Musical Expression for the Top 5 Bagpipe Tune Types -

Musical Expression for the Top 5 Bagpipe Tune Types: Tips for Expression in MSRs, Hornpipes, & Jigs for Solo Pipers & Pipe Bands

by Jori Chisholm Founder of
Last Updated: November 28, 2023

In this video we’ll take a look at the most commonly played types of bagpipe tunes: Marches, Strathspeys, Reels, Jigs, and Hornpipes. We’ll look at the time signatures and rhythmic patterns found in these tunes AND we’ll discuss ways you can go beyond the sheet music to bring out the music in your tunes. I’m joined by 7-time world champion pipe band drummer James Laughlin, and we talk about some of the important differences in how we play and express the music in our tunes in solo piping vs. pipe bands. For each of these styles of tunes, we’ll talk about appropriate tempo ranges for solos and bands and the important differences between dot/cut & round style tunes. And we’ll help you understand one of the most important, and most misunderstood aspects of musical expression and that is what we call PULSING.

Watch the video and scroll down to read the full video transcript.

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Video Transcript: Hi everybody!  I’m Jori Chisholm.  In this video we’re going to take a look at the most commonly played types of bagpipe tunes:  marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs, and horn pipes.  We’ll look at the time signatures and rhythmic patterns found in these tunes, and we’ll discuss ways you can go beyond the sheet music to bring out the music in your tunes.

I’m joined by seven time world champion pipe band drummer, James Lachlan, and we’ll talk about some of the important differences in how we play and express the music in our tunes in solo piping, versus pipe bands, for each of these styles of tunes.  We’ll talk about appropriate tempo ranges for solos and bands, the important differences between dot cut and round style tunes, and will help you understand one of the most important and most misunderstood aspects of musical expression.  That’s what we call pulsing. Make sure to hit the subscribe button and click on the little bell to be notified when I post new videos here on my Youtube channel.

We’re going to look at the fundamentals of piping tune types, and I just wanted to introduce you to a great friend of mine.  We got to know each other in SFU.  We played at Simon Fraser University Pipe Band back in the early 2000s and the late 2000s. Jori was in the band actually for around 20 years and I’ve learned a lot from Jori over the years.  We’ve spent a lot of time teaching alongside each other in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and all over North America. 

Welcome, thanks James, great to be with you.  We’ve got a lot of common interest in pipe band music and playing pipes and drums together is definitely one of them.  So thanks for doing this together, and I hope we can come up with something that’s useful for people. 

Absolutely. I know, I know, definitely.  Guys, for those that are here on Youtube, please take a second just to hit the subscribe button on that little notification bell because Jori and I will be putting more and more tutorials up that will be valuable to you.  So Jori, let’s jump in, have a little look.  I know that you’ve got quite an amazing framework of how you picture the tune type so maybe we could maybe start with that as a bit of an overarching vision.

Sure.  So when we talk about the most commonly played types of bagpipe tunes, there’s this area of pibroach that we’re not going to talk about. In the non-pibroach domain, we call that “light music.”  Those are the types of tunes that you’ll have pipers and drummers playing together.  There’s three primary categories: (1) there are slow airs, and a lot of times those tunes come from songs, although a lot of them are just written as pipe tunes. (2)  We have marches, and (3) we have dance tunes.  

Today we’re going to talk mostly about 2/4 marches in the march category, but there are also 3/4s, 4/4s, 6/8s, 9/8s, and that might be the topic of another one of these videos.  Today we’re going to focus on 2/4s.  Now in the dance tunes, we have strathspeys, reels, jigs and horn pipes.

So that’s what we’re going to look at today: 2/4 marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs, and horn pipes.  We’re going to look into the structure of these tunes, what you’re going to see when you’re looking at the sheet music, time signatures, rhythmic patterns, and then also how you take that written music and make something musical out of it.  Looking at pulsing expression timing: things to look for, things to strive for, to bring out the most in your tunes. 

We want you to walk away from this having the understanding of: when I see a march, I know it’s going to be in this tempo range, I know that the rhythms that are going to show up in that march are going to be these rhythms, and I know the expression, and the musicality, or the phrasing, that I want to add to it is this.  We’re trying to demystify all these different things that people talk about when it comes to different tune types, so there’s more clarity for you.

I’ll share my ipad screen here, as Jori and I casually chat through each tune type.  Maybe marches might be a good place to start.  The reason we’re focusing on 2/4s today is that the 2/4 march is the most common style of march played in a pipe band competition.  When you’re playing a march, strathspey, and reel (MSR as we call it) it’s always going to be a 2/4.  So that’s what we’re focusing on today.

Brilliant.  Let’s take a little look at that 2/4 marks. I’m going to write in mono linear notation so a lot of you drummers will be used to this.  Pipers, you might find this a bit strange, but essentially it’s one line.  Us drummers like to keep it simple.  Anything above the line is right and left, so let’s ignore right and left.  We’re just going to be putting rhythm down on a page.  This notation (for those history buffs) was developed by Fritz Berger as a Swiss drummer back in 1920-1929. That’s what I’ll be notating. 

