The most common form of pipe band, the Scottish pipe band, consists of a section of pipers, a section of side drummers known as a drum corps, several tenor drummers and a single bass drummer. The tenor drummers and bass drummer are often referred to collectively as the midsection.
Standard instrumentation for a pipe band is from 6 to 25 pipers, 3 to 10 side drummers, 1 to 4 tenor drummers and 1 bass drummer. Occasionally this instrumentation is augmented to include additional instruments (such as additional percussion instruments or keyboard instruments), however this is typically done only in concert settings.
The pipe band began life in the military, but its origins are obscure, and historical records exist mostly in hints gleaned from contemporary regimental records that had no direct interest in pipes. We do know that pipers served in regiments from the earliest times; the Royal Scots have records referring to pipers dating back to the early seventeenth century. Where pipers were employed as pipers (rather than just happening to be a soldier that also was able to play), they were employed by the officers of the regiments as private pipers. This situation continued until the 1840s, when Queen Victoria's enthusiasm for all things Highland was instrumental in the War Office's decision that each regiment be allowed five pipers and a Pipe Major, which continues to be all that the British Army provides funds for to this day. By this time, pipers were already playing together with drummers, probably modeling themselves on the fife and drum bands which had existed in Switzerland since the fifteenth century.
Drumming is, of course, as ancient as the Army itself, and to be a drummer in the Army even today carries a cachet unlike any other Army musician.
By the time of the Crimean War, pipe bands were well established. The first civilian outfits to take up the pipe band idea were police and fire brigade bands; even today, several forces maintain bands that play to a very high standard. By the time World War I broke out, the pipe band was a popular image of Scotland, both internally and externally.
WWI was both a tragedy and a boost for piping: during the early years of the conflict, pipers played over the top of the trenches as they had done since the time of the Jacobite Risings. Three thousand died before the War Office banned the practice in 1915. Although that ban still stands today, pipes have occasionally played into battle, notably on the Normandy beaches and the crossing of the Rhine.
The Royal Scots played them going into battle in the 1970s, and the Black Watch played into battle during the second Gulf War. However, WWI also created a huge demand for pipers, and huge numbers had been taught to play by the end of the war. This and the similar effort which went on during WWII ensured that there was a critical mass of people able to play and create a thriving pipe band scene from the 1950s onwards.
The music played by pipe bands generally consists of music from the Scottish tradition, either in the form of traditional folk tunes and dances or music from the Western tradition that has been adapted for pipes. Examples of typical pipe bands forms include marches, slow airs, up-tempo jigs and reels, and strathspeys. In recent years there has been a great deal of emphasis placed on new forms, especially the suite. A good example of a suite for pipe band is Don Thompson's composition Journey to Skye (1987).
In conventional pipe band music, each section of instruments has a different role in the music. Generally speaking, the pipers deliver the melodic and harmonic material, while the side drummers provide a rhythmically interactive accompaniment part. The tenor drummers provide the fundamental rhythmic pulse with the bass drummer anchoring the rhythms and providing a strong and steady beat. The roles of each section are broken down further below.
The Pipe Section
Since the bagpipe is the only one of the pipe band instruments that is capable of producing distinct pitches, the pipers in a pipe band are responsible for providing all of the melodic and harmonic material in the music. Generally speaking, all of the pipers play a unison melody on their chanters, with their drones providing the harmonic support and filling out the sound. These unison melodies are often quite complex and demanding. It is this complexity that provides much of the musical interest.
When harmony is written within the pipe section, it is usually only two-part harmony, and is usually scored in a 2:1 ratio (with two thirds of the players on the melody, one third of the players on the harmony part). Because of the limited range of the chanter, the harmonic possibilities are somewhat limited, but well-written harmony in a pipe band setting can be quite effective. Pipe band harmony is sometimes referred to as "seconds", however this simply refers to a second part and not to the interval of a second. In fact, intervals of a second are rarely found in pipe band harmony parts, except in passing. Instead, it is the consonant intervals which are stressed, perfect fourths and fifths, and even more commonly, parallel thirds and sixths.
The Drum Corps
The drum corps of a pipe band consists of a section of drummers playing Highland snare drums. In the early days of pipe bands, rope tension snare drums were common, but as the technology evolved, so did the music. Pipe band drummers now play on drums with very tight heads, to create a very crisp and strident sound. Due to technological innovations and changing aesthetics, this crispness has become an integral part to the pipe band sound. Since today's drum is so facile as a result of its design, players are often able to execute extremely complicated and technically demanding rudimental patterns.
