Piobaireachd, the “classical” music of the bagpipe, is a completely different pot of haggis. This music is based on the musical form of Theme and Variations. At 15-20 minutes for some tunes, piobaireachd is typically a significantly longer piece than a hornpipe or jig which might last only a minute. The variations get progressively more challenging as the piper gets more and more fatigued, which gives remarkable insight into the mindset of the Scot.
Judges listen for five different areas:
This refers to a piper’s fingering of the notes. Bagpipe music is saturated with embellishments of varying levels of difficulty, and these embellishments, or “grace notes” are what give bagpipe music its distinctive “flavor.” There is a correct way to play these grace notes, and no margin for personal input. This is probably the most difficult aspect for non-pipers to distinguish.
This is an objective point. Either the bagpipe is in tune, or it isn’t. Once you know what an “in tune” bagpipe sounds like, it is a relatively simple matter to compare that to what you are hearing. Many people who claim to “hate” the bagpipe, really hate the sound of a poorly tuned and poorly played instrument. The only difference between a poorly tuned bagpipe and a poorly tuned violin is volume.
On the other hand, is a subjective issue. What one judge likes as “bold” another might dislike as “brash.” One judge’s “mellow” is another judge’s “dull.” However, from a spectator perspective, comparing the tone of one instrument to another gives the listener a reference.
Timing and tempo are also objective. Are the notes played on the beat? Are the “long notes” played long, and the “short notes” played short? Is the beat steady, or is it erratic? Is it too fast, too slow, or just right. These are aspects that anybody can judge, if they are listening.
This is subjective. There are long notes and short notes, and on paper, they all look the same. An eighth note is an eighth note. In the lower grades this is true, the competitor is expected to observe the note values as accurately as possible. However in the higher grades, the pipers are expected to color outside the lines a bit, holding one note longer and another note shorter than written. This is what gives bagpipe music it’s distinctive “swing.
Same things apply, with the added complication of unison. A good pipe band should sound like a single large bagpipe. Precise unison, combined with bright tone on well-tuned instruments is a tough combination to beat.
The drum line adds dynamics (volume control) to the performance, and enhances the presentation. The bagpipe sound is “legato” or smooth and flowing, while the drums are able to play “staccato,” the sharp crisp snapping sound characteristic of Scottish snare drums.
Tenor drums are the guys and gals with the twirly sticks. They aren’t just there to give the audience something to look at. They provide a secondary accompaniment that underpins the high pitch of the snare drums.
The bass drum, the only solo instrument in the entire ensemble, is the foundation of the entire sound. An experienced bass drummer will make a good band sound great, because the deep tone and resonance of the bass drum provides the foundation for every other instrument.
Why do the bass drummers dance? The real question is, why do the pipers look like statues, standing rigidly at attention? This is one of the last vestiges of the military origins of pipe bands. The band members are all “supposed” to stand like the Scots Guards on parade. Somebody just forgot to tell the bass drummer.