Let’s take a little look there.  When we think of 2/4, Jori, what tempo would we be range-wise?  

We would be thinking at the upper end for solo pipers.  You’re looking at about 70.  If you’re an amateur piper, and you’re in one of the amateur grades, it’s going to be slower, like between 60 and 70 for solo piping.  Bands are going to be higher.  Right, and bands were playing faster and at the high level grade, one band at the ‘Worlds’, we’re going be talking, you know maybe upwards of 80.  Is that right, James?  

Yeah, definitely.  I think some of the higher ones that I’ve heard of being 86-87 bpm.  But probably ranging from 76 up to late 80s, would you say, across all grades?

Yeah I think that’s right.  It’s one of the things that will be coming out in our conversation today.  I’m looking forward to learning from you, James, a little bit more is the differences in how we play tunes, or how pipers will play tunes, when we’re playing with drummers and the reasons for that.  Typically the tempos are cranked up, and when you’re playing on your own as a piper, the tempos are pulled back.  We’re really getting into really heavy expression, because when you’re playing on your own as a piper, you have to do it all.  You have to be bringing out all that beat emphasis.  Whereas when you’re playing with the band, you have the drummers helping you with dynamics and rhythmic interest and contrast.  One of the things that we do is, we crank the tempos up to make it more exciting.

Absolutely.  So this could be what you might see in terms of a 2/4 bar right.  Two quarter notes. So that’s pretty simple and straightforward in terms of what we’re going to see in each bar.  But if we look at the rhythms here, Jori, what rhythm might we see show up in a 2/4 march?

It depends on the complexity of the tune.  This is probably the way that you could most easily distinguish what’s a more complicated or difficult tune from a simpler tune: is just how many notes do you have in each bar, or in each beat? The simplest would be just a quarter note on each beat.  You could also break those quarter notes into pairs, so you could have pairs of even eighth notes.  You could have pairs of notes where the first one’s dotted, which would mean it’s held longer, and the second one is cut, meaning it’s shorter.  You could have a reversal of that, which would be the cut dot. The note lengths are the same, they’re just reversed.  Then we can just get more complex from there.  So if we want to keep going, imagine you took that first pair of eighth notes there and you split the second eighth note into two, so now you’d have an eighth note and two sixteenths.  But in these competition-style marches, you usually, in the pipe score, do not have even 16. So that first one’s going to have to have a dot and then the cut.  On the second one, you could do that same three note pattern, but have the dot cut reversed.

Exactly.  I wasn’t thinking that, I was actually thinking the dot cut reverse, but you could do that. So it’s going to be four different three note pairs. The eighth note can be first, the eighth note can be second, and then in the half that’s not the eighth note, it can either be dot cut or cut dot.

Right. Cut dot eight.  As a side note: the first and third ones on that line are by far the most common, and that’s because that heavy beat emphasis lines up with the way that they compose the tunes.  Meaning the longest note of those three, is usually the downbeat.  Doesn’t have to be, and some composers, they like to do it the other way around.  Then we get four note groupings.  Imagine you took each one of those eighth notes, and split it into a sixteenth, you’d have four sixteenths.  But remember we mentioned that we don’t have even sixteenths.  We need dots and cuts so it could be dot cut, dot cut, it could be the reverse of that, it could be cut dot, cut dot.  We could have a really cool rhythm which is the dots at the beginning and the end. So a dot cut, cut dot, and that’s used to great effect in a lot of tunes.  The reverse of that which would be the two dots in the middle.

For those who look at this (and think), “wow this is overwhelming, there are so many options.” Once you understand the basics of how the rhythm works, that’s what you’re thinking of there.

We’ve got quarter notes, we have three different two note pairs, we have four different three note pairs. This is going to be something the pipers won’t see, but the drummers will. The pipers would be highly unlikely to see this in a 2/4 march.  I can think of a couple, but these are outlier tunes.  We usually don’t have these really fast triplets in our 2/4s. Ask drummer is what we would do.  So when the pipers go one E, and the two, we can go, and that will complement that. 

Essentially these two here: so the pipers would play the top one, and we could play the bottom one.  You might see that turn up as a Swiss Triplet.  What we look at here is this note and this note.  This note and this note should be lining up with those dots and cuts.  Now this is where when we get down to looking at the mathematics and the theory of the fine detail, this is where pipers and drummers can ‘Actually No what you’re doing is slightly rounded’.  This is a game where we have to have discussions as Pipe Major and Lead Drummer, or as instructors, to make sure rhythmically what the drum core is doing actually complements what’s happening on the page.  

I think this is a good time to mention the purpose of sheet music. The way I look at it is, it’s a guide and at least in the piping side of things, it will show all the notes.  It will show all the grace notes and all the doublings, assuming you have a good score that’s not filled with typos or has been somehow messed up by somebody.  If it’s a proper score, it’s going to have all the notes.  It’s going to have all the grace notes, it’s going to give you clues with the dots and cuts, and the different rhythmic patterns on how you should play the tune.  But it’s not going to tell you everything about how to play the tune.

