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Video Transcript: Today I want to talk about the world’s number one most popular, most played, and most requested bagpipe tune which is Amazing Grace. There’s a funny thing about Amazing Grace: the sheet music that almost everybody in the world uses to learn and play this tune is completely wrong.
It’s one of these tunes that originally got transcribed and typeset and adapted for the bagpipes, and the sheet music does not match the time signature. The rhythm and the timing of the tune is completely wrong. So today I’m going to explain why, and I’m going to reveal a brand new version of Amazing Grace that actually matches perfectly the way we play it now. If you’ve tried to learn Amazing Grace from the sheet music that’s out there, you probably learned it by ear.
The sheet music has the right notes, and the right grace notes, but in order to get the right timing, you have to completely alter the way you play it (from this incorrect widely-used sheet music). What we’re going to look at today is some different versions of Amazing Grace. We’ll listen to a few different versions, and if you know the tune, whether you play it or you’re familiar with the tune, it should make sense that this is how the tune goes, it sounds right to you. Then I’m going to show you how the music that most people use is completely wrong. Then I’ll show you the correct music. The first recording I have is from my BagpipeLesson.com Tune Lesson downloads. This is Amazing Grace, take a listen:
I recorded that over 15 years ago and I’ve kept statistics on the most popular tune downloads over the years. Amazing Grace and Scotland the Brave together are half of the total downloads. I have 74 different tunes available, and those two represent about half of the total downloads.
Now let’s listen to another recording. This is one of my favorite recordings of Amazing Grace. This is the SFU Pipe Band on their live at Carnegie Hall album and they do a great arrangement with (I think) three-part harmony. This was recorded just before I joined the band.
That was pretty much identical to the way that I played it on the recording. I think this is pretty much the standard way that pipers played this.
This recording was groundbreaking at the time. The playing and the tuning is just the best I’d ever heard on Earth on a pipe band recorded for harmony. Great, so there you go SFU Pipe Band live at Carnegie Hall in 1998. Groundbreaking recording, amazing sound, amazing playing, great tunes on there.
Okay let’s listen to another recording here courtesy of YouTube. This is Judy Collins. Listen to how she plays it or sings it.
Nice little triplets…lovely. Now before we look at the sheet music, let’s listen to one more. This is none other than Elvis. You can find that on YouTube. Very cool.
Now let’s take a look at some sheet music. But before we do that, let’s think about the time signature. If you listen to the way that the piper would play it, Amazing Grace: 1, 2, 3 and 1, 2, 3 and 1, 2, 3 and 1, 2, 3, and 1, 2, 3.
So it’s definitely in threes. Three beats per bar, and the first two notes are pickup notes: 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 and 1, 2, 3, and 1, 2. It’s definitely in three, so you would think this tune should be in 3/4. That’s exactly what you find when you look up sheet music for Amazing Grace. Whether it’s the bagpipe sheet music or it is somebody else, some piano or voice or recorder. Let’s take a look at some of that right now.
This is some sheet music that I found online. Here’s some piano sheet music. Sure enough, 3/4. One thing you notice is that it’s different. We have a little triplets. These are the notes that match up with the bagpipe tune because we played in D. So this is in a different key here. But look at the timing, they just have a single pickup note. And it’s in slightly different timing than what I played on the recording with the SFU Pipe Band recording, or Judy Collins, or Elvis, all those versions. There’s many more versions you can find, this doesn’t match. We need an extra pickup note in here, and we need a triplet.
Let’s look at the next page. This version is also in 3/4. Now we have the two pickup notes ‘da da da da’ has the two pickup notes but the timing isn’t right. Again me and Elvis and Judy and SFU we all did….
So the two pickup notes are not the same length. We do a longer note and a shorter note.
We also have a triplet. I found another version for violin and piano. You can ignore the piano part, that’s just playing some chords. Here we have ‘da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da.’ So we go back to the single note, pickup note, which we don’t like, and it has a triplet.
We have a long, a short, and a medium note in our triplet. So this even style triplet is also not right. What we’re looking for is a version that actually matches the way we play the tune.
Now let’s look at some bagpipe sheet music. This is a version found online. Again, you can just look at the top line. (It) stays in 3/4, we have our two note, pickup note that we like, and we have a triplet here. Let’s look at how this sounds, I’ll I’ll play it for you:
It’s getting closer, but that’s not it. Remember our pickup notes, the way we play it is:
….So it doesn’t work to make these two notes even, and then our triplet is:
….The way we play our triplet (is) we have a long first note, a short middle note, and then the third note is kind of in between. Here the third note is written just as short as the second note. You would never play it like this, it wouldn’t sound right at all. It sounds like:
….We want it to sound like my recording for the SFU recording. You can hear that swing feel. Let’s listen to that again:
….It’s not just the pickup notes, it’s every time you have these two even eighth notes, every time, just like in the beginning of the tune. We play long and short, long short….
