irregularly.  The lines and curves “pulse” as they fit into and define their own “ordered space”, defining the viewed design.  There is shape, yet you can see that things can go on forever.

Consider that generations down the line have added sketches to the Original Celtic Knot work.  So original themes were added to and perhaps altered in this oral tradition, but not written until decades later.  More variations, more complexity comes into vogue to enhance the initial Theme.  Slow tempos favored, faster pulses preferred, interpretations reexamined, and interpretations lost to time — a bit of humanity gets thrown in.

An experienced piper working toward learning and performing this means even more tricky business — how the tune has been approached through time, what pipers played things how, where the printed score is incorrect, and which corrections are accepted.

Thanks for reading, and hope this is helpful.  More on the structure and categories of Classical bagpipe music, or Piobaireachd, soon!

Cheers to you,

Tyrone Heade


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