Right.  There is some additional knowledge that you need to apply to that written score. That’s what we’re going to talk about next.  What are these?  How would we do that?  How would we express a tune properly?  If you’ve ever heard the playback feature that’s used on some of these bagpipe notation programs, these programs are really good for making beautiful copies of pipe tunes to share online, or to print in a book, or frame and put on a wall.  But the computer won’t play it right.  It sounds like a robot.  One of the reasons is that the program is taking the written notation literally, and they’re not putting that extra layer of expression into it, which is what you need to do.  So the sheet music is not a perfect scientific depiction of how the tune is played.  It’s a guide and you need to apply your understanding of the rules of expression for that particular style of tune, to make it sound good.

Great.  I like that term: rules of expression. This is where a drummer experiences say a drum kit player, or an American Drum Line drummer coming across the pipe by music, and they’re very much used to seeing everything almost robotic and mathematically, theoretically in place and they say, “but you’re doing this funny thing here.” “This thing swings,” or, “you’re holding this note.”  That’s what we’re talking about with the rules of expression.  We do unique things in the pipe band world that are different from any (other) type of music.

That’s right.  I think many different styles of music have these rules, traditions, or patterns that are built in and if you’ve been doing it a really long time, you may not even realize you’re doing it.  Sort of like a native speaker of a language doesn’t pick up on the quirks and the idiosyncrasies of their language the way that you would if you were learning it as a second language in an academic setting.

Where should we start with expression for 2/4 marches, with the rhythms here? Jori and I will not get into detail on this now.  We will probably both do separate tutorials on this, but it’s very important that when you see what’s written, that you can interpret that and produce the rhythmic equivalent.  For example, this one here, one E and the two, and being able to look at that and understand what the rhythmic expression comes out as.  So that’s an important lesson and skill set in itself.  We’re not going to jump deep into that (now) but, with the expression.

If we go right up to the top, and you’ve got your quarter notes, if we were to teach someone, “hey this is the basic pulsing of a 2/4.”  What would it be?  Pulsing is the term we use for emphasizing certain notes in the tune.  In a 2/4 march, we want to emphasize each beat.  If your bar is just two quarter notes, there’s not much you can do to it.  But as soon as you have two or more notes within a beat, you can pulse it.

Emphasize the first note on the beat by lengthening it slightly.  That’s what pipers will do and the reason that pulsing is so important with pipe music is that bagpipes, we have no dynamics.  Right?  Bagpipes are all one volume.  We can’t go louder or softer just because of the way the instrument is built.  We also have no rests.  So that’s one reason that pipe band music is so exciting is because the drummers have lots of dynamic range.  You can come in and come out and drums and pipes go very well together for that reason, we complement each other. 

I would actually look at lengthening that one use circle there.  I would do the other one as well.   Some people may talk about the left foot beat, which is the first beat of each bar, or the right foot beat being a little bit less pulsed.  I think for a good starting point, we want to lengthen those notes. Here’s the key concept: what you’ve written there are four eighth notes, two eighth notes, in each beat and according to the way you’ve notated. They should be dead even if you have a single beat that’s split into two notes: eighth note, eighth note there’s no dot, there’s no cut.  What pulsing does is, we actually lengthen that first note slightly.  If you do it just the right amount, it still sounds even, but you have a very subtle but powerful beat emphasis, and that’s what pulsing is doing.  We are lengthening that note a little bit in order to bring out that beat, to emphasize that beat. For the pipers it’s really important because there’s no other way we can do it.  We can’t play it louder like you could accent a note.  We can’t do that, we accent it by lengthening it.

What’s interesting is when it comes to 2/4 marches, if you’re a competitive piper or drummer or you’re in a band, and you get feedback from a judge that the 2/4 march sounded boxy or it sounded a little too rounded.  What they’re saying is that you’re not expressing these notes, you’re not adding that agogic stress, you’re not adding that emphasis.  So if we take just the first two bars of Highland Wedding, and we play it absolutely as one and two.  If you want to sing it, just what it might sound like if we were robotic and super mathematical with it versus adding that little bit. Highland Wedding is a good example because it has a bunch of eighth notes at the beginning.  It starts with four eighth notes in a row, and then it gets into some more complex rhythms.  But it would go with pulsing.  It brings it from having a 4/4-ish sound to a 2/4 sound because you’re taking it out of those four eighth notes instead of making them all even.  I’m bringing out the first and the third one.  They become a little bit more prominent by lengthening them.  So it really brings out the two beats per bar and that’s what we want.  That’s the effect of the pulsing:  it brings out a strong two pulse.  If you get rid of all the pulsing, you just have four even eighth notes.

