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Canntaireachd (pronounced [ˈkʰãũn̪ˠt̪ɛɾʲəxk]; Scottish Gaelic for 'chanting') is the ancient Scottish Highland method of notating Piobaireachd, also spelt Pibroch, referred to more generally as Ceòl Mòr (literally the "big music"), an art music genre primarily played on the Great Highland bagpipe. These long and complex theme and variation tunes were traditionally transmitted orally by a combination of definite vocable syllables. In general, the vowels represent the notes, and consonants the grace notes, but this is not always the case, as the system has inconsistencies and was not fully standardized.

Pipers have used musical staff notation to read and write pibroch tunes since the early nineteenth century. Many of the early staff notated scores for modern pibroch published by Angus MacKay and authorised by the Piobaireachd Society are now considered by scholars to have been oversimplified, with standardisations of time signatures and editing out of ornamental complexities, when tunes are compared with versions in earlier manuscripts such as the Campbell Canntaireachd. The practice of canntaireachd singing remains the preferred means for many pipers to convey the musicality and pacing of pibroch performance when teaching or rehearsing a tune.

Canntaireachd was first written down at the end of the 18th century in the Campbell Canntaireachd by Colin Campbell of Nether Lorn, Argyll. While his vocable system had its origins in chanted notation, the Campbell Canntaireachd is now considered to have been intended as a written documentation of the music, to be read rather than sung. Nevertheless, Cambell's Nether Lorn Canntaireachd was adopted by the Piobaireachd Society in their publications and has become the most commonly used vocable system. Another related system of Canntaireachd was published by Niel McLeod of Gesto, reputedly taken down from the chanted singing of John MacCrimmon, one of the last practicing members of that esteemed piping family. The MacArthur family of pipers are reported to have had their own oral form of Canntaireachd system that was not documented. A further variety of Canntaireachd and distinct collection of pibroch tunes was sourced from Simon Fraser, whose family emigrated to Melbourne in the 19th century. It is assumed that different lineages of pipers developed distinct forms of Canntaireachd that were variations on a broadly similar system of sung vocable notation. This informal oral variation continues today in the practices of experienced piping musicians and teachers.

William Donaldson, in The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950 states:

In its written form, canntaireachd provided the basis of the indigenous notational system and it was brought to its most developed form by Colin Mòr Campbell of Nether Lorn in Argyll, at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th Century. Although Campbell's work was almost immediately superseded by a form of staff notation adapted specifically for the pipe, and remained unpublished and unrecognised until well into the 20th Century, it remains an important achievement and gives valuable insight into the musical organisation of Ceòl Mòr

Explanation of canntaireachd[edit]

(Please note that the following sections use the convention of indicating standard notes by capital letters between quotation marks, and canntaireachd notes by lower case letters in italics, i.e. "A" is not the same as a. In a couple of cases, solfege is also used.)

Explanation of table[edit]

The table given is based on the advice of Charles Bannatyne of Salsburgh, Holyhead. Some of the notes resemble each other very closely, but the changes used are indicated, and the pronunciations are given approximately in brackets.

The key note "Low A" is always represented in this notation by in, probably a contraction of An Dàra Aon, the second one, to distinguish the key note from the first note on the chanter—"low G". "High A" is always i, but in a canntaireachd, it is often denoted by a preceding l, thus liu, and so confusion is avoided. "Low A" is either in, en, em, or simply n after some notes. The alternatives seem to have been used for the sake of euphony.

"D" note is a and "B" note is a, but the qualifying effect of the grace notes — "high G" represented by h, and "D" represented by d or h (the latter a contraction of "a’ chorrag", the Gaelic name for the finger playing "D") prevents any confusion.

The note "E" is represented by i. At the beginning of most of the MacCrimmon tunes and variations is l, which gives the keynote. It stands for "E" (soh), the dominant of the "low A" (doh). Where it does not occur, the tune will be found to start with a word like "hien", which denotes "E" with "High G" grace note, and then "low A".

The vowel for "F" note is ie, and it is always made certain by the grace note d or h.

"High G" is u, often distinguished by a preceding h.

"High A" is often vi to distinguish it from the "E" note. When "F" succeeds "high A" in a tune, the word is often vie.

