Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Problem With Three-Fours

Waltzes are favorites the world over, especially such popular selections as, “The Blue Danube,” “Tales From The Vienna Woods,” and “Wine, Women and Song. ” By their compelling rhythm, they can send a dancing couple twisting and turning most gracefully ’round and about the ballroom dance floor.

What would happen to our sense of rhythm if any of these familiar tunes were altered to shift the beat to the introductory note?  Could a dancing couple continue swirling to the uplifting beat of the 3-quarter note rhythm?  Of course not!  It would cause outright confusion!  Such is absolutely the case with most of our pipe tunes in 3/4 time, namely, retreats.  For some unknown reason, the majority of these tunes have been written as if they had no introduction.  One is to begin playing without any feeling, expression or meaning, simply by attacking the first note of the introduction as if it should have the emphasis of the first beat of the tune, -which it doesn’t.  An instructor will advise his or her students saying, “play the way the notes have been written and don’t question why the bars are where they are.”  One is told, “That is the way composers wrote them, and that’s the way we pipe-majors say these tunes are to be played, regardless of what you think about the inaccuracy.  Besides, many of our band pipers are too old to change the way they’ve been playing!”

Music in three-quarter time includes waltzes, retreats and some hymns.  The most familiar of all hymns in 3/4 time is certainly “Amazing Grace.”  Now, even that beautiful hymn has been adulterated and made to suffer from having been poorly rearranged for pipe bands.  The introductory note has been made the first note of emphasis for the hymn.   One just steps off with the left foot on the first note.  It “shivered my timbers” to see The Black Watch out of step on this hymn.  It is written correctly below.

Settings of well-known retreats written by conscientious regimental pipers for pipe bands have been accepted as standard.  For the sake of accuracy, and to produce the best sounding music, correction should be made in nearly all of these retreats, to make their introductions specific.  There must also be a first and second ending; the first one having a half note and two eighth notes of the introduction, with the second ending having a dotted half note, to finish the tune with three beats.

Consider for example, “The Green Hills of Tyrol,” keeping the words in mind while playing.  Listen as you play the words of the second verse- “Because those green hills are not Highland hills.” The first three words, played by the two introductory notes are an introduction, and this puts the natural emphasis on “green hills,” on the left foot.  In the generally played version of the tune, a piper will be on the right foot for “green,” not the left.  Automatically, the soloist or a whole pipe band is out of step!  This does not produce an acceptable performance and it is quite disconcerting to pipers who know the difference!  In a conversation with a concert trumpet player, he agreed by saying, “It would drive us musicians nuts!”

One should begin “The Green Hills of Tyrol” by playing the introductory notes on the right foot and leading off with the left, on “C.”  This makes a considerable difference in the feeling when playing the tune!  When completing the tune, it’s natural and correct, to hold the last note for 3 beats.  The music is usually written with 2 beats given to the last note, while it is correct to play three, with that last note being the only one in the bar.

The same analysis holds true in starting “When the Battle’s O’er,” and the words can be used as a guide.  From there on, the 3/4 time feeling of the tune falls into place, which causes one to emphasize the beat.  A piper should have the feeling of holding the notes that require emphasis on the left foot.

Several three-four tunes, now my favorites, offered no sense of satisfaction at one time, simply because they were not started correctly and could not be given the correct expression.  “Marche du Petre,” for example, written with one introductory note, actually requires three introductory notes.  They are counted out, “and three and one”  “One” will be the first beat in the bar, the quarter note, “F.”

Other familiar three-fours as examples, should be corrected.  They are, “Heroes of Oosterbeek,” “Castle Dangerous,” “The Dream Valley of Glendaruel,” “Pipe Major J. K. Cairns,” “My Land” and “Balmoral.”  There are many more.  They will sound better and pipers will enjoy them once they are played with these changes in mind.

It would be lovely to have a book “Retreats, Waltzes and Other Three-Fours” to contain corrected music for all 3/4 time tunes written for bagpipes, all neatly standardized for pipe bands.  For now, pipers should be satisfied to have a few of their most familiar and favorite retreats arranged so they can be enjoyed and played compatibly with other bands and within medleys.  Pipers will become mindful of how retreats should be played, and be able to correct the ones with which they are familiar.  It should be noted that the last bar should consist of one note that requires 3 beats and it should not be cut off with only two.

This article’s mission will have been accomplished when both old and new retreat compositions, along with hymns in 3/4 time, are played with the correct “Three-quarter time feel,” and pipers will be marching with emphasis on the left foot.  Other objectives of this Blog, “Piping With A Purpose,” will have been met in the same way.

