Pipe Band Medleys

June 11, 2007 on 8:13 pm by Michael Grey | In Pipe Bands, Whinges | 6 Comments

There might be some serious practical limitations when it comes to creating original and engaging competitive pipe band shows these days but I still have to think we’re being too timid in reaching for the hazy boundary and physical limits of pipe band instrumentation (meaning the bagpipe and the usual competitive instruments of percussion).

Why? Maybe it’s stringent and backward rules. Maybe it’s the phenomenon of pipe band competition and the sports-like atmosphere that pervades the game.  Maybe it’s the amateur nature of the pipe band world (meaning way more hobbyists than professionals).  Maybe we’re just all artistic dullards who have fallen in to a crazy sub-culture fixated with big sound, tight unison and beer tents.

It doesn’t really matter. There is another way: there always is; there always has been. 


I am not denying there are loads of clever selections of music played around the world.  I say “loads” but maybe I mean “some”.  At the World Pipe Band Championships, for instance, you’re always guaranteed more than a few great musical moments.  But here is the first line from my upcoming book [not], “Confessions of a Pipe Band Guy”:  sitting in the bleachers at the Worlds a couple of years ago and listening to the complete grade one set and medley contest was the most boring afternoon I have ever spent – in Glasgow, at least. 

Maybe I was crabby for sitting on the sidelines and not in the fray; maybe I was just crabby.  It has been known.  I don’t know.   Anyway. 

Consider what was presented to the ticket-paying public: 24 sets of 3 pace rolls.  24 examples of bands furtively attempting to sound a perfectly intoned introductory ‘e’ in unison (not ‘b’, not ‘f’). 

24 examples of bands performing with their backs to the audience and a medley or “selection” of tunes that mostly followed the same pattern (note: replace jig with reel and reel with jig as you like).  Also, please note: I am having fun here – there were many great performances on the day – and – I have built many selections of tunes that follow this prescription or one similar:

1. Intro march/march-like “hornpipe” 2. Jig  3. Jig with harmony  4. Slow air in tempo with intrusive mid-section percussion and (preferably lots of 3-4 part harmony with counterpoint) 5. Four beats to strathspey 6. Reel(s) building with an extravaganza of harmony round about part 4 or 6. 7. Sustained final melody note. 

Cheering crowd. 

It’s all good.  I know. 

But we can do more. We should.  If we all follow the same path, the path wears, the scenery gets old and we forget the joys of setting out on a new way. Good music, music that engages and connects with people has an element of surprise.  You know, too, it’s about provoking a feeling, an emotion, a memory.  Our current competitive format has allowed a lot of this to happen – but not always and not often.  It’s getting old.  Time to stretch. 

In the next little while I am going to try and build a medley here.  One section at a time.  A 5-7 minute “something” that puts my money where my mouth is – as they say.

I have to tell you I started this web log with the intention of sharing freely and openly what I have learned along my bagpiping way.  I wanted opinion and rants at a minimum.

So, apologies.  I guess when talking art there is no happy, safe middle ground.  In fact, I wonder if there is a “happy, safe middle ground” anywhere.  Anyway, let’s build a “medley selection”.  Drop in, and see what you think.      



  1. Fantastic idea! I asked for a little info on your creative process and it seems i shall get it stage by stage as you go!

    As an aside, if you really want to push the boundaries, how about opening this thread up in terms of allowing users to subit “snippets” of their own tastes for inclusion? Perhaps we can use this as an excercise to test out if we are all “dullards”, or if with a little forward thinking we can progress into new styles?

    One thing that strikes me as familiar with this topic is how much of an impact that the compositions of David Barnes, Mark Saul and Murray Blair have had on my playing and musical taste. These lads at the height of their powers were certainly not of the dullard variety! A bit of seven sixteen bulgarian time anyone?

    Comment by Greigc1 — June 12, 2007 #

  2. Thanks for your comments, Greig. Great to have input – comments section always open. So feel free to pass along yer input when we get started. Mike

    Comment by mike — June 12, 2007 #

  3. Great idea Mike. Too often we play to win a prize , scared to dare try something different. $50,00.00 plus grand is a lot to pay to be told , intro tune too slow!

    In the mid 80’s a good grade 2 band from Canada’s east coast started their medley with an air………well, the comments where plentiful , some positive some very negative. But the feeling in the band was wow…..we got people talking , a little grade 2 band from the east coast caused a stir , there was a great deal of pride taken from that.

    I guess my message here is there is more then just the prize. That band could not wait to see what else they could do, it energized the band, the band went into the fall charged up, more so then any prize that was won that summer, ….oh yea….there were some prizes won as well.

    The whole medley thing is wide open, if we choose it to be! Like your waulking song beginner, the slow air starter……not sure what else is out there, but I am sure we will soon see something cool on here…….as Greigc1 pointed out the Bulgarian time signature, maybe some Acadian flavour

    Looking forward to this exercise.

    Comment by Johnny drummer — June 14, 2007 #

  4. Oh gawd – the heat’s on.

    Thanks for your note, John.

    Acadian, eh. Let’s see.


    Comment by mike — June 14, 2007 #

  5. Groovy topic, man. So what you are suggesting is to move the standard experience of the listener/viewer (all this twirly stuff goin’ on in the mid-sections), from passive to active or maybe even participative? Define the moment and transport the audience from a dependence on sight to a more refined sense of hearing?

    How will silence fit in to your medley composition? The silence should be heard to give sound a renewed role and emotive being in the music. As John Cage posited, music sounds completely different when there is silence.

    Maybe throw in something à la a Hindu Raga – a medley composed on tones (maybe tunes in this context) which are attributed to a colour. For that matter then, based on the energy it generates, what time of the day will your medley be best suited for to be played.

    What colour is the sky in your World’s?

    Comment by KJacksonCapp — June 17, 2007 #

  6. Silence? Can do. Maybe we’ll think of it more as “space”. The colour of my sky is a dynamic hue of the inexpressable. M.

    Comment by mike — June 17, 2007 #

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