Pipe band drumming music is almost impossible to read. In fact, it is not only hard to read but, to anyone unfamiliar with the style, it is completely inaccessible. I have been trying to figure it out for the last 30 years and it has been a long and frustrating process. When I first joined a pipe band at the age of fifteen I was handed a piece of music that looked something like the example below. It was a bunch of notes all joined together by a single beam. There was a time signature but no bar lines. Thankfully I was also handed a cassette tape with a recording. I used the written music to figure out my rights and lefts but I learned the rhythms from the recording. I wanted to use the written music but I couldn't make any sense of it. It was then that I began my quest to learn how to read and write pipe band music and it took me many years to figure it out!
In the pipe band drumming idiom, what you see is NOT what you get. A large majority of our music is merely a representation or suggestion of the rhythms we play and cannot be explained using conventional music theory. In the chart below are three rhythms from three separate styles of pipe band drumming. These rhythms are all played the same way but are written differently depending on the style being played. To be clear: this doesn't happen in ANY other style of Western music including jazz, classical or the many forms of popular music. In EVERY other style of music, the rhythm that's written is the rhythm that is played.
When I began my tenure as lead drummer of Dartmouth and District I was determined to teach the students in our organization to read. However, before I could accomplish this goal I needed to understand the music myself and, admittedly I was struggling to do so. The drum scores could not be broken down using classical music theory. I needed to find another solution. To start the process I drew on inspiration from another aspect of my education as a classical percussionist at Acadia University. In my first week at Acadia my professor handed me Louis Bellson's book "Modern Reading Text in 4/4". I spent many nights in a practice room counting the rhythms of the book out loud using "1 e & a 2 e & a", "1-trip-let 2-trip-let" and "1-a-trip-a-let-a 2-a-trip-a-let-a". Using the rhythm syllables improved my reading abilities immensely. Even though the syllables I used with Bellson's book didn't translate exactly to the pipe band drumming idiom, they did inspire me to create my own set of rhythm syllables specifically for pipe band drummers. This web based reading system is finally available (complete with detailed theory and audio examples) for free at PipeBandDrummer.com. Click on the link below to start your reading journey:
"The Bare Bones" is a collection of exercises designed to teach drummers how to read and interpret the rhythms of pipe band drumming. These reading exercises are divided into five groups: The 2/4 March, The Round Reel, The Jig, The 6/8 March and The Strathspey. Each group contains its own unique set of rhythm syllables complete with audio examples and related theory. The syllables used in each style are designed to be played exactly as they are said.
Some might ask why I chose the name "The Bare Bones" for this reading course. In my opinion, the two most important elements of the pipe band drumming style are the unique rhythms we use and our complex sticking patterns. These two elements form the foundation, or "skeleton", upon which everything we play is built. Therefore, in order to read a pipe band drum score, a drummer must have a good understanding of how to read both rhythms and sticking patterns simultaneously. That is why, in "The Bare Bones", I have isolated these two elements enabling drummers to hone their reading skills with minimal distractions. Flams, drags, rolls and dynamics have all been removed leaving only the "bare bones" of our music.