Another way to think about that is if you look at those pairs of eighth notes, the first one: that’s the front half of the beat.  The second one: that’s the back half of the beat.  They sometimes call that the “offbeat.”  We’re lengthening the front of the beat, and we’re shortening the offbeat, or we’re delaying the offbeat.  We’re delaying the start of that second note. If you do it just right, it sounds really really good because it brings out that strong 2/4 feel.  One of the overriding principles for all of these styles of tune, except for maybe the jig, is that we really want to bring out the beat.  We want to emphasize the beat, and on the bagpipes we emphasize the beat by lengthening the front of the beat, and we call it pulsing. 

I love it.  That’s brilliant from a drumming end.   It’s so important that we understand that because it’s easy to get mathematical and just focus on digits and numbers.  Actually, it’s all about feeling.  It’s about expression.  So you close your eyes and listen to what the pipers are doing, and it’s our job to accompany that, and emphasize what they’re doing. 

Oh I’m interested in this.  This has expression that complements what the pipers are doing and it’s the slightest adjustment.  The argument for some of you guys watching this might be, “But why don’t you notate that?  Why don’t we put some kind of digit or dot?”  Because what ends up happening is it becomes incredibly messy to actually theoretically do.  That may become next to impossible.  But if we can in some way theoretically write it out, you’re going to have a very messy sheet of music.

Yeah, it would be messy and it would be very difficult.  There’s a much simpler way to achieve the desired goal, which is what I said a few minutes ago, which is:  the music is a guide.  It’s not a scientific literal depiction of how it’s played, and that goes for every style of music.  You interpret it based on your knowledge and understanding.  I mean there’s nothing about a dot that intrinsically shows that it makes the note longer.  You had to be taught that’s what the dot means.

Right.  So just like you have to be taught what the sounds are that go with different letters, and then you know that the different letters have different sounds depending on the context.  Right so there’s lots of knowledge that you apply to it because you’re a person.  That’s how we learn.  We don’t interpret things literally like a computer would.  

We have these expression rules that we can apply and one thing I’m going to add, many of you may have come across this idea of strong/weak so often what you’ll get shared from judges and teachers, you might hear 2/4 marches are about strong/weak.  What they’re trying to say is that the first beat in the bar should be strong, and the second beat in the bar should be weak.  Now that’s a guideline and that’s not how every single bar is going to go.  There are going to be times particularly from a drumming end, when we don’t hit this big strong accent.  In fact we might do the opposite and go for the upbeat rather than the downbeat.  So that’s something you guys would talk about strong/weak.

Some people think that makes it more confusing.  I think it’s not as accurate as to think that all your beats are strong.  Right.  That’s what the pulsing does when you talk about strong, I guess for drummers that could be loud.  You could have an accent there to make it strong.  But in the piping world, there’s no accenting, there’s only lengthening through pulsing.  

The way I try to play it,  (sorry, I just want to jump in, but what you just said is gold) that’s important to me, this is a breakthrough moment for pipers and drummers.  When we think, as drummers strong/weak, we think accent/no accent.  Whereas for you guys (pipers), that’s not the case.  This conversation is so important: Jori is saying we can’t have a louder note and a softer note as pipers, so it’s about lengthening.  When we understand that as drummers, that also tells us that we’re not going to go accent a soft note.  We don’t need to do that.  More importantly, we need to do make sure that we’re lengthening each of those down beats just the same way the pipers are.  We can add in an accent here when we want to, when it’s appropriate.  We can also shift that to the second beat, or the upbeat.  

To me that’s really crucial, what you just said. Thanks for sharing it.  What we have in common, where we overlap, is timing.  Right.  Bagpipers have timing, rhythm, tempo, dot cut, pulsing, that’s all related to timing.  Then we have the different melody notes and embellishments that we play on top of that.  You guys have the timing and dynamics. You don’t have different melody notes.  You just got the one note when you play your drum.  The crucial thing is to get the timing synced up in terms of the tempo, in terms of where you’re hitting.  If you’re emphasizing a downbeat or an offbeat, if you’re accenting or not accenting.  Just like we have to distinguish, as pipers, the melody notes are one dimension, but then the rhythm and the pulsing in the tempo are another dimension.

Right.  And you’ve got the accenting and the dynamic range that’s sort of independent.  Or it’s a separate dimension from the timing domain. So obviously it’s not random.  They’re synchronized if you’re doing it right.  You want to put the accents on the long notes, to accent certain beats.

Right.  Same thing with us.  Our certain embellishments tend to come on down beats to emphasize them.  So that’s really the key thing.  Some pipers will have very complex expression schemes that they claim to use, or that they claim are real.

(For example) “Oh well, in the first bar I go strong/weak, and in the second bar, I go weak/strong. Then there’s mediums and stuff.”

