Piobaireachd Information - Ceol Mor or Great Music

Piobaireachd (in Gaelic means Pipe Music) and it is some times referred to as Ceol Mor or the Great Music and some people use “Pibroch” as an alternative spelling. This page provides some interesting insight into the origins of Piobaireachd Terminolgy we use today.

Ceol Mor is a very ancient art form of bagpipe music and its origins seem to be rather obscure. It is thought that by the time the MacCrimmons brought the art form to prominence during the 16th century that Ceol Mor was by then, already very highly evolved and complex as a classical music form. This could indicate that it may have had been in existence for several centuries before. The music is intended for solo performance only.

Broadly speaking bagpipe music can be grouped into three groups;

  1. Ceol Mor — the Great Music: a repertoire consisting of salutes, gathering tunes, marches, laments and brosnachadh.
  2. Ceol Meadhonach — the Middle Music: slow airs and jigs.
  3. Ceol Beag — the Little Music: strathspeys, marches, hornpipes and reels.

Piobaireachd Categories

The subjects of the compositions are quiet varied and normally share a common theme commemorating an event, person or happening in the composers life. Therefore the categories for the Great Music tend to be theme based and not have consistent musical patterns that are common for categorizing other forms of music.

The main categories are:

  • Salutes — tunes that acknowledge a person, event or location.
  • Laments — mourning tunes written for people of note.
  • Gatherings — tunes that where written specifically for a clan.
  • Rowing — these are rhythmic tunes used to encourage rower's rowing a boat.
  • Marches — so called, but in reality not marches as we usually know them in piping.
  • Brosnachadh — call to battle or commemoration.

The Music

The musical structure Ceol Mor focuses on a central theme and its variations. The theme is called urlar, meaning ground or floor. This is the starting point for a tune and is normally played slowly and is usually accentuated with grace and connecting notes. In most cases the variations following the ground involve the use of a number of different musical embellishments, usually starting very simply and progressing through successively more complex movements before returning again to the ground (normally just the first line of the urlar), as in more recent practice. Most Ceol Mor has set patterns/structures akin to poetry that are classified in such a way as to help the performer with phrasing and memorization of the pieces.

Variations after the urlar usually includes a siubhal or dithis (simple divisions of the main theme notes) or both. The variations that are introduced are regular and rhythmic, yet with subtle touches of phrasing. These variations that are introduced increase in tempo and complexity. They are technically more challenging i.e. such as the taorluath that leads into the crunluath which is known as the crowning movement. This may be the final section of the piece, or it may be followed by an even more complex taorluath a-mach or crunluath a-mach segment before returning to the part urlar, or as it used to be not that long ago finishing on the crunluath a-mach. It becomes a matter of choice.

A Few Piobaireachd Tutorials


Light music enjoys huge popularity with the piping and pipe band fraternity, and is much more common than Ceol Mor. However Ceol Mor is still played throughout the world, increasing in numbers every year, perhaps because it provides practicing pipers with an excellent outlet or diversion from the light music. The style and rhythm of Piobaireachd is unlike modern music, it has its own beauty and grace. By learning more about the structure and history of this music, a piping student can more readily appreciate its nuances.

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