Sunset the Set

April 27, 2009 on 8:08 pm by Michael Grey | In Music, Pipe Bands, Whinges | 18 Comments

If you were going about promoting a Highland Games, or a pipe band contest, and investing piles of your own time and money would you want the pipe band contests across the grades to be designated a “set” (march, strathspey and reel) or “medley” contest? A set contest, where listeners hear the same narrow repertoire, a maximum of three tempi and two key changes? Or a medley contest where, from a repertoire perspective, almost anything goes? What would an audience prefer? The overwhelming majority would opt for medley. I’d bet my outside tenor on that. If I were a games promoter I’d insist on an across-the-board medley designation.

The promotable “products” that pipe band organizations offer the world are limited. For instance, in the case of the Pipers’ & Pipe Band Society of Ontario, the most entertaining offerings are, in order of paying punter appeal: the massed bands, and the medley events through the grades, with the most experienced bands probably leading the pecking order. Solo piping? Forget that. Player’s family and especially loyal friends aside, no one gives a rat’s ass for solo piping.

I don’t think the PPBSO is any different from other like organizations around the world. The set bores. Scintillatingly soporific. The pipe band set represents a configuration of tunes that represents a singularly unimaginative representation of the best voice a pipe band can offer. The pipe band MSR is a parochial “treat” we can no longer afford. To reach a broader audience, engage new markets and really let the pipe band art blossom, we need to seek to promote our movement’s best musical offering. Like a jittery pre-contest piper or drummer, we need to drop the set contest.

Set loyalists will point to tradition. I say, the set is more habit than tradition. We’ve been playing sets for less than eighty years. Set loyalists might say it’s the meat and potatoes of the music offering players technical and performance discipline. Yes, half point there, but there’s far more opportunity to learn about music, technique, harmony, rhythm and the magnificent possibilities of ensemble in a medley performance.

Training for a set contest makes a piper or drummer a pipe band sportsman, a competitor, perhaps. The medley contest makes a piper or drummer a musician. Are we about Beckham or Beethoven?

Sets gotta go.



  1. Many forms of competition, musical and otherwise, have required components and recognize the different skills needed to play each. That’s not such a bad thing. The trouble is creating a situation where only a single component is *the* deciding factor, i.e., forcing bands to play a set on a given day and sticking the crowd with it for no other reason than the date. (“I’ll attend those games when they fall on an odd-numbered day, thank you…,” said the eager pipe band enthusiast.) From a “product” standpoint, the set might be better received by audience and band if it were part of a day that included a medley performance as well – at every contest. A richer experience for players and audience alike.

    Comment by pipervin — April 28, 2009 #

  2. Thanks for your comments. I don’t see the set offering required components that wouldn’t be heard in a medley. Pipe band music just doesn’t offer the flexibility available in almost every other muscial form I can think of: if it wasn’t for percussion pipe band music might be called one dimensional – maybe two. I take it as a warning sign that the set can’t stand on its own as wide-audience entertainment without being augmented by a medley. The “single component” medley, as you call it, is anything but that: it is multi-component, full of all the variety at the disposal of well-trained pipers and drummers. And all that blether aside, I can tell you, from my experience over my pipe band career, what we hear – without fail – from pipe bandspeople when the question is asked at a mid-week practice: “is it sets or medleys on Saturday?” … well, when the answer is “sets”, the responding groan of disappointment is a guarantee – 100% of the time. That truth has to count for something, too. M

    Comment by mike — April 28, 2009 #

  3. Mike, I see your point, I really do… but I also take the idea of the MSR being like a figure skater’s ‘figures’… the required skills (which no-one wants to watch but are still valid). I, and many like me, enjoy a good MSR as well as a medley or other more organic collection of tunes. The solution is quite easy: As I have stated before here, ALL contests in Australia that I know of require a band to play BOTH an MSR and medley at every contest… so the ‘purists’ and the ‘punters’ are all happy (and the punters might even become more ‘educated’ listeners). I must admit I have found the ‘one element only’ contests held elsewhere a perplexing, and yes, a mono-dimensional concept.
    PS Mike: Remember, Aussie and Kiwi champs, mid-March/early April 2010… Toronto Police… Downunder… get on it! 😉 Stephen

    Comment by srmdrummer — April 29, 2009 #

  4. I agree with all that, and have written about the dreariness of MSRs, especially the mind-numbingly boring Grade 1 Qualifier at the World’s. Listening to the whole event is torture, and those RSPBA judges earn every bite of their tea biscuit fee.

    However, I have often thought that my conclusion might just be based on MY boredom. After 35 years of playing and hearing MSRs, perhaps it’s just my fault. I’d imagine that they’re as fresh to today’s young pipers and drummers as they were to me three decades ago.

    However, if we’re ever going to cater to a non-player audience in any significant and consistent way, we’re going to have to alter what the top bands play. Perhaps the majority don’t actually care if the general public take an interest, but the event organizers I’m sure do, and without gate receipts there’s little chance of having a place to perform even the dreariest MSRs.