I actually don’t believe that’s an accurate way of describing how most people play. I’m not saying that no one plays like that, but I’m saying I don’t think that’s really how most people play.  The way I play, the way I teach, the way that I think most pipers play is we just try to keep a steady tempo.  We have a consistent rhythm expression in terms of our dot cut, and we’re doing a strong amount of pulsing, and we’re not fluctuating throughout the tune.  We’re not sometimes doing really heavy pulsing, and then less heavy pulsing, or really heavier, I just don’t think that’s desirable or even if it’s really possible.  It just seems too complicated.  If you listen to the best 2/4 march players, in my opinion they are very consistent with that strong heavy pulsed beat.  They’re in a groove. If you were able to come up with some complex varying expression scheme, I don’t think that would be desirable.

This music is very rhythmic and it’s very much about getting in a groove and getting some momentum.  We’re talking marching music, and we’re talking dance music.  This is very regular kind of rhythmic stuff which is not the case for all types of music.  But it’s certainly the case for piping music.

Absolutely. That’s important.  YouTube in particular has lots of options in terms of,  “Hey here’s how you play pipes or drums.”  But for those of you out there on a learning journey, which we all are to some degree, I want you to just challenge who you’re learning from when people have radically different approaches.  Whether it’s piping, drumming, violin, or whatever, I want you to question it.  Then through the filter of, “Hey success leaves clues.”   

So Jori and I, we would look to who are the best players.  And we’ve played alongside the best players.  We both played at the top level ourselves, but we continue to look at what they are doing.  (For example) Oh 99 of them are all doing that, we all kind of think that.  Okay that’s an accepted way of playing.  So if you’re learning from somebody that has a very radical view, just question it.  Then get out there and see what the majority of great players are doing.

I love alternative approaches, I love thinking outside the box.  But in this case, I think the simpler explanation and the simpler approach is the correct one.  We’re going for a groove, we’re going to hit some sort of rhythmic consistency. 

I think that’s the right approach.  Brilliant. So Jori, which tune type should we move to now?  Is that everything about 2/4 marches? 

We can go deeper of course, but let’s move on here.  Before we finish my conversation with James, I want to tell you about my Inner Circle.  If you like this video, you’ll love Inner Circle Membership.

My Inner Circle gives you complete access to the best of everything at  weekly live and interactive online classes for pipers of all levels with me, world champion guest instructors, access to my exclusive lesson library with hundreds of hours of tunes, lessons and videos on nearly every piping topic, and personalized support from me to help make your piping dreams come true.  Whether you’re just starting out or looking to take your piping to the next level.  Or if you just want a fresh new approach, I work hard to make sure there’s something for everyone in the Inner Circle.  To learn about joining and to watch and download some more of these great lessons and videos, please visit

The MSR starts with the 2/4 march then goes to a strathspey.  Let’s go to strathspey, four quarter notes per bar.  The simplest form would be four quarter notes.  What’s different between a strathspey and a 4/4 march like Scotland the Brave?  Or one of these other 4/4 marches?  We know one of the things is that the strathspey is going to be way faster.

Right. When you’re playing in solo piping, you have a lot of leeway.  But we’re talking a 100 anyway.  Right.  From a band perspective, you’re probably looking anywhere from 100 to the very top end 130.  That will go for solo drumming as well. 130 is incredibly fast but you will see it.  Then solo piping around 100, to the top professionals, would probably be at a 120.

I mean don’t take these numbers as absolutes.  If you’re just getting into solo piping competitions, you have a lot of leeway to go on the slower end.  Everybody would much rather hear you play something slower and have you do a good job with it, than strive to meet some sort of tempo benchmark and have it be a disaster. 

What’s interesting about strathspeys, as compared to marches, is that we have no even pairs of eighth notes in a strathspey pipe tune.  Your pairs of notes are either going to be dot cut with a long note first that does not exist.  Or it’s going to be cut dot with the short note coming first.  The other rhythmic pattern is a triplet.  Sometimes it’s actually three even notes played in a beat.  It’s not that common to actually play it as three even notes.  In a lot of the old books, they would write it that way.  But we play the first two notes short, so it’s almost like two cut notes and a dot note.  It’s usually written as two sixteenths and an eighth.

Right.  So it’s like a short-short-long.  There’s another couple triplets: you could have the long note in the middle, but that’s extremely rare.  So the quarter note, your cut dot, and your triplet, that’s going to cover 99.5% of your strathspeys as far as the type goes.

From a drumming end, you’re going to see this: this a run of five, but you’ll see I put a three over the top.   So three groupings in the time of two.  It’s actually a subdivision of that triplet.  You may also see this: subdividing all of those eighth notes into three groups of sixteenth notes.  To get that digitally, that’s essentially what we’re going to be seeing.  You’ve got this at the top here, number one and you’ve got tata and you’ve got your tap and then triple that.  And then here we’ve got digital, and then six is digital, and then seven.  That’s me ending on the next downbeat over here.  So those are the key rhythmic options that you’ll see.

Jori, what about in terms of the expression?  How does that differ from what we do in our march?

