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The development of Scottish Dance music

from the 18th century to the present day

and an analysis of its characteristics.

1745 marks a watershed in Scottish dance music. After the Jacobite uprising the music and culture of the Highlands went into decline because the playing of Scottish traditional instruments, the wearing of the kilt and the clan system were outlawed. However, in the North East Scottish dance music flourished from about 1750. This centred around a renewed interest in fiddle playing which was spearheaded by players and composers such as MacPherson and Gow. Before the turn of the century the appearance of King George IV in Edinburgh decked in full Highland reagalia marked a relaxation of these repressive measures. Scottish dance music was reborn.

Historical Background


Scotland was originally divided into five kingdoms which were united around the ninth century by Kenneth MacAlpin, the King of Dahlriada, an Irish settlement around Argyle. They became the dominant people and brought from Ireland their language and culture. The Anglo-Saxons around Berwickshire were a minority and had little influence on Scottish culture at this time. However under King Malcolm Ceanmor (c.11) the English dominance grew in the lowlands of the south and east (which is why they now speak Scottish rather than the Gaelic) and English culture fused with that of the native Celts. Highlanders were largely unaffected and their language, culture and even faith was different to the Lowlanders from the 16th century. (See Appendix A for further detail the development of the Scottish nation). The music and dances developed independently in the regions of Scotland.

1.2 Scottish Music and Musical Instruments: The factors influencing different stages of development

Dance song

Dance song in Medieval Europe was the remnant of old pagan rituals, originally sung by the dancers in communal gatherings. This is assumed to be the case in Scotland especially due to the evidence available from the later Medieval manuscripts. The song was in call and response style and usually in the Germanic vernacular (though sometimes in the Gaelic)[see appx 2]

The dance was usually in the form of a ring around a tree or object of veneration and the song was begun by the leader, with the rest following in turn with the chorus. One such song was as follows:

“There were three ladies lived in a bower,

Eh, wow bonnie,

And they went out tae pu’ a flower

On the bonie banks o’ Fordie”

Dance and song were closely linked in Medieval society, with little reason to suspect that it had ever been different, and took a long time to die out. In the sixteenth century formal court the slower dances were often accompanied by the dancers singing. The dances themselves are thought to have symbolised certain subjects, like spirituality, courtship or warfare. There is evidence to support this: warriors in ninth century illuminations are pictured carrying out the actions of fighting but in fact not fighting, with sword and shield to the music of the horn or the bagpipe. Today in modern Scottish Highland Dancing there is the famous sword dance danced to the mouth music of Gillie Callum, which is quite obviously a war dance, and is in fact a victory dance.

The reel dances of the Scottish Gaelic tradition even today are sometimes danced to mouth-music or puirt-a-buel. Mouth music doesn t mean song; it is rather a use of the voice to represent instrumental music, though it includes words, suggesting that it began after the introduction of instrumental music. According to Emmerson ethno-musicologists have found that most primitive peoples regard the melody of a song and its words as inseparable.

Puirt-a-buel, therefore, seems to be the product of a primitive impulse to associate all music with at least uttered syllables, whether nonsensical or otherwise. Assuming that this is the case it is quite amazing to find it still present in Scottish culture. Popularly it is believed puirt-a-buel originated from after 1746 when instruments in the Highlands were banned. I myself have a Highland Dancing teacher who sometimes provides puirt-a-buel. Also the Gaelic society holds ceilidhs in Edinburgh where I danced with my brother. The music was puirt-a-buel, provided by a certain Hugh MacLeod formerly of the Isle of Lewis. Until recently I have found that the knowledge of puirt-a-buel is confined to people of the War-time generation. However, about two years ago in the Edinburgh Celtic festival I went to a concert by a Celtic Rock group called Mac-talla. Their repertoir included puirt-a-buel, it s interesting to see how it is used in a modern band).

Fiddle (famous Fiddlers-composers, violin development in usage through time),

The fiddle is one of the most important instruments in Scottish dance music. Opinions about its origins differ and it is not at first clear what the difference is between a fiddle and a violin. Originally there was a difference of some sort (see appendix C) but in the mid 18th century the violin became adopted by fiddle makers and the only difference since then has really been the style of music played on the instrument and not the instrument itself. The dictionary defines it as a violin played as a folk instrument .

The cradle of the Scottish fiddle is reputed to be the north east of Scotland, home of the musical form strathspey (thought to have started in the district of Strathspey). There is also a strong Highland tradition of fiddle music, but for one reason or another it was strongest in the north east. The strathspey became popular and it characterises Scottish dance music played by the fiddle and is used in Highland and Country dance. However, its repertoire does not stop there.

Country-dances, reels, jigs as well as strathspey dances are all accompanied by fiddle, as originally the dance-masters often provided the accompaniment on the fiddle, dances thus became centred around the solo fiddle (at least in the Lowlands).

Traditionally to provide more volume two fiddles would play in unison with each other. Then there could be a band consisting of two fiddles with a cello providing the rudiments of a bass harmony, based around the tonic and the dominant. Some have described the cello part as a kind of accented drone. However it is probable that these ensembles brought about the first harmonisation of Scottish dance music. Its rhythm was regular, indeed it was there more to provide a steady beat than a melody. Today it is more common to find the second violin replaced by an accordian which has a greater harmonic effect, and recently the bodhran drum has been added for a steady beat.