    Comment by aberthoff — April 30, 2009 #

  5. Stephen: thanks for the downunder reminder and your comments! Well, there isn’t much appetite in these parts for both events (see my humble effort at last year’s PPBSO AGM – membership voted it down). A note on the figure skating comparison: compulsory school figures were removed from international events in 1990…”…Even the most ardent skating fan found the completion of the figures, followed by seemingly microscopic analysis by the judges, to be tedious at best and unwatchable at worst, and the general public obviously found them to be of no interest….”, says wikipedia.

    Andrew: Thanks for your comments. I reflected on the personal boredom factor and it seems to me, in all honesty, I have almost always disliked the set – especially, compared to the playing of a medley. The solo set is so much different and I find that really enjoyable to both play and hear played. Yes, the real point of this post was that for all my own personal dislike of the pipe band set, organizational insistence on the set contest stands as a missed opportunity in audience-building and pipe band art development.

    I have a strong sense I am pissing in the wind on this one. M.

    Comment by mike — April 30, 2009 #

  6. I agree with you whole hearted. Ditch the set and leave for thirty years or more. Then someone will reinvent it as an opposition to medleys of ever increasing weirdness. The set will then return as a pleasant kind of music where you can rest you ears by listening long and relatively simple tuneflows of more than 20 seconds a piece.
    I must admit that even though I like the medley format and the way it has been going so far, I can help think that it’s a product of modern media demands where you force change and programmed entertainment down on the listeners constantly. Thou must not even think of being bored.

    Comment by Stig Bang-Mortensen — May 5, 2009 #

  7. Stig – interesting comments. Not sure there’s a lot forced (is there?) in this game. We play on a field – scamper off – and that’s it! No wide radio play, no video rotation. People can download or watch youtube if they like – so the “music” is maybe pulled more than pushed. Still. Interesting. Verrry interesting! Thanks! M.

    Comment by mike — May 5, 2009 #

  8. “To reach a broader audience, engage new markets and really let the pipe band art blossom…”

    To go, where no pipe band has gone before…

    I see the points, and partially agree. I especially get ab’s point about event organizers needing things to draw the crowds, so that we have a place to play.

    However, all this public-pleasing, new-market-engaging, expansion of the audience stuff sometimes leaves me feeling a bit edgy. The public would go nuts for fancy drill routines and feather bonnets, and I’m sure it would sell seats, but who wants to play? The Lingerie Football League has the idea of how to engage an audience, but is that what football fans want to happen to football?

    I say let’s make musical innovations because they please and amuse us, and keep playing MSRs as long as they do, too. Let the public enjoy the massed bands, the rides, the knight battles and the Celtic thunder in the beer tent, and maybe we can find better ways to present and contextualize what is already pretty enjoyable fare.

    Comment by iainmacd — May 6, 2009 #

  9. I meant forced as a consequence of the behaviour of all the other media.
    We are all products of the time we live in. Compare today’s popular (forcing as I call it) media to popular media of the set era. That shows how the demand for entertainment changes.

    Comment by Stig Bang-Mortensen — May 6, 2009 #

  10. Iain – boy, that’s a micro-small “p” ‘partially agree’! Anyway, the point of the post was that we need to offer organizer’s better offerings to get interest up in pipe bands – the medley is the best we have right now – and – I couldn’t resist adding in smartass comments about how boring I found pipe band sets.
    Stig – got ya! Thanks for clarifying.


    Comment by mike — May 6, 2009 #

  11. I’ve slept on it now, and I think there might be room for the “Lingerie Pipe Band Championships”….
    ; )

    Comment by iainmacd — May 6, 2009 #

  12. Har! Featuring the “Victoria’s Secret Highsuspenders” in the grade one. M.

    Comment by mike — May 6, 2009 #

  13. In support of the pipe band MSR, from a piper’s perspective (an important distinction – MSR’s offer perhaps more creativity to drummers than pipers)

    You state that the MSR supports a maximum of two key changes? Quite the contrary. For example, if a band played Highland Wedding, Atholl Cummers, and MacAllister’s Dirk, there would be 8 key changes, 2 more than Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions (which I loved, btw). There are plenty of other examples of this (Ewe wi’ the Crookit’ Horn, and Charlie’s Welcome would offer similiar results). Often a pipe band’s MSR can have more key changes than their medley. Also, though there are fewer tempo changes, the rhythms within the MSR tunes tend to be more varied than within a typical medley tune (round hornpipe, reel, jig, etc.) I would point to tunes such as Highland Wedding (eight notes in part 5 – a very nice contrast), or the Islay Ball (played by the reinging world champions, featuring even or “real” triplets, and 6 different beat-long rhythmic patterns – more than any medley tune of which I can think), or The Little Cascade (with the round fourth part, a la SFU’s MSR at the 1997 Worlds) – all much more rhythmically varied within the tune than your typical non-pointed medley tune.