There’s a lot of overlap.  I don’t know if we mentioned it, but in any dot cut style tune, it’s really important that you hold those dots and you make those cut notes really short.  I would say that is the primary thing that you want to focus on in your expression.  And making sure that the dots are long, and the short notes are really short.  From a technical point of view, that’s one of the biggest challenges that pipers have.  Cut those short notes short, especially when you get your tempos fast, and you’ve got doublings and all these other embellishments that are stuck in there.  The first thing that goes is the length of those short notes.  They get rounded out.  So we want to make those really short.  An additional thing we’re going to do in strathspeys is to bring out the first and third beat in each bar.  So the pulsing now takes place over the entire bar.  So instead of 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, it’s 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, and 1 and 2.  So you’re really stretching out that first and third beat. 

If I was going to summarize how to properly play a strathspey in terms of expression: a very strong dot cut and then extra emphasis on the first and third beats by stretching out the dot of the first and third beat.  That’s what we call pulsing.  So lots of pulsing on 1 and 3 and lots of dot cut and then you’re good to go.  That sums it up!

I find in my experiences teaching for the last couple of decades that drummers and pipers will have varying thoughts on this.  So strong/weak medium/weak, you see it in a lot of theory books.  A lot of people talk about it.  But Jori and I have chatted at length about this.  To do a strong note versus a medium note on a bagpipe, it’s like, “What does that even mean?”  

When you look at what most people are doing, it is strong and then not strong, in terms of length.  We’re talking length, not accent here.  So if we did it as a drummer, and we just thought about the length, we would follow the bagpipers.  But if we think of our accenting, it’s actually easier for us to play, let’s say, 0 or 1 is weak, 10 is strong, 5 is medium.  We can do that for sure.  From a drumming point of view, if you want to do strong/weak medium/weak, or any variation, that’s cool, that’s possible.  But what you’re saying is, the first note of the bar in the third note of the bar, you hold, and you express each of those. 

That’s exactly right.  When you hear the terminology: strong/weak, medium/weak thrown around, and when you ask pipers, “What do you know about stress by expression,” that’s what they say.  If they know anything, that’s what they say.  What they mean is, pulsing strong on the first bar, first beat weak, which means no pulsing on the second beat medium.  So some pulsing on the third beat, but not as much as the first one.  The fourth one’s weak again. 

I think that most really good strathspey playing comes across when you really listen to it carefully.  That third beat is quite strong, and you can argue the fine details here, but I think if your approach is pulsing on 1 and 3, making them both equally strong, I think that’s a good starting point.

I just don’t know that you can really pull off a medium and a weak when you’re pulsing.  The length, the amount of pulsing on a beat, will affect the amount of pulsing on the following beat. Right.  So the stronger you make 1, the less weak that number 2 will be.  The same thing goes for 3 and 4.  I think it makes sense that it has to be strong/weak, strong/weak, but I’ve just gotten rid of that terminology entirely.  I say pulsing on 1 and 3 essentially.  That means if we look specifically at that bar, it’s the same rhythmic pattern four times. But they are not played identically.  You’re going to make the dotted note on the first beat, and the dotted note on the third beat longer.  Those are going to be 2.  They’re going to be slightly longer than the dotted notes on the second and fourth beat.  If you were to record it, someone who’s pulsing it properly, and rewind it and time it, and actually measure the lengths of those notes, that dotted note on 1 and 3 will be the longest notes of the bar.  Two and 4 will be slightly less long, and all those short notes will be the same.

You’re right, that’s a crucial bit there.  You want all those short notes to be the same. 

Let’s move on.  So really what is our standard time signature in an MSR: a traditional march, strathspey, and reel?  It would be common time or cut time, also known as 2/2.  That’s an interesting one because the 2 on the bottom means half note.  We usually don’t have half notes. What we end up having is four quarter notes where it’s instead of a quarter note on each beat.  We have 2 quarter notes on the first beat, 2 quarter notes on the second beat.  Another way to think about it is it’s just like 4/4, except instead of tapping our foot 4 times, we just tap it twice on the first and the third. 

What about tempo range there, so we think, solo piping.  On the high end it would probably be in the 80s for reels.  The low end might be even 60, somewhere in there.  It can always be slower if you’re in the entry level solo piping grades.  From a band or a solo drumming perspective, slow would be early 70s and then getting up into that brisk fast tempo.  At the top end you’re looking at high 80s.  Then our rhythmic groupings are going to be very similar to what we had in a 2/4 march.  So we could have four quarter notes.  Each one of those quarter notes could be… Actually we don’t get into the four note groupings really, we’re talking quarter notes and eighth note pairs. 

Right, but they’re in an MSR.  You are going to have dot cuts.  There are two styles of reels. Sometimes in medleys or in recitals, you’ll hear pipers playing round style reels.  I’m not sure where that comes from.  If that’s from the Irish side or what, but you do have that.  You could have dot cuts or cut dots and then when you mix them all up, you can get dot cut-cut dot, just like in the 2/4.  You can scramble them all up, but there’s really only three different rhythms:  quarter note dot cut or cut dot, but then once you mix them all up, you get lots of interesting combos. 

