RISHF Marching of the Pipe Bands

Piping & Drumming

About Piping & Drumming

Since the bagpipe is the only one of the pipe band instruments 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 all of the pipers will play unison melody (often quite complex and demanding) on their chanters, with their drones.

The Drum Corps and Midsection

The drum corps of a pipe band consists of a section of drummers playing Highland snare drums. The snare drums have very tight Kevlar heads, designed for maximum tension to create a very crisp and strident sound. The drum corps is responsible for supporting the piping with a solid rhythmic foundation and a sense of pulse; the score being played by the drum corps is usually based on rudimental patterns and can often be quite involved, with solo, unison and contrapuntal passages throughout. The drumming in pipe bands has been compared to that of big band or jazz drumming; both combine technique and rudimental drumming while striving for unity and a rhythmic feel.


In competition, bands compete against bands of similar ability levels and carefully perform required tunes. Competitions are held all around the world, and many bands travel great distances to compete. In North America, most competitions are held between May and September. Winners receive a trophy or award, in addition to prize money.

Grading System

Bands in the U.S. are graded from 5 to 1. The most serious, professional pipe bands with the largest number of experienced players are Grade 1 (highest ability level), and the beginner bands with the newer players are Grade 5 (lowest ability level). In solo competitions, the open level is added, to allow professional piper and snare drummers to compete against one another.


There are typically four judges that critique a competing band. These judges are usually seasoned professional players, and must pass an exam to be certified. In most games, there are two piping judges, one drumming judge and one overall ensemble judge. Pipe and drum sections are judged on tuning, tone, tempo, unison (plying together across the sections), expression, phrasing, execution musicality, the balance/blend between the pipes and drums, attacks (starts) and cut-offs (stops).

Solo Piping

The word “piobaireachd” (pronounced pee brock) literally means pipe playing or pipe music, but is now used to describe the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Another name for it is “Ceol Mor” meaning the Big Music, which separates piobaireachd from all other forms of pipe music ( marches, reels, jigs etc. ) which are referred to as “Ceol Beag” – the Little Music. To describe a piobaireachd is not easy. It consists of a theme or “ground”, with variations (which vary in number and complexity ) that follow the theme. The theme is often very slow, and the general effect of the whole piece of music is slow – slowness being a characteristic of Highland music. Nothing resembling piobaireachd has been discovered in any other country in the world. Also the Great Highland Bagpipe is the only instrument which can reproduce piobaireachd satisfactorily to the ear of the devotee. Other competitions in solo piping are: Strathspey, Reel, Hornpipe, 2/4 and 6/8 March Strathspey: The strathspey is said to have originated from the Strathspey area, the strath or broad glen of the River Spey, in North East Scotland. It was originally written for the fiddle and used for dancing to: nowadays, the strathspey is played on many different instruments. It is actually a slow and stylized form of reel and was originally called a 'Strathspey reel' while the standard reel was known as an 'Atholl reel'. Like the standard reel, it is in 4/4 time, but it sounds quite different because it is slower and contains dotted rhythms. One of these rhythms has a special name and is called the 'Scotch snap' or 'Scots snap'. This consists of a very short note followed by a long note played in sequence, giving a 'snap' sound when played. "You'll tak the high road, and I'll tak the low road, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye" Other examples are the tunes to Auld Lang Syne (based on Sir Alexander Don's Strathspey) and Coming through the Rye (based on an old strathspey tune called The Miller's Daughter). Because the strathspey rhythm has four strong beats to the bar, it is played quickly (generally ranging from 108 beats per minute, for Highland Dance, up to 160 beats per minute, for step dance), and contains many dot-cut 'snaps', it is a rhythmically tense idiom. Traditionally, a strathspey will be followed by a reel, which is in 2/2 with a swung rhythm, as a release of the rhythmic tension created during the strathspey.