Grace notes – those tiny, short notes that give bagpipe music decoration and dynamics – are often overlooked by beginner and intermediate pipers as ‘not that important’.
So does it matter whether you place grace notes in the spot they’re written?
Can anyone actually tell if you play a D grace note instead of an E grace note?
The short answer is… yes.
I’ve listened to a lot of grace notes in my time. I can spot them by eye and by ear.
Grace notes have pitch, just like a melody note. And over time, if you don’t have perfect pitch, you might be able to identify a grace note from its relative pitch to other notes. If you’ve listened to hundreds of thousands of hours listening to practice chanters (instructors and band players listen to a lot of practice chanter playing) you tend to pick this up.
And it surprises a lot of students that experienced pipers can absolutely tell – even when they’re playing at full speed – when they play one in the “wrong” place.
But the reason isn’t necessarily that it’s “wrong” (ie not played as the composer intended) – but more that it’s noticeably out of place from an entire system of grace notes.
The grace note system
When you’re first learning to play, it can seem that composers choose grace notes at random.
Those pesky D and E grace notes, which always seem harder to play, must have just been put there by some sadistic composer to keep us on our toes, right?
But if you pay attention, you’ll start to notice that most bagpipe tunes use the same order of grace notes, usually:
- G grace notes are the most common by far, and generally go on the beat
- D gracenotes generally don’t go on the beat, but often come after a G grace note
- Strikes are then a common grace note choice after a D grace note, where they make sense for a note change to a lower note
- E gracenotes then generally follow a D grace note
- And the list goes on…
So why does pipe music follow this pattern?
If we think about why grace notes would have evolved in the first place, this makes sense.
Logistically, grace notes were likely first used because of their main function – to separate two of the same melody notes. On an instrument with continuous sound like the bagpipes, you need to play a different note quickly to separate two of the same note, because pipers can’t tongue (like other woodwind or brass players) or lift a bow or key (like on string or keyboard instruments) to separate notes.
And it makes sense that the main ‘catch all’ grace note would therefore be the one that you can use to separate the most notes. On bagpipes, this would be the highest note possible – because while strikes can separate notes, a higher note generally involves moving fewer fingers and can cover crossing noises.
So we might think we’d want to use the highest note possible – an A grace note. But it would be very clumsy and awkward if you had to constantly take your thumb off the chanter to play it, because it’s a kind of anchor to balance your chanter.
So the G grace note is the next highest note you could use. And it’s also sounded by lifting your pointer finger, which is one of the stronger fingers on your hand.
The progression of grace notes from there follows a system that is common to 99% of pipe tunes. It likely developed over hundreds of years, and has become a predictable pattern.
Using the grace note system to “compress” tunes
Ever seen a pro-level player who can recall thousands of tunes from memory? You may wonder how it’s even possible to retain that many tunes in one brain!
I believe the main reason is compression. Their brains are capable of retaining that much, in part, because bagpipe music contains so many patterns, which can be automated and drawn on as a collective group, almost subconsciously, when needed.
Such patterns include things like the ‘call and answer’ style of traditional tunes and piobaireachds, or the A-B-A-C pattern of two-bar phrasing in many tunes. It’s also why eventually, many pipers can tell if a tune is a jig, strathspey, or any other idiom based solely on the ‘groove’ of the rhythm.
The “grace note system” is another kind of pattern in piping. And the more you play, the more you realise that this is an unchanging system across most pipe tunes.
And if, for example, you handed a tune to a number of very experienced pipers, you might find that they interpreted it in slightly different ways. But as a general rule, they would always play all of the G grace notes on the beat.
The patterns of the grace note system help make this kind of retention and automation possible.
Grace notes are the percussion of pipe music
Grace notes are also the “percussion” of bagpipe music.
In a band, we can rely on drums for a bass, tenor and snare line, but when we play the pipes themselves, we only have continuous sound. On other instruments, you can stop the sound by tonguing, lifting a bow, or removing your fingers from the keys, you can achieve “percussive” expression (like staccato notes).
When we play the pipes, grace notes perform this function. And when they’re combined with certain melody notes – also in set patterns – they form embellishments, which also play a role.
The order of notes in these embellishments often plays a rhythmic role in music. A composer might write a series of grace notes, like a GDE, to provide not just a percussive sound, but to add to the groove or pattern of the tune in some way.
When this happens, the order is extremely important, as it can either help the tune sound cohesive and convey a musical idea, or sound like a random jumbling of sounds.
So as you can see – the order of grace notes can be very important. It’s intrinsically tied to how bagpipe music developed, and it’s still extremely relevant, both for how we remember and express our music.
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I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on this topic. However, as with everything in piping, there are many schools of thought, and I’d love to hear yours! Leave a comment below to keep the discussion going…