We can subdivide this.  Remember in our march we looked at the triplication?  Exactly the same thing here.  Just to write that out for you quickly, that will look like this….So we could play that when the pipers were playing,…  We often do that when we’re rolling.  Our rolls, very often are irregular groups and triplet-based.  That’s how we think when we’re playing those, and then expression.  Jori, what’s your take on expression there?

It’s like a march where you’re bringing out your beats.  I think because the tempos are faster and it’s a little bit more of an easy-going laid-back approach than a 2/4 march.  So I’m still looking at pulsing my two beats per bar, but maybe not quite as heavy as you would have in a 2/4 march.  Something like John Morrison.  If you’re playing it as a 2/4, be heavier, be slower, more pounding out those beats.  We’d be holding the first dotted note in each cluster. We still want to bring out two beats per bar.  I want to ask, if that second beat was a cut dot, where would you put the pulsing?  You put the pulsing on the dotted note.  Never pulse a cut note.  Pulse out on the long note.  The beat emphasis always goes on the long note portion of that beat.

One thing for those visual people out there, one thing that really helped me was a mentor who talked about 2/4 marches and had the downbeat here on the triangle and the upbeat was here.  So it had this very uplifting feel, whereas in a reel, more like an infinity loop.  You can see that when I get to the lower half, I’m actually moving through it with a little bit more momentum.  That reflects what you’re already saying in terms of holding beat 1 and beat 2.

Right, awesome.  Right, next tune type then.  We finished our MSR, now we’ve got our last two we’re going to talk about today which are hornpipes and jigs.  Hornpipe you know well James. How would you distinguish a hornpipe from a reel and a 2/4?  To me it lives somewhere close to those.  It’s in between a march, it’s not a march, but similar. It has a lot of overlap similar to a reel as well.  How would you describe it?

Through the march we have that agogic stress where we’re really leaning on that first beat.  We’re emphasizing it.  Whereas in a hornpipe, it’s a lighter-hearted, slightly more elevated tempo.  We don’t “sit on” and emphasize that beat as we would in a 2/4 march.  There’s a lot more lift in life. 

I think that’s right.  If you look at the rhythmic patterns, if you look at the rhythmic construction of a hornpipe, it’s going to be very similar to a march.  But the style of expression is slightly faster, not as heavy on the pulsing.  So just a little bit too heavy and slow and plodding.  If you took that hornpipe and played it in march style, same kind of rhythmic patterns, lots of dot cut.  If you’re going to play the dot cut style tune, there are also styles of hornpipes which are round.  We take out all the dot cuts we have, that is what we would call a dot cut hornpipe.

About playing it rounded, so if we played it right, we would simply take out these dots and cuts, right?

Mm-hmm. I think for a cut-style horn pipe, at the upper end it would be maybe 85, and at the lower end it might be 60, somewhere in there.  A thing to consider is the difference in tempo between that dot cut style and the round style.  It seems that when you play a round style hornpipe, you have to bring the tempo up a little bit so that it feels and sounds good.  There’s something about when you add the dot cut.  It gives it some life and some bounce and some vitality, even when the tempo is down.  But once you get rid of those dot cuts, you’ve got to crank it up a little bit.  That’s something to consider.  

I think 90 beats per minute that I’ve put in, that’s more for those rounded tunes, playing a dot cut hornpipe.  But 19 may sound a little unusual, particularly for some dancers doing the sailor’s hornpipe.  But certainly not from a band performance standpoint and expression-wise.  Did we touch on that yet?

I don’t think we did yet.  Just plenty of dot cut and keep that consistent throughout.  I like to do a little bit of pulsing there.  Not too much–to be lighter than a 2/4 march, but a little bit of pulsing. 

It’s like taking the 2/4 principle and just relaxing a little bit on it.  Crank up your tempo and just relax on the pulsing.  That’s right. 

Then jig, let’s stick with 6/8 jig for now.  There’s also 9/8 and 12.  But if we just stick with 6, it’s most common I would say.  So 6 eighth notes per bar, clustered in groups of 3, so you’re going to see 2 groups of 3 eighth notes.  That’s the foundational building block of a jig.  You could combine those two first 2/8 notes and that gives you a quarter note.  Then you’d have an eighth note hanging on its own.  You could also combine all three of those notes together and have a dotted quarter note.

On that second line there, where you have the eighth note going first, that is very rare to see. It is very rare.  Remember, we talked about in 2/4s when you had the groups of three, usually the eighth note comes first.  That’s just because the long note usually comes on the downbeat. 

That’s also the principle on the jig.  I would say that eighth note coming first is sort of like one in every ten thousand.  It’s really rare. It could happen (if you) want to write a tune with it.   Go for it!   It’s a little bit of a syncopated feel, but it’s (an) almost unheard-of tempo.  So this is where we get to really crank our tempos up.  At the high level we’re talking maybe up to 120 for solo pipers and then slowing it down to say 85 or something like that.