The pipe band drum corps is responsible for both supporting the piping with a solid rhythmic foundation and sense of pulse, and creating an interesting contrapuntal line unto itself. The line played by the drum corps (referred to as the "drum score") is usually based on rudimental patterns and can often be quite involved, with solo, unison and contrapuntal passages throughout. A popular pattern in many scores is for the lead drummer to play a phrase, and the section to play in response. This technique is known as "the chips".
While standard practice in pipe bands is for the pipe section to perform the traditional or standard arrangements of the melodies, including even the gracenotes, drum scores are very often composed by the lead drummer of the band. In competition, drumming adjudicators grade bands on how creative their scores are and how well they fit the piping.
The midsection usually consists of a section of tenor drummers and a bass drummer. Their role is to provide rhythmic support to the entire ensemble. In this respect, the midsection allows the drum corps to delegate their timekeeping responsiblities and allows more freedom in the drum scores.
Generally, the bass drum provides a steady pulse, playing on the downbeat and on the strong beats of the bar, and the tenors support that pulse, often adding supporting beats, accents and dynamic support.
Tenor drums in their modern form are a relatively new addition to the pipe band. While pipe bands of yesteryear would often include tenor drummers, they would usually be "swinging tenors", players who would swing their sticks for elaborate visual effect but who would rarely play. Today's tenor drummers play pitched drums, and careful thought is given as to which pitches to use and at which times. In some cases, five or six tenor drummers have been used, providing a palette of individual pitches for use in a variety of musical situations.
While a great number of pipe bands exist purely for the enjoyment and performance of the music, playing on parade and in festivals and tattoos, the primary focus for most bands today is competition. Since 1930, when the Scottish Pipe Band Association (Now the Royal SPBA) was formed, there has been an event known as the World Pipe Band Championships held in Glasgow every August. For competitive bands, the title of World Champion is highly coveted, and this event is seen as the culmination of a year's worth of preparation, rehearsal and practice. Until 1987, when the Canadian 78th Fraser Highlanders band was awarded the Grade One title, every band that had won had been Scottish. In recent years however, this has changed and several non-Scottish bands have had success, most notably the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band (pictured above), and the Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band of Ireland.
Prizes at the World's are awarded in the following six categories:
In the Juvenile category, band members must be under the age of eighteen, with the exception of the Pipe Major. The remaining categories have no age restriction, but are based on proficiency. Grade One is the highest of these categories, and Novice is the lowest. Grading and eligiblity are overseen by the RSPBA, and bands must apply for downgrading or upgrading.
The entirety of the World Championships takes place on one day in August, on Glasgow Green. Typically several hundred bands attend, travelling from all over the world. Bands arrive early and are required to perform in a qualifying round which takes place in the morning. The top bands at the end of the qualifying round play in a second event in the afternoon to determine an aggregate winner. To win, bands must perform in two events, a March, Strathspey & Reel event (known as a "set" or "MSR") which consists of three pre-arranged tunes, and a Medley event, which consists of a short selection of music chosen and arranged by the band.
In addition to performing at the World's, most competitive bands participate in a season of competitive events held during the summer months. Events of this type are usually held at Highland Games and are administered by the governing Pipe Band Association. The grading and organization of these events is generally consistent with the World Championships.
The future for pipe bands is unclear. Some bands are starting to find the competitive system musically stifling, although it does demand high standards. Some advocate making the transition to a Breton model, where competitions are more flexible and with fewer restrictions. Other alternatives, such as bands dropping out of the performance scene entirely, seem unlikely.
Instead of giving up on the competitive model, a number of bands have instead turned to the concert stage as a way of supplementing their competitive activities. Performing in this setting allows a greater degree of musical flexibility and creativity, and encourages the inclusion of additional instruments and performers, to expand the musical possibilities. Notable examples of these endeavours include the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band's Carnegie Hall concert of 1997, and the recent recordings by the 78th Fraser Highlanders. Their albums The Immigrant's Suite (1989), Live in Canada - The Megantic Outlaw Concert (1991), Flame of Wrath (1998), and most recently, Cascade (2003), showcase both their attachment to traditional pipe band music and their desire to break out of the compositional mould and venture into undiscovered territory.