….Doesn’t work so let’s move on.
Here’s another version floating around the internet. (It’s) almost identical to the version I just showed you, but now we’ve taken these two note pairs and made them dot cuts. This is how we want it to sound:
….You may have learned the tune with this version, but if you learn the tune from this version, or similar dot cut version, but you play the tune correctly, you’ve had to make some modifications. In particular you’ve had to modify how you play this dot cut, if you play this dot cut the way it’s actually written. Meaning: that dotted eighth note takes up almost all of the beat, and then the cut 16th note is really short. It’s going to sound like this:
….It’s too extreme. We want [Music] instead of [Music], the even version on the preceding page.
This isn’t right because we need to make the low A longer than the D. The dot cut version isn’t right because now the low A is too long and the D is too short. It’s too extreme. So what is our other option? What do we have that we can play?
We know that it’s not even, so these are built in 3/4. We know that it’s not even ‘da da’ and we know that it’s not dot cut.
What do we have that has more of a rhythm like this? That’s a 6/8 march. So instead of doing even, or dot cut, we’re going to do this: we’re going to make the low A a quarter note. We’re going to make the D an eighth note, and then we’re going to make this long D dotted quarter note, and a dotted quarter note, and tie those together.
Now we’re in compound time and compound time means that every beat is split into three. In simple time you take a quarter note, like in 2/4 or 3/4 you can take a quarter note, and you can split it either into two eighth notes or a dot cut. So it’s either split evenly, or it’s split in a really super uneven split.
In compound time we could take a single beat, which is now a dotted quarter note, and we can split it into three. Because we can split it into three, we can also combine those first two notes. So now it’s split unevenly but….two of the eighth notes here, and one of the eighth notes here. So this is actually a two-thirds to one-third split which is exactly what we want. If we have three of these beats in a bar, it’s 9/8.
Whoa! 9/8, How do you get 9/8? Well 9/8 actually means three beats per bar, but every beat is a group of three eighth notes. So we get nine eighth notes but they’re split into groups. They’re combining groups of three which gives us three beats per bar. Let’s take a look at the sheet music here in 9/8:
Follow along with me, I’m going to play the recording and listen:
So there it is. It matches up perfectly with the way that we play it. If you’ve been playing the tune properly, you’ve been playing it in 9/8 and you may have been wondering, “Why is this so weird to learn this tune from the sheet music?” You were learning either from this 3/4 version, where everything’s too even and the triplets really messed up, or you were learning from the dot cut version, which also doesn’t match and the triplets messed up. Finally in my version we’ve got 9/8, so we have the perfect balance between the long and the short note. It’s the in-between and that’s compound time. That’s what breaking up things into threes allows us to do. It’s not even, and it’s not extremely long, extremely short, it’s a nice two-thirds of the beat here, one-third here. So it’s a long short but it’s a little bit softer.
The triplet is a perfect compound time triplet like you’d have in any other 6/8 march 12/8 or 9/8 march.
We talked earlier (about) the problem with the triplets. We want a long note, a short note, and kind of a medium note. In these 3/4 versions, there’s no place to put a medium note. So now we have our long note at the start of our triplet, we have our cut note in the middle, and we have that in-between medium note, which is the regular eighth note (not dotted, not cut, but just the regular old eighth note in that third position.) So let’s go back and listen to Judy Collins a bit and see how what she does matches up: Beautiful.
So there you go, I’ve got all the different versions for you to download, and you can get rid of all those other versions that you have. Just stick with the 9/8 version, which is exactly the way that any good piper plays it, with that nice 9/8 swing. It just so happens that Elvis, Judy Collins, and the SFU Pipe Band and lots of other great musicians do it the same way.
The new version of Amazing Grace in 9/8 now makes sense. If you’re teaching pipers, give them this version. The problem with these other versions: you can sort of learn it by ear, but I never want to give a beginning student sheet music that has errors in it. Especially an error as big in magnitude as having something in the completely wrong time signature. Because it teaches them at the very beginning early stages of their piping that you’re not to read the music, that the music isn’t correct.
Now there is music that has typos that can be fixed, but you want to teach the student to read music properly. You want them to interpret it properly, and with a tune like Amazing Grace written in 3/4, they may not even understand that the music doesn’t match what they’re hearing. But on some level what they will come to understand is that sheet music is mysterious, it’s hard to comprehend, it doesn’t make sense, and you really should learn things by ear. That’s not the message that you want to teach a beginning student. You want to teach them that it takes some practice and attention to learn how to read sheet music, but once you learn it, there is a logic to it. It makes sense, and there’s always going to be an extra level of expression that goes on top of it, but the music should match on some basic fundamental level, the way we play it.
So there it is. Enjoy! Good luck, and see you next time.
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