The closer we look at anything, or the more familiar we are with it, the more detail and difference we are able to see. If we did not grow up with traditional music all around us we can probably recall a time when it ‘all sounded the same’, but with greater experience we can not only tell tunes apart but keep a large number of them in our memory. We can also distinguish between styles of music - national, regional and even personal. This is all useful and necessary, but there is also something else we can notice, especially if, by looking at the historical record, we can observe the music over a timespan longer than our own lifetime.
All tunes are not equal. This statement will hardly surprise anyone, but beyond the obvious realisation that some tunes are better than others, or more popular than others, or more enduring than others, something else emerges: some tunes are endowed with a power not only to survive but to evolve. They generate different versions, they turn up in different places and become part of the repertoires of different instruments. Locally, some of these tunes become the basis for variation sets, the core of the older piping repertoire.
This virtual collection, covering a timespan of over two centuries of written records, contains many fine examples of these ‘big’ tunes. Of course, the various manuscripts and publications only give us snapshots rather than a full-length biopic, but they still reveal some of the vitality and strength of the tunes. Just a few of them are discussed here, but it is hoped that the ideas presented will spark off further investigations, reflections and insights - and also, of course, that the tunes themselves will be played and appreciated for pure enjoyment.
The discussions of structure are best understood if you are familiar with basic harmony, and will be more meaningful if you can play the tunes with chord accompaniment on guitar or keyboard etc. Although traditional music is melodic, it is also rhythmic and harmonic. Harmonic structure is implied within the melody of many fiddle and pipe tunes, and just as any rock musician knows how to play a 12-bar blues, so the fiddlers and pipers who composed these tunes had their templates or patterns and used them.
It is an interesting question whether this knowledge was conscious or instinctive, but you can form your own opinion on that. More relevant to this study is that, despite the survival of the tunes which it informs, this knowledge has not passed down to the present generation, but it can be recovered from the written record, particularly by ‘reading between the texts’. It is a personal intuition that there is much more to these big tunes than meets the ear: they seem to be composing themselves over the centuries, and we can be spectators to, or even participants in, this work in progress.