I encourage you to make the adjustment in playing music in 3/4 time, using introductions where they are intended.  You will enjoy them immensely.


  1. I've only just stumbled on your 3/4 post from a year ago. I'm afraid we are voices crying in the wilderness on this one. However, I make a point of writing out the tunes correctly, with an upbeat, when the chance arises.

    Of course, the problem's always been there with piping notation: look at just about every transcription of piobaireachd. I suppose one can argue, "Well, we know how is should sound, so what's written on the page doesn't matter too much if the tune is OK." It still seems daft not to get it right in the straightforward case of a 3/4 march.

  2. Thanks Lochiel, for your comment. It's good to know another piper who sees the fault in writing and playing retreat marches. If pipe-majors were convinced of the necessity to look constructively at the music and have their bands play according to the down-beat, we would accomplish a big improvement in the playing of 3/4's.

    I noted a pipe-major training his band in the "attack" for the retreat, "The Green Hills." Starting with the drums playing the rolls, he would bring his hand down on the first note of the tune, and all the pipers would come in together; only they'd all begin out of step because he had put the down-beat on the introduction. He would have done correctly to have omitted the two beginning notes and brought his hand down on C, making it as it should be, the beginning note of the bar. Alternatively, he could have had the band play the introduction as two sixteenth notes, rather than two eighth notes. C would still be played on the down-beat.

    Conceivably, the pipe-major had been a bandsman from a band that had won the world-championship years before. It goes to show how this problem with 3/4's has been traditionally ignored.

    To improve the playing of retreats universally, it needs to begin with a few convinced, persuasive and dedicated pipe-majors who will teach their bands the correct way.

  3. Hello there, Last night I was having this very conversation with my friend who is a very experienced Pipe Major and saying to him that the drummers are accenting the wrong beat in the bar. They were putting the bass drum on beat 3 rather than beat 1 according to my ears. He then said they weren't and showed me the music that he himself had written out. Well, I just had to tell him that it has been written out wrong and that the tune (The Battle's o'er) had an anacrusis, a lead in the bar so the tune starts on the strong beat, The left foot in a marching band. We then checked on the internet to see how everyone else had written it and of course, every version we found was the same. I found this very hard to understand but gave way thinking that you can't argue with tradition but pointed out that if these tunes /lyrics were part of the grade II (Elementary) theory of music exam, you would fail! Incredible to think that this has been ignored for so long by some obviously quite distinctive musicians.

  4. Hi Lee, Thank you for your comments on how to begin playing a 3/4 retreat. I'm glad you had the opportunity to speak to your friend, the P/M, who has been under the impression that the music written for 3/4's has to have been correct because that is the way it was written in so many music books and on the Internet too. A sensible piper would feel the pulse of the music as he was learning it and realize where the downbeats occured and would even rewrite the music regardless of where he picked up the music. Playing solo, he or she would naturally play according to the pulse or beat and then find that the same tune, when played in the band would be started differently. There had to be an error either in his judgement or in that of his P/M. Usually, one finds it impossible to correct a P/M especially if he or she has had years of experience and tradition. One can only expect an altercation. However, this is serious indeed, because to start a retreat that leads to another time signature in a medley, automatically puts the whole band into the position of being out of step, and the band will look awkward.

    Here's the solution. Don't start the drum roll exactly as you would for a 2/4 or a 6/8 march, which is to begin the roll on the left foot. Begin the roll for a retreat such as "The Green Hills of Tyrol," or "When the Battle's O'er" on the right foot. Then, one will not have to modify the introductory notes. They will be given their proper amount of time. One does not have to eliminate the two introductory notes either. The P/M simply has to announce to the drum section that we will be playing a medley of three-fours. You and I may be considered to be the only two pipers who are out of step. However, when intelligent teachers of the bagpipes, who know how to read music instead of playing as they may have been taught or how these tunes are played from a traditional standpoint, we will have made a big correction that should have been made long ago. You made headway in discussing this serious problem. I sincerely hope you and your friend the P/M will continue to be the best of friends. You will both have made a big breakthrough, and your pipe band will appreciate your ability and that of your P/M, to make improvements without thinking you've won or lost an argument

  5. I've been saying this for decades. I come from a background of "you can only play a tune if you can sing it"; and the amount of bands and soloists playing pop songs that aren't recognizable because they never bothered to sing along to their sheet music is embarrassing. The amount of pipers who play their tunes wrong because they were never taught to sing their music is a billion times worse.

    The most infuriating part of all this is I was recently beaten in a tune writing contest by a 3/4 written with the pulse on the wrong notes.

  6. Is there a way to see this in practice? I get the concept but would love to see a video showing the example.