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"What is 'canntaireachd'?"

"What is 'canntaireachd'?"


Canntaireachd is a Scottish Gaelic word that means “chanting.”

Canntaireachd (KAN-tah-rek) is a form of singing bagpipe music, mainly ceòl mòr, or piobaireachd. It is singing that communicates the music to be played. It is essentially, a language of sung vocal sounds to mimic the rhythm and melody on the bagpipe chanter. In the ancient Highlands, canntaireachd was the primary means to teach and transmit piobaireachd music from instructor to pupil. Thus, a robust tradition of distinct sung sounds developed that were understood by all pipers. Tunes would be sung and students would endeavor to create the proper inflection of the sung tune on the bagpipe. It was thought that each bagpipe school had its own system of canntaireachd, each with strong similarities but with variations. Embellishments unique to piobaireachd are typically named by their recognized canntaireachd vocable (e.g., edre, hiharin, dare).

The canntaireachd in the “Nether Lorn” style, the style referenced and adopted by the Piobaireachd Society (PS), and a guide to which appears in each PS book, originates from the manuscripts of Colin Campbell, of Nether Lorn, Argyll. The handwritten manuscripts are dated from 1797 and form the earliest documentation of piobaireachd currently known. Colin Campbell documented 169 piobaireachd from the singing of his father in a system of vocables that correspond to fingering and gracenoting on the bagpipe chanter. Each combination of letters determines the movements and notes to play. In essence, it is a verbal music score.

Here is the canntaireachd for the well known piobaireachd “Maol Donn” or “MacCrimmon’s Sweetheart” from Volume I of Campbell’s manuscript.

Here are the corresponding lines from the PS setting.

The entire tune could be sung reading the canntaireachd “words” to get a proper idea of the tune. Rhythmic stress, musical phrasing, and expression are given by voice depending on the interpretation of the tune.

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Piobaireachd Glossary
Canntaireachd and its Modern Application


Vince Janoski Vin is a long-time piper based on the east coast of the USA. He has been on the Executive Committee of the EUSPBA and been the editor of the acclaimed Voice magazine. Recently, he has played in the Grade 1 Oran Mor Pipe Band, and the Grade 1 Stuart Highlanders pipe band. He currently produces the websites Pipehacker.com and WhiskyTunes.com.... And, needless to say, he spends way too much time than is allowed for any one person playing, writing about, and thinking about bagpiping.