I was playing a recital years ago, and I felt like I was playing really fast.  Then I came off and I had recorded it and I wasn’t backed and I was playing like 144 or something.  I don’t know how I played that fast.  I mean, I couldn’t do it now.  I think it’s a combination of adrenaline and sweat and I was like, “thank goodness I was not accompanying you.”  That would have been disastrous for me.

What we’re looking at here: there’s no dot cuts, right?  So the name of the game in a jig for pipers is keep it even.  Keep those eighth notes even.  Some pipers like to talk about pulsing a tiny bit on that first eighth note.  That’s a very advanced technique and you can do that, but it’s really subtle.  For most of us, what you’re focusing on is: play the right notes, get all your technique in there, and aim for a very steady, even smooth delivery of eighth notes.  That’s what you’re going for and in a pipe band situation, that’s some of the most exciting music we play.  We get these jigs cranking, and the drummers and the pipers are in sync ,and you’re just in this groove and just cranking it out!  It’s great!

Yeah, absolutely!  And that’s for people who are new to it and going, “I can’t tell the difference between my strathspey and my jig.”  In the strathspey you’re hearing lots of the dots and cuts. You’re hearing them everywhere.  Whereas in a jig, you won’t hear that, right?

Right.  If you wanted to figure out what type of tune you’re hearing, well if it’s a pibroch or a slow air, you can pretty much determine that based on the tempo.  Then if you want to figure out what it is from what’s remaining, does it feel like about the tempo of a marching tune?  Or does it feel faster than that?  If it’s faster, then it’s going to be one of our dance tunes. Right away you can identify (a) jig because you’re going to hear 1-2-3, 1-2-3.  If you hear that, you know you’re in jig town.

Right.  So that’s the jig.  If it’s not a jig, and you’re into hornpipe or reel, it gets a little bit trickier. But you ought to be able to figure out the jig.  So keep it even, keep it smooth, and you’re golden.

I love it.  So guys, that is an overview of our key tune types.  Hopefully there are some key takeaways.  If you’ve got any questions, I’ll certainly jump in and check out (the comments) what you’re writing, and maybe (learn) some challenges you’re having also. 

Don’t forget to hit subscribe. We’ve got Facebook communities and other communities where we serve pipers and drummers just like yourself.  I know that Jori has created an amazing Inner Circle.  Jori, can you just take a moment to give us an overview of what the Inner Circle is about?

Yeah, so I started in 1999 with the idea to give anybody anywhere in the world access to good information to learn the pipes.  A few years ago I wanted to do something in addition to the downloads that I had in my shop.  I want to do something interactive.  So I created the Inner Circle (members-only group).  There’s a few things that you get on that: you get weekly live group classes with me and we cover all kinds of topics, tunes, expression, technique, reeds, memorization, learning tips, playing in a band, you name it. We cover these topics live, and if you can’t join live, you can watch them on replay.  We have a private Facebook group, you can watch them there also.  We do our live classes on Zoom.  We have a members-only website where you get access to recordings of all the live sessions.  And we have hundreds, literally hundreds of lessons on every piping topic imaginable.  We bring in world champion guest instructors as well.  So that’s my Inner Circle and you can check it out at  I would love to have you.  We have pipers from around the world of all abilities.  So even if you’re just starting out, we have people like you that join our classes.  As you progress, there will be more and more content that you can access.  

Thank you Jori, and for everyone that’s watching, a couple of things: if you’ve learned something valuable today, please do us a favor and share this video with someone that might benefit from it.  (Such as) someone in your band that’s been talking about “this is how we play this tune, I think this is how we should express it, put it out there.”

Jori and I are not saying, “Hey, this is the only way to think about it.”  But from our experience of playing at the top and teaching (between us 40 plus years), we know that this is a really solid way to approach each tune type, and very well accepted at all grade levels, both solo piping and band.

I’ll pop the links below for my Youtube channel and Jori’s Youtube channel.  There’s so much free content in there, so please subscribe to those.  I’ll also put a link into my free Facebook group: Pipeline Drumming on Tap.  You can come in there and check it out.  I’ve also got the pipe band drumming Inner Circle, you can go and check that out at  It’s very similar to yours (Jori’s) where I go live twice a week.   One is a practical session with sticks in hand, the other is a Q&A or a live composition.  I then bring in world champion guest instructors.  In your private members area, there are hundreds of tutorials and previous replays.

I just want to say a huge “Thank You.”  Jori, that was phenomenal.  I absolutely enjoyed that and it’s nice to actually sit down with you.  We’ve talked about this informally when we’re teaching at workshops, but it’s nice to actually formalize this and put it out there for other people.

Great James.  I think this is really cool, let’s do it again!  There’s so much that we could talk about, that would be really fun to discuss.  I love getting into it.  Thanks, let’s do it.  Thanks man.

Thanks for watching, don’t forget to hit the subscribe button and the little bell to be notified when I post new stuff here on the Youtube channel.  Be sure to visit to watch and download some more videos and lessons like this one and learn more about my Inner Circle.


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