Light Music

by Dave McKenzie


  Ceol Aotrom

  le Dabhidh  MacCoinnnich

 (this is as far as the Gaelic will go)

Light music or Ceol Aotrom as it is now known in Gaelic from the 20th  century onwards is also called Ceol Beag or “little music” so as to distinguish it from Ceol Mor, the “Great Music” or “Piobaireachd (pee-brukh)”, the classical music of the highland bagpipe.  A vast majority of it is intended as dance music, however wildly the tempos may vary… from solo piping contest to pipe band contest to actual dance contest… to the vast array of arrangements and interpretations out there today among Celtic music’s elite and most respected artists… 

The “quickstep” or, more especially, the  “ 2/4 competition” march of today evolved from an interesting convolution of events in history and at a time of great romanticism about the bagpipe, warfare, Highland Gaelic culture, and the practical needs of a gentleman’s army and navy during the Golden Age of the British Empire in the 19th century. 

The “Romantic Movement” was in full swing in the middle of the 1800’s, hand in hand with the heady heyday of the Industrial Revolution.  Music was very much to the fore in the business of killing in the growing mechanized age, and probably no other power like Imperial Germany and, especially the Kingdom of Prussia, knew the prestige of precision military music and the bands that played it- with all of their disciplined soldier-musicians.

This was the time when classical music was popular music, when the symphony and the military band often consisted of the same brass players working in any given town or city anywhere in Europe.  The stage was well and truly set when Queen Victoria and the age that bears her name came onto the scene.  Queen Victoria is mostly revered and sometimes reviled for her generous patronage of Scottish Highland Gaelic culture and its revival during her reign. Gaelic culture had been in retreat for nearly a century before she ascended the throne. We can still see and feel the effect of the Victorian Age today in the “kinder, gentler”  modern Scottish culture of today…  

Following the Ill-fated and politically complex Jacobite rebellion of 1745, Scotland’s last desperate effort to secure a Stuart monarch and greater autonomy ended at Drumossie moor and Cullodon Field on July 16th, 1746, the last battle ever fought on British soil.  This was immediately followed, in a frenzy of nationalistic hysteria, by the Act of Proscription of 1746 that plainly stated that no Highlander, Gaelic-speaking or otherwise, was allowed to carry a weapon, wear tartan, speak his own tongue or play the bagpipe. The punishment meted out by the government in London was exact, swift and harsh: death, if not exile. Followed by a less stringent but equally appalling series of events known as  “The Highland Clearances,” highlanders were evicted from their homes and/or off their land (tenantry) for the sake of better economy in the lands’ use… Along came the great improvers and the seas of sheep, only to displace an instinctively tribal people coping with a century of rapid and often violent change, scattering them to some place far away across a vast ocean… places called Canada, Carribea, Carolina, or Terra Australis Incognita…

The social consciousness of the time during “the Romantic Movement”, however, led to a certain distortion of the facts, favoring a more palatable notion of the “noble savage living right here in our own back yard”- the Gaelic-speaking, bagpipe-playing, haggis-eating, whiskey-drinking, tartan-wearing, weapon-bearing highlander of Scotland.  This was when the modern Highland Games as we know them today became immensely popular and have remained so for nearly two centuries. The first of the modern Scottish regiments had already been serving the Empire for a nearly a century or more, beginning a tradition of fighting wars, skirmishes, and battles; for the very government that had, at first, defeated them; far afield in places like India, Palestine, Iraq, South Africa, the Crimea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kenya.

It was also at this time when the first modern competitions began, as an outgrowth of military tradition, that first served only the preservation and, indeed, wholesale rescue of the bagpipe and its music from extinction. It is during this “Great Gathering-Pace Period,”  that we find pipers like Angus MacKay, John Ban MacKenzie, Alexander Cameron, G.S. MacLennan, and John MacDougal-Gillies, to name a few, as the first serious exponents of the new fashion in military music. Later, the “competition system” had evolved into the primary means for pipers, military and civilian, to play in public competition at highland games, and many styles of music began to be heard on the stage, especially “the march” for the militaristic mood of the times.

The military pageantry of the day has always had inestimable influence on the military culture of the day, then and now.  This is when we see the modern innovation of the march or “quickstep” begin as a musical idiom in the repertoire of the Highland bagpipe, imitating in form and function the same style of music of the brass band that had been seen in the German Empire of the Kaiser, whose aunt, and later, grandmother was in fact Queen Victoria, as all of the nobility of the day were related more directly than indirectly. This rivalry of military prestige between Britain and her Prussian cousin was central to the development of an idiom of martial music that both captured and inspired the spirit of British national identity. Marches are the first and most abundant tunes of the beginning piper’s repertoire in modern times. Today, we hear many marching tunes in the repertoire of the Highland Bagpipe now varying greatly in the variety of time signatures found: 2/4, 4/4, 6/8, & ¾ being primary among them; but 12/8, 5/4, 6/4 and even 15/8 are not unknown.


