There are two mysterious words used over and over by experienced pipers and drummers: pointed and round. Each of the five styles we play are either pointed or round--some are really pointed, others are more round depending on the wants and desires of the individual player or pipe band leadership.
Marches and some reels: Played fairly pointed (except in certain spots where they should be played with "extreme pointy-ness"
Round Reels/Hornpipes: Played round--no exceptions
Jigs: Played round--no exceptions
6/8 and 9/8 Marches: Played pointed and, in some cases, with "extreme pointy-ness"
Strathspeys: Played very pointed and, in some cases, extremely so
So, what do these two words mean? To understand "round" and "pointed" one must first understand the concept of beat. The beat is not a single moment in time. It is not a foot tap or a click of the metronome. Instead, it is helpful to think of the beat as a "box of time". Notes are placed into this box of time and the location/placement of those notes determines the rhythms that must be played. Here's a visual to help with the whole "box of time" idea.
This is a graphic representation of one bar of 4/4 time. There are four beats in 4/4 and therefore four "boxes" of time with a beat number at the beginning of each box.
Think of a Trumpet...
Most people reading this blog post are drummers but let's start our explanation of round vs pointed with an example of how wind instruments deal with beats. A wind instrument produces a sustained sound. Think of a trumpet; a trumpet can play a short note or a long note. Let's examine what these beat boxes would look like if a trumpet filled them with two notes of equal length. The large stretched out ovals represent the sounds of the trumpet notes and the blue arrows indicate the two halves of the beat and point to the counting underneath.
The trumpet notes are of equal length and this is what is known in the pipe band world as round. Notes become pointed when the first note is held longer, thereby forcing the second note to become shorter. Now the time intervals between notes are uneven (long short long short) as in the example below:
Because there is limited space in the "beat box", as the first note expands in length, the second note must shrink. If the second note is not cut short the correct amount, it can spill over into the next beat and the tempo of the bar will be affected (this should not happen!!).
Never Mind the Trumpet, What About Drums?
As drummers, the only sustained sound we can produce is a roll. The majority of our music, however, contains short "taps" that only last a fraction of a second. For this reason, our sense of time and note length must be excellent to prevent the overall tempo of the music from being negatively affected. Here's an example of what the notes of a drum look like inside the "beat box":
The example above shows "round" notes. Notice that the notes occur at regular intervals and the space between each note is the same. If we want to "point" these notes we need to increase the amount of space between the first and second notes of each beat. Similarly, we will have to decrease the amount of space between the second and third notes. This "reorganizing of the space" between notes should continue throughout the entire drum score. As the second note in each "beat box" gets pushed over, the appearance of the notes in the "beat box" changes. In these examples, the blue arrows show the location of the notes relative to the counting below:
These notes are now considered to be pointed.
But wait! Sometimes a request comes in from the pipe major to make the notes even MORE pointed!! All this means is that the second note in each "beat box" gets pushed even more toward the next box. The space between the first and second notes increases and an "extreme pointy-ness" is achieved. This extreme pointing of notes can happen occasionally in the march style but much more often in the 6/8 march and Strathspey styles. Put in the context of the beat box, it would look something like this:
The degree to which the second notes are shoved from round to pointed depends solely on the musical taste and discretion of the musical leaders of the pipe band. The best grade one bands can achieve extreme pointing without affecting the tempo--a skill that takes many years of practice. The most important thing is for a lead drummer to collaborate and rehearse with the pipe major so that the degree of pointing is agreed upon.
A Note About "Swing"
Some people use the term "swing" to describe round styles: "We've got to get that jig to swing!" In musical circles outside the pipe band world, "swing" refers to degrees of what we know of as "pointing". Extremely pointed music is said to "swing hard" in the jazz idiom and round playing is said to be "straight". The only styles that should "swing" in the pipe band idiom are marches, reels, hornpipes, strathspeys and 6/8 marches. When I have heard the word "swing" used in reference to a round style, I take it to mean "groove" or "pocket playing" that results from offbeat syncopation.
Round vs Pointed in the Strathspey Style
The following is a video of one part of strathspey. In the first example, notes are played pointed but the pointing only goes as far as a triplet feel--this would be considered too round of a musical performance for most judges. The strathspey style is one where extreme pointing is encouraged and in the second example, you can hear how the sound of the drum score changes when it is played with a more pointed dotted eighth-note/sixteenth note feel. All of a sudden there is more life in the score, more bounce and more energy.
Don't get discouraged if you can't hear the difference between pointed and round playing at first. Developing the facility to play several degrees of pointing takes many years and a relentless attention to detail. The best thing I ever did to improve my knowledge on the subject was to bring in clinicians to our band that are masters of this concept. I asked many questions and practiced playing different degrees of pointedness on my own. Ask questions, work hard and you'll get there!