Grace notes[edit]

Regarding grace notes, h the aspirate, qualifies all notes down to "low A", but often where ha obviously means "B" note, it must be concluded that it should be written cha (xa). Similarly ho ho should be ho cho (ho xo). The letter d is used, as is t to denote both "High G" and "D" grace notes, but an examination of the notation word, makes a mistake unlikely, thus dieliu means "F" with "high G" grace note, and then "high A" and "G". Tihi means two "E"s played with two "G" grace notes. T and d resemble each other very closely in Gaelic, but the context in canntaireachd makes it always easy to see whether "high G" grace note or "D" is meant. It is necessary to explain the compound grace note systems. Dr is doubling of "low G" by a touch of "D" grace note, and open "low A", and so on, over the whole scale. The letters dr are obviously a contraction of dà uair, two times, or twice. Trì means doubling of "low G" by "D" grace note, and as "A" is opened, double "E" by "F" and "E" and open "E". This is a "Crunluath" form. Tro is the same, at first, but the doubling of "E" is done with the grips from o or the "C" note. This is "Crunluath-a-mach" (outer "crunnluath"). These examples will make the rest easy. In many tunes where the tr type appears, it obviously when translated should only have been a dr type, this confusion being only to the similarity of d and t in Gaelic.

The shake on "high A" is vivi. The other shakes are represented by rr, according to from where the beats and shakes are taken. This seems to be a contraction of "gearradh" meaning a "shake". A simple touch of a note before opening is always represented by a single r. For instance, such a word as radin signifies that "B" is to be touched with "Low G" (lùdag) before opening; -din is "low A" with "D" grace note. Ho radin is the "C" note o with "high G" grace note keeping the ra- below "D" note, also an "A" note.

Rules for the Grace note scheme[edit]

1 – All grace notes and grace note types are forestrokes, that is they occur before the notes they embellish. They are "appoggiaturas" or "semiquaver" notes, or "Caciaturas" or demi-semi-quaver notes, which predominate.

2 – All grace notes in canntaireachd are represented by consonants.

3 – All compound forms are made by combining single forms.

4 – All leading or scale notes are represented by vowels.

5 – All note forms with m or n in them contain "low A".

6 – Grace notes h and d are qualifying or modulating grace notes.

7 – Doublings are represented by dr, triplings by tr, compound types by combinations of these.

8 – Open doublings above "D" are represented by dir, such as dirie, where the note is doubled by itself, and the note above it. Dr represents closed doublings, and dir open doublings.

Grace note forms defined[edit]

Grace note forms consist of single, double, and compound:

  • The single group includes all simple forms, together with the "dà-lugh" variation form.
  • The double group includes the single and double types of "trì-lugh" and "ceithir-lugh".
  • The single type of "trì-lugh" is composed of three "low A"s graced by "G", "D" and "E" gracenotes, and it precedes the note embellished. An example of this is "hininindo", the syllable do being "C" graced by "D". This type is called "fosgailte" (open), and is opposed by the double or closed form, represented by such a form as hindirinto. The latter is called "a-steach" (inside), which is taken to a type like hodorito, which is said to be "a-mach" (outside), as the grips are taken from the note played. The types last named are also "breabach" (kicking) forms, having a "kick” note at the finish. The "crùn-lugh" or "ceithir-lugh" forms are also "fosgailte", "a-mach" and "a-steach". The word hadatri is "a-steach" when opposed to "hadatri" which is "a-mach".

Hiodratatiriri is a pure "cliabh-lugh"—the chest or creel of fingers, because every finger on the chanter is engaged in some way, either acting or acted on. In bagpipe music, the variations are all named from the acting fingers, and the old pipers counted their time from the number of fingers engaged in the several parts of the tune. Chin-drine may be taken as an example of the "leum-lugh", the jump of the fingers. This is "low A", played by "D" grace note, then "G" doubled by "D", "low A" then opened, and "F" rapidly opened from it. Hiriri is an example of a beat form. The playing of two "low A"s by touching "low G" twice with the little finger is ririn, or rurin. The prosodic quality of the syllables, together with the spacing and punctuation, give the time and rhythm of the tunes.

See also[edit]


  • This article incorporates text from "Dwelly's [Scottish] Gaelic Dictionary" (1911). ((Canntaireachd) with minor corrections, and additions)
  • Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland

External links[edit]