Strathspeys were originally called “Strathspey-reels,” and this is a uniquely Scottish style of music primarily of and for the fiddle which has crossed over to become No.2 of the “big 3” idioms of modern bagpipe music. No. 1 is the march. No. 3 is the reel. If those were to be thought of as our potatoes, then the strathspey would definitely be the “meat!” due to their unforgiving technical demands and high degree of precision and articulation to properly express and drive a dance, solo, or pipe band performance.

The word, or more aptly, the place-name, Strathspey, is a valley region on the Spey river in northern Scotland near Inverness, the Capital of the Highlands. One can only surmise that the style originated here, first as fiddle music, and presumably later, the style caught on as bagpipe music. It is the “Scotch-snap” that typifies the idiom in fiddle music; a quick snap of the wrist and bow that creates two notes in a musical phrase- one very long, and one very short, and not necessarily in that order. It is this juxtaposition of very short and very long notes that create a music that is full of “pointed” contrasts that punctuate the music with bounce and “lift” so as to propel the appropriate Highland dances. Since evolving from the late 17th century into a full-fledged genre of their own, Strathspeys have come to typify everything that is dance music for the Great Highland Bagpipe.


Reels are probably the oldest form of light music other than the jig, both of which originate in Ireland with Irish music and both words refer to a dance as much as a musical style.  Reels are characteristically in 2/2 time, a time signature that is less common in modern music. These dance tunes have a more firmly established history in their development- from their beginnings as simple fiddle tunes in Scotland and Ireland in the late 17th century to being a forerunner of Appalachian folk and Bluegrass, American and even Aussie Country music. So often it can still be heard the sound of the fiddle- often imitating the bagpipe not only note for note in melodies but also in the great droning on two, three and even four strings at the same time to create the same “power-fiddle” sound that still stirs many a musical heart in the American classic the “The Orange Blossom Special,” for example. 

Reels in the “Scottish style” are played relatively slowly and deliberately in their delivery, marked by more elaborate gracenote technique and are often described as being “pointed” in effect. It is this “pointed” nature that immediately shows their relationship to strathspeys, and many a piper has known many tunes to be played interchangeably in either genre, demonstrating their clear connection as fiddle music. 

By comparison, “Irish style” reels are oft described as “round” or even-metered music- where every note is played, ideally, the exact same length- leading to a very monotonous sound effect perhaps on the one hand but with great propulsive effect on the other- since Irish reels and Irish style playing are characterized by simple gracing and embellishment on the melody but are played at noticeably faster tempos. This “Irish style” has a cousin in the world of bagpipe music- “the Hornpipe”- reels on ‘roids. 


Hornpipes are related to reels in form and function in but one respect- they are nearly all in 2/4 time, sharing a common time signature with “the competition march” but faster in tempo since “hornpipe” also refers to yet another dance- notably, the “Sailors’ Hornpipe” which evolved in the British Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Historically an English Dance form from the middle ages, “hornpipe” also refers to a primitive mediaeval instrument of the same name, itself a relative of the bagpipe, and was the original instrument of the dance. They are characterized by their spirited, lively melodies and elaborate gracenoting. They are very often punctuated with “Trebling” or “Tripling” movements, often described by keen listeners and fans of bagpipe music as the “machine-gun” effect. This can also be heard very often in Irish reels as well, as it is a technique borrowed from our cousins in Ireland, the “Uillean”, or “elbow” pipers. The opposition of “pointed” versus “round” style writing and playing is found here too and it is the sheer number of new tunes in this particular idiom, composed in the last hundred years or so, that has grown, especially by pipers in North America and elsewhere outwith Scotland.


Jigs are probably equally as old as reels and have a long, solid history in both Irish and Scottish musical traditions. Irish in origin but now equally Scottish in spirit, jigs are the only dance music found in compound (eighth note) or “triplet-based” time. Again, “pointed” versus “round” style abounds in tunes and technique.  Jigs are most often found in “standard” 6/8 time, or as “slip-jigs”, the “deluxe” 9/8 or 12/8 models. Jigs make up many of the ”classics” as well as new compositions from pipers overseas as is the case with hornpipes. These have always been my personal favorite to play. 

As for the age of the oldest light music- We have scant few clues to go on, and even the oldest known reel- The Reel of Tulloch- is probably not more than 400 years old. The vast majority of light music in existence was composed or at least put to paper in the last 150-200 years. I’m sure, however, that as long as there has been music for people to dance to- there have been pipers to provide the tunes going back into antiquity.