The known history of the Scottish bagpipes goes back about 600 years. Yes that’s all folks. So that means that all those movies like ‘Brave heart’ which date back to centuries before the pipes came to Scotland, incorrectly show scenes including bagpipes.
In any case, in the early days of bagpipe music, most of it was sort of the equivalent of classical music in the European cultures. It was called ‘Ceol Mor’ which meant Major music. The less formal or perhaps one might say, Pop music, which has gained in popularity ever since and is now commonplace is called ‘Ceol Beag’ which means minor music. (Not that Ceol Beag should be scoffed at. Some of it is complex and excellent). Although these were the original Gaelic names for the two music genres, Ceol Mor became better known as Piobaireachd (often simplified incorrectly to Pibroch). I say incorrectly because of the word roots. Piob-air means quite simply, pipe tune. Not sure exactly what the eachd suffix means but it recurs in another interesting word which I will now explain. Apart from being played on the Great Highland Bagpipes, this music can be sounded by the human voice. In that case, instead of calling it Piobaireachd, the first part of the word changes from Piob to Cannt which clearly means voice tune. (Chant, cant, cantata etc. Also the part of the pipes that sings is called the chanter.) In other words if we replace the Piob in Piobaireachd with Cannt, we get Canntaireachd. This is indeed what the sung version of Piobaireachd is called and it can be performed as a sort of acapella performance or sung as an accompaniment to the pipes. Now the sounds made in singing canntaireachd are not random but very specific. Each sound indicates the fingering that is used when playing the piece on the pipes. So when canntaireachd is sung it has the tune of the music and also tells the piper how it must be played. It is music in its own right but is also used as a way a piper can remember a tune to play it from memory on the pipes. When pipe music was first played, the modern musical stave and notation had not yet been invented. So it was mainly passed on verbally although a few people actually wrote down the Canntaireachd words as a form of musical notation.
Here is a link to a short Piobaireachd, played on the pipes, but simultaneously sung as canntaireachd. The scenery in this clip is also superb and the words of the chant are superimposed on the scenery so you can see how they are written.
Piobaireachd tunes are written onto musical staves using special symbols to describe special timings etc. but it is not possible to fully capture Piobaireachd in this manner. So modern stave notation is only a guide and allows a lot of room for self-interpretation. No two pipers will play a Piobaireachd exactly the same way and the same piper may also play it differently on different occasions. The same air can be played sadly or happily etc. depending on circumstances. The chief or whatever might summons his piper and ask for melancholy music or whatever. You may remember the words of ‘Green Hills’ (Scottish soldier) which say “He called his piper, his trusty piper, and bad him sound the lay of Piobaireachd hard to play”. Those were the request of a dying man and the Piobaireachd would have been played as it says, as a lay.
The first part of the tune is called ‘The ground’ and the tune is usually quite simple and always played slowly. But although simple, even the ground uses rhythms that are not heard in any other music, bagpipes or any other. There is for example a thing called an echo-beat where a quick grace note is inserted between two melody notes but then followed by an extended echo of the same grace note. The ground consists of three or four lines of music after which it is played over and again but each time with different added embellishments. (A bit like the Baroque that developed later in other parts of Europe). Each embellishment (also called rudiments) becomes more complex and the piper is encouraged to express himself uniquely. After the last embellishment is played, the simple ground is played once more and the audience know that the piece is coming to an end. Not all possible embellishments are played in each rendering and a Piobaireachd can run for anything between 10 and 30 minutes. This is quite challenging for the piper and of course, if he is not good, for the audience as well.