Important composers were Neil Gow (1727-1807), James Scott Skinner (1845-1927), and William Marshall 1748-1833. William Marshall was the first composer of strathspeys, described by Burns as the finest composer of straphspeys of the age . In all he wrote 252 melodies. He was a very able fiddler, and ranked as one of the best. He is characterised by his preference for flat keys, usage of wide intervals and his extensive compass of times signatures (eg.)



Scott Skinner was a fiddle player, dance master and composer of at least 600 pieces. His strathspeys and reels are widely known but his style is most vividly reflected in his airs and pastorals. Due to his classical education under Charles Rougier his music is very technical and well written.


Bagpipes (origins, development, techniques, use in society)

The music of the bagpipes is divided into two main types, Ce l-M r (Great Music) and Ce l-Beag (see appendix D1 and 2 for origins). Ceol-Mor does not include dance music so I did not include it here (see appendix D3)

Ce l-Beag has a variety of lighter types of music including common types of Highland dance music such as the reel, strathspey and jig with which this project is most concerned. Apart from these two main types another which is sometimes mentioned is Ce l-Meadhonach or middle-music , neither great or small. It is used to describe the performing of song tunes, lullabies and sung laments such as Cr Chinn t-S ile . Similar to Pibroch (see Appendix D3)

Clan Chiefs of the Highlands had hereditary pipers and skills and traditions tended to differ from clan to clan. One of the earliest recorded and most famous hereditary family of pipers were the MacCrimmons, who were pipers for the MacLeans on the Isle of Skye. This family started and ran the famous college of Piping, Borraig, Isle of sky, which collected together the different pipe tunes present in the Highlands and Islands. This helped the bagpipes to survive the twenty year ban of Highland culture in 1746 and its replacing of the Clarsach. If it wasn t for the MacCrimmons and their influence over many other schools of piping helped bag pipe music and it s use in Scottish Dance Music it is doubtful whether it would have survived and come to its pre-dominance now in dance and other styles of folk music. The Bag pipe, so I ve been told by older colleagues, became popular as a dance music instrument largely due to the Highland Games dance competitions. As they are usually held out-doors it is necessary for a louder sound to be made than that which a fiddle or dance band can create, therefore the bag-pipes are now very important in dance music and have been for at least 100 years. This is especially so because bagpipe and pipe band competitions are standard in Highland Games. Ce l-Beag therefore includes many pieces rearranged for the bag pipe from original fiddle tunes and puirt-a-buel as we can see in the following examples:





Cr Chinn t-S ile, like the dance forms of Ce l-Beag, has an eclectic tradition and much of the pieces which experts say have been composed for the clarsach can be found in this branch of bagpipe music.


English and European musical and instrumental influences (inc. French Court Music?)

Oboes were occasionally used in place of fiddles: David Young’s dancing-instruction manuscript 1740 was “adapted to the Violin, or Hautboy”. There is an account book of Lady Baillie’s (1710) which records payments “to the ho boys” [oboes] and “to the fiddlers”. The Edinburgh Dance Assembly s residential musicians in 1746 included four violins, two oboes and one bassoon. It is likely that the music provided would be harmonised and classicalised to suit the richest dance establishment in the country. Before the introduction of the violin and the other typical instruments of the classical period, viols were in common use in upper society music. They had six strings and a range of three sizes, bass, tenor and treble. It was common for well to do families in the Lowlands to employ at dances and social events a sextet of Viols two basses, two tenor and two trebles. Often viols were kept domestically in a so called Chest of Viols.

Do study on music of the different regions taking into consideration tonality, rhythm, styles i.e. strathspey and reel, tempo, cadence.

Effect of Isolation – differences between Highland and Lowland music and dance – (plus the time of development )

Portray the banning of Scottish music after 1746 e.g. end of the filidh and chief’s pipers (exceptions) such as McColls and adoption of pipers into the army and reaction of the people.

The Church at various points has variously supported and persecuted different types of music at different times. For example the Catholic church believed that God should be worshipped using beautiful music, such as accapella, plain chant and other serious or classical sorts of music. The Protestants in Scotland inherently hated classical music because they believed it represented those pillars of the old Catholic society they wanted to get rid of.

It turned out, however, that the reformation proved to be the biggest set back for Scottish dance music, especially in the south. The Kirk proclaimed that music was banned Sunday as it distracted people from their duty of prais to God; Sunday was the only day that most had for enjoyment. The people s dislike for this law can be seen in the title of such dance tunes as De il tak the minister .

There is, paradoxically, a dance and tune that came about thanks, indirectly, to the church. The Reel of Tulloch is a distinctive and flamboyant Highland dance. It originated from the village of Tulloch when the congregation were waiting outside in the winter cold for the priest who failed to arrive for service. The people started to dance and presumably an instrumentalist was present to provide the music.

Apart from this case the Church served to dissipate dance in the Lowlands at least until the country dance movement in the 18th century spearheaded by the gentry.

There have been various attempts to clarify what in fact makes scottish music. The first in1721 by Alexander Malcolm was a failure. Then came Finlay Dun s Analysis of Scottish Music .

According to Emmerson the pentatonic scