BCPA Newsletter editoral from issue 317:
Let's talk about words that begin with "T". "Testosterone",
"Tedious", "Tacky", and "Tempo" are just a few. I'm sure you know many.
Of the five I came up with, the one that jumps out and hits me in the foot
I remember when I first learned how to play jigs, lo these many years ago.
At the time the instructions on tempo were very brief: play as fast as
your fingers will go. Obviously, this was a bit silly as speed alone does
not necessarily correlate to musicality except in the most obvious way - a
jig played at 35 bpm is no longer a recognizably danceable jig, for
example, and fulfills perhaps another musical purpose. Equally, a jig
played at 175 bpm, besides being nearly impossible physically, is not
recognizably a danceable piece of music. Could be quite exciting if a
dancer tried it!
This begs an interesting question: Is there a "right" tempo for
strathspeys, reels, hornpipes, and jigs, all of which are dances? In my
view the answer is a resounding "yes". Or, at least, "yes" to a relatively
small range of tempos which are within the means and should respond to the
needs of the dancer. A good illustration of this can be found on the CD A
High Cut Above, on which music for dancers is played at both "slow" and
"fast" tempos. Interestingly, the difference in these two tempos is really
very small: a "fast" four step jig takes 1 minute 16 seconds to play; a
"slow" jig takes 1 minute and 20 seconds. A "fast" six step fling takes 1
minute 53 seconds; a "slow" one 1 minute 58 seconds.
The main criterion here for establishing the "right" tempo, or range of
tempos, for those tunes which were and are dances is, surely, danceability,
whether there is a dancer physically at hand or not. Too slow and the
dancer (real or virtual) is trying to hang in the air waiting for the next
beat to arrive and tends to look ponderous. Too fast and the dancer
wallops around like a frenzied muskrat on amphetamines. The great piper,
John Wilson, writing in an article that appeared in the B.C. Piper's
Newsletter in 1962 (!), states "I play strathspeys in dance tempo".
Although he does not define his tempo further, and I suspect that back in
1962 tempos for dancers were pretty peppy, there is nevertheless an
implication that there is a "right" tempo for tunes which are dances.
This begs another question: if there is a small range of "right" tempos
for danceable pipe music, is there also a small range of "right" tempos for
Why do we, for example, play 2/4 marches in at least two tempos: one for
band competitions at, say 80 to 82 beats per minute (bpm), and one for solo
competitions at, say, 68 to 70 bpm? A difference of between 10 and 14 bpm
seems a bit beefy, or is that just me?
Power and aggression in marches are desireable. This is what marches are
all about. 68 to 70 seems to be a bit more of a "mosey" than a march, but
is justified on the grounds of "bringing the music out". Playing slowly to
"bring the music out" especially in MSRs, seems to constrain the music
rather than bring it anywhere. Pity, that.
Nevertheless, I feel that we need to work toward putting together both good
execution and tempos which reflect the purpose of the music: dancing,
marching, or even retreating (I've often wondered why so many retreats are
so melodic sounding - guess it has to do with the ¾ time, not the
experience of retreating)? Is choice of tempo a matter of "taste", or
convention, or habit, or expectation, or something else?
What should it be?
Editor, B.C. Pipers Association Communications