Piobaireachd (or pibroch in Anglicized spelling) is a Gaelic word that simply means “piping.”
Piobaireachd itself is a style of bagpipe music that is said to be the “classical” music of the bagpipe. More formally, it has come to be known as ceòl mòr or “big music.” It is distinctively different than the dance and regimental music of marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs, etc., a class of bagpipe music also called ceòl beag, meaning “little or ‘light’ music.”
Piobaireachd music is characterized by a stylized structure that begins with a melodic theme, the “ground” or “Urlar,” and continues with a series of formal variations on that melodic theme. Each variation continues with a more dynamic rhythm expressed by denser finger technique. The music generally begins at a slow pace and increases in tempo as the tune progresses into the more technically complex variations. The individual player can express joy, sadness, anger, and intensity through pacing and musical emphasis in individual tunes.
Piobaireach music is a form unique to Highland bagpipes. While light music tunes hop among different instruments across the Scottish musical tradition, piobaireachd tunes have been composed solely to be played on the Highland bagpipe. The music stretches back centuries into Scottish Highland history, with the earliest record of piobaireachd being composed and played in the sixteenth century.
Much of what is known about the history of piobaireachd comes down in the form of oral teaching along with the occasional written record. One of the earliest known accounts of a piper playing piobaireachd comes in a first-hand description of piper Kenneth MacKay of the 79th Camerons playing the tune “Cogadh no Sith” (War or Peace) at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The earliest documented record of piobaireachd music comes in the form of two handwritten manuscripts dated 1797. These manuscripts, known as the “Campbell Canntaireachd,” were believed to be compiled by Colin Campbell from the singing/playing of his father. The manuscripts consist of a system of “words” that correspond to fingering of the bagpipe chanter and establish the existence of many tunes as part of a long-lived tradition.
Piobaireachd became more formalized through attempts to score the tunes on the Western music staff in the 1800s. Up to the nineteenth century, piobiareachd tunes were mainly taught orally and passed from player to pupil. Angus MacKay, sovereign piper to Britain’s Queen Victoria, dutifully recorded a good portion of the historical piobaireachd repertoire in readable music notation in his manuscripts and published book. The Piobaireachd Society, formed in 1903, standardized many of these settings, among others, for competition in their own series of printed books.