    As far as the lack of harmony, that is only an essential musical element in Western music, most world musics being devoid of harmony. However, that is not to say that MSR tunes don’t have implied harmonies which one hears very clearly (arpeggios, etc.) Harmonies can in fact be nauseating when overdone (nine notes, and a single timbre can quickly turn into indistinguishable muck). Finally, medley harmonies, even when done right (for example, don’t harmonize a C# with an A in an A minor tune! – heard done to often, even by Grade 1 bands!), are rarely anything cutting-edge. When bands deviate from the third-up/third-down formula, they usually block out simple triadic patterns (ever heard a Major 7th chord in a pipe band? Or even some juicy major and minor seconds held for more than a split second??? …crickets…) Harmony in pipe bands is certainly not avant-garde. I say all this to say that a lack of two or three-part harmony in a MSR is not grounds to have it thrown-out as an inferior musical experience.

    I’m being called out the door right now, which is good because I could go on and on 🙂 In conclusion, keep the pipe-band MSR, it still offers much, but continue to push the boundaries in the “medley” event (though the term medley or selection will probably become completely obsolete – for example, your “Variations” is not a medley of tunes…) because it unfortunately is not really an “anything goes” event like you suggest. Much like programming at a orchestra concert where Beethoven is next to Berg, the musical experience of pipe band competitions is improved when MSR is next to medley.

    Comment by nickhudson — May 10, 2009 #

  14. Thanks for your comments, Nick. While I am not about to argue the tonal centres of the tunes you provide examples for (I will acknowledge there are exceptions where more than 2 key changes are possible to squeeze from a pipe band MSR) I will stand by my contention that pipe band MSRs are Boring – intentional upper case B. Narrow repertoire, nuances in rhythm and phrasing that can be detected by only the most experienced aficionado – and that’s with or without harmony – and not representative of the exciting other possibilities of pipe band music, possibilities that would better engage new people, a new audience. That is the point of my post.

    You’ll know that harmony is a controversial subject and not science. It’s music theory not music science. I would suggest any of us would be ill-advised to make pronouncements about what’s “right” and what is “not”.

    Your statement that “most world musics are devoid of harmony” is startling. While I am nothing of an expert on world music – or music for that matter – I don’t accept that, doesn’t feel right. You have prompted me to make some phone calls to some good contacts – John Beckwith for one. I wanna see what he says on this.

    What is “overdone” for you may not be for me or the next guy. Who’s to say? It’s art. I think it would be fair to say something like, “to my taste that is too much harmony” or, “too much of that effect”, something like that. What’s not right for you may be seriously moving music to the ears of a piping Bartok.

    To my point: if anyone wants to get more people to pipe band competitions the pipe band MSR ain’t gonna do it.

    Glad you liked the Good Intentions thing -and “not a medley of tunes” – who knew!


    Comment by mike — May 12, 2009 #

  15. I also would like to know what you hear from J. Beckworth and others. I too am far from an expert. There are a lot of cultures which incorporate a drone (South Asian music in particular), but I don’t know if I would call that “functional” harmony. Some East Asian music features harmony by way of parallel fourths and fifths, again not “functional” harmony. In other cultures, harmony is sometimes present, but it is not thought of or heard as nearly as important or essential as we hear and believe it to be in the Western music traditions. Feel free to contest any of those over-generalizations (of which the very term “World Music” is chief). I always want to learn something new.

    I think your argument about the MSR doing nothing to attract new non-pipers to the games (also pipers, as you point out) is valid. However, is competition the best venue to draw in new listeners? As pipers it often seems as if our only performance venue is on the other side of a judges table. Perhaps it is a necessary evil.
    True “art for art’s sake” cannot be accomplished if one is following games regulations and hoping to win a contest. Then again, all art has some non-artistic motives behind it (not necessarily a bad thing.) Many non-pipers I know do not understand why band players perform with their backs to the audience (exception being Shotts this past year – a cheap party trick in my opinion, but kudos to them for pushing the boundaries in competition.)

    That many of the top Grade 1 bands rarely put on full-length concerts is shameful. A band should not have to wait a year and a half to garner up enough interest or new repertoire for a new concert. However, with basically all pipe bands being “non-professional” groups, it is extremely hard to find the time and resources required for more frequent public performances or CD recordings. If bands and pipers really want to draw in new audiences, they need to look beyond the competition circle. MSRs and intensely regulated/judged medley competitions are good to keep bands accountable, but not as the primary performance venue.

    Bottom line: competitions are better training for athletes than musicians. Draw in new listeners with full-length concerts and CDs.

    Comment by nickhudson — May 13, 2009 #

  16. Nick! You and your provocative pronouncements! “…Then again, all art has some non-artistic motives behind it…” – will leave for today. :-p

    I will make one not-so-provocative pronouncement of my own: “CDs are (almost) dead”.

    Thanks for your comments! M.

    Comment by mike — May 13, 2009 #

  17. How about this for entertainment? No MSRs…

    Comment by iainmacd — May 15, 2009 #

  18. Iain – this is gold! I LOVE this. Deluxe entertainment. A thought, though: funny that some/many might say a band playing an “unconventional” competition medley is not respectful of tradition yet, I’d wager, few anywhere would suggest any of what the Assam Rifles presented was anything BUT respectful. A good bloggie idea. James Brown lives – in the Assam Rifles (a militia/T.A. unit in the Indian army). M.

    Comment by mike — May 15, 2009 #

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