Support Documents - Phrasing & Expression

  • What follows are some general pointers to assist with musical expression and phrasing. While mutually compatible to a degree, these are better suited to band piping rather than solo piping where the player is free to indulge in a more individual style. Even within the upper echelons of pipe bands, there are degrees of style, non of which are right or wrong - just different. These styles will however be based upon certain ground rules which have been outlined here.

    It should be stressed that most bagpipe music is only a guide and it is usually necessary to play well outside the notated values in order to correctly interpret the tunes. Due to the fact that the bagpipe is not able to separately articulate each note from the next, we instill our music with dynamics and life by creating an exaggerated distinction between long and short notes. This is known as "dot and cut" or "pointing".

    Please note that while time signatures have been written as "2/4" etc, in no way do they represent a numerical fraction - this is just a convenient way of representing them without a staff.

     

  • PLAYING ON THE BEAT

  • This is crucial to establishing unison of playing and a strong sense of drive and rhythm. A group of average players all playing on the same beat will probably sound better than a group of excellent players not playing on the same beat. The best way to practice this is to use a metronome. It may feel awkward at first but that's because the metronome is fighting your natural urge to speed up or slow down.

  • For those not experienced with using a metronome, it might be best to start at a slower than normal tempo in order to become accustomed to playing on a regular beat. Normally the metronome will indicate each down-beat, however doubling the tempo will highlight the up-beats (aside from compound time tunes). This is known as double-time and can be quite helpful when trying to control a new tune at a slower tempo. At a normal tempo however, a metronome set to double-time will make correct phrasing quite difficult.

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  • 2/4 MARCHES, DOT & CUT HORNPIPES & POLKAS

    While these types of tunes may have subtle differences to each other with regard to ideal tempos, the fundamentals for each are essentially the same. Bear in mind that dot/cut hornpipes and polkas are often played in a more relaxed and flowing manner than a 2/4 march.

  • The first priority is to ensure you are placing place the down-beat notes accurately on the beat.

  • Place the necessary accents on the strong beats and to a slightly lesser degree the weak beats. A common fault is to accent the strong beats at the expense of the weak beats and up-beats - be sure to give them sufficient value to avoid an uneven rhythm. This will make the tune easier to control and ensure that it will have plenty of drive and lift.

  • Take care to give adequate value to the last note of each two-bar phrase. This is similar to punctuating a sentence and creates the necessary distinction between the question and answer phrases. The last note of a phrase excludes any introductory notes - these belong to the next phrase.

  • Whilst giving the correct value to longer notes is important, the short notes, such as semi-quavers (2 tails) and demi-semi-quavers (3 tails) must be adequately "cut" or shortened to complete the picture and to create a strong distinction between long and short notes.

  • Another common issue is to rush through passages of even quavers, which will be arranged in groups of two. The usual fault is to rush over the second of these two notes. This is the up-beat note and it needs to be controlled in order to avoid placing the next down-beat note before it's relevant beat.

  • Pay particular attention to the up-beats in groups of 3 or 4 notes - these will usually be arranged as:

  • Quaver / dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver

  • Quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver 

  • Dotted semi-quaver /demi-semi-quaver / semi-quaver

  • Dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver

  • Dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver

  • Demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver

  • The notes in bold blue indicate the down-beats. The notes in bold red fall on up-beats and are commonly rushed.

    With example 2, the up-beat falls on the second note, however the accent should be placed on the following dotted semi-quaver.

    With example 5, the up-beat falls on the third note, however the accent should be placed on the following dotted semi-quaver.

    With example 6, the down-beat and up-beat fall on the first and third note respectively, however in each case the accent should be placed on the following dotted semi-quaver.

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  • 3/4, 4/4, 5/4 MARCHES

  • Similar in style to 2/4 marches, these are usually quite simple to play.

  • As with 2/4 marches, ensure that you are placing down-beat notes on the their beat.

  • Place a strong accent on the first down-beat of each bar, with slightly less accent on the remaining down-beats. Remember to give sufficient value to the up-beats - this is essential for controlling the tune and giving it lift.

  • Give sufficient value to the last note of each two-bar phrase.

  • Whilst accenting all of the long notes, remember to cut the short semi-quavers and demi-semi-quavers.

  • As with 2/4 marches, be sure to control passages of even quavers. These will be arranged in groups of two and it is quite common to rush the second of these notes. This is the up-beat note and it needs to be controlled in order to avoid playing the next down-beat note too early.

  • Pay attention to the up-beats in groups of 3 or 4 notes - these will usually be arranged as:

  • Quaver / dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver

  • Quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver 

  • Dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver / dotted semi-quaver / demi-semi-quaver

  • The notes in bold blue indicate the down-beats. The notes in bold red fall on up-beats and are often rushed.

    With example 2, the up-beat falls on the second note, however the accent should be placed on the following dotted semi-quaver.

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  • COMPOUND TIME MARCHES

    This applies to 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8 type marches. This style of tune is open to a variety of interpretations, ranging from extreme swing to an almost square style. Most would agree the ideal is somewhere in the middle with a definite swing but still with a strong sense of control and lift. Listen to any recording of the Strathclyde Police Pipe Band from the 1980s for a master class in compound time phrasing and phrasing in general.

  • As always, ensure that all down-beat notes are placed accurately on the beat.

  • The key to compound time march expression is to give adequate value to the crotchets or dotted quavers. Dotted quavers will either be the first or second note in each group of three. Not accenting these notes will rob compound time tunes of their distinctive swing.

  • While accenting the above mentioned notes is critical, two major problems with compound time marches relate to cut semi-quavers and the up-beat quavers. Semi-quavers will occur at the beginning or more commonly the middle of a group of three. Up-beat quavers will always occur after a crotchet or at the end of a group of three. It is quite common for pipers to pay all of their attention to accenting the down-beats, but to then inadequately cut or shorten the semi-quavers and then not give sufficient value to the the up-beat quavers. This can result in too much swing and turn the tune into a fast waltz, lacking the drive and lift a march should have. Rushing over up-beat quavers can also cause the following down-beat notes to occur before the beat which will make the tune sound rushed.

  • STRATHSPEYS

    Strathspey phrasing is also open to a wide range of interpretation, ranging from extreme Strong/Weak/Medium/Weak (SWMW) to a style that is more or less Strong/Strong/Strong/Strong. Bands sometimes favour the latter style for the sake of control and unison, however most will attempt to inject a sense of SWMW, but not to the point that the tune becomes noticeably uneven in it's rhythm.

  • It is essential to place the strong beat notes on a consistent, steady beat and to give them as much value as musically possible. The following weak beat note should be less accented but not to the point that it sounds rushed. The next medium beat note should be stressed nearly but not quite as much as the strong beat. Again, the following weak beat note should be less accented but not to the point that it sounds rushed. If a cut note (semi-quaver) occurs on the beat, then the accent should take place on the connected dotted quaver immediately after.

  • Particular attention needs to be paid to the triplets. These are often played in a clipped fashion that will do the tune no favours whatsoever. Others tend to play triplets in an almost totally round fashion which is certainly the preferable of the two extremes. Despite the fact that most triplets are written in a fashion to suggest 3 notes in the time of two, it is quite safe to assume the first two are semi-quavers and last note is a quaver or the accented note. Some composers will notate their triplets in this style. This is somewhere between the above mentioned extremes and is at the very least a starting point. Bear in mind that if the middle note of a triplet is higher in pitch than the two either side, it will often, but not always, be the longer or accented note of the triplet. Adding to the confusion, the melodic line itself will sometimes dictate how the triplets should be played which may not follow any hard and fast rule.

  • Another stumbling block is the lack of fluency of G, D, E gracenotes. These may occur on a single note or in the context of a doubling to a lower note such as a G, D, doubling on C to Low A with an E gracenote. In any case, these should flow as described above for triplets and effectively be interpreted as two semi-quavers followed by a quaver. Be careful not to separate the D and E gracenotes with a pause, the three G, D, E gracenotes should flow evenly.

  • DOT & CUT REELS


  • Again these tunes can be interpreted in a number of ways, ranging from quite round to a strong dot and cut style. Reels perhaps sound their best with a definite dot and cut feel but are still allowed to flow freely as opposed to the control applied to 2/4 marches. That said, the principles of reel playing are quite similar to 2/4 marches.

  • Ensure you are placing place the down-beat notes on the beat.

  • Place the necessary accents on the strong beats and to a slightly lesser degree the weak beats. With the faster tempo of reels, it is vital to give sufficient value to the weak beats and up-beats to maintain control and lift.

  • Take care to give adequate value to the last note of each phrase.

  • Whilst giving the correct value to longer notes is important, remember to cut the semi-quavers.

  • Pay attention to the up-beats in groups of 4 notes - these will usually be arranged as:

  • Dotted quaver / semi-quaver / dotted quaver / semi-quaver

  • Dotted quaver / semi-quaver / semi-quaver / dotted quaver

  • Semi-quaver / dotted quaver / semi-quaver / dotted quaver

  • The notes in bold blue indicate the down-beats. The notes in bold red fall on up-beats and are often rushed.

    In example 2, the up-beat falls on the third note, however the accent should be placed on the following dotted quaver.

    In example 3,  the down-beat and up-beat fall on the first and third note respectively, however in each case the accent should be placed on the following dotted quaver.

  • A typical problem is when a sequence of G, D, E gracenotes occur on Low G, Low A, B or C, in this order:

    Dotted quaver / semi-quaver / dotted quaver / semi-quaver

    The up-beat dotted quaver with the E Gracenote is often ignored and rushed.

     

"ROUND" REELS & HORNPIPES

To their detriment, these are often played in a square, mechanical fashion. A certain amount of pointing will enhance these tunes and make them easier to control.

  • As always, ensure that all down-beat notes are placed accurately on the beat.

  • Any long notes should be held to their maximum value.

  • With regard to pointing, there are no hard and fast rules. This is not a march style of pointing, but a subtle accenting and cutting that will largely depend on the compositional style of the tune. In simple terms - play what sounds right and best serves the tune. Listen to recordings of top pipers and bands and you will hear that so-called "round" tunes are anything but.

  • To avoid a rushed effect, ensure each phrase is completed in full.

  • JIGS

    As with round reels and hornpipes, jigs are often played in an overtly round fashion, which, aside from not being particularly musical, can actually make them awkward to play and control.

  • Once again, pay attention to playing on the beat.

  • Ensure all crotchet notes are held to their maximum length.

  • As a general rule, accent the first quaver of each group of three with a slightly weaker accent applied to the third - this is critical for maintaining control. The middle quaver will need to be shortened however not to the extent that it is noticeably clipped.

  • Certain jigs require a different pattern of expressing the groups of three and will usually be notated with dotted quavers and semi-quavers as required.

  • As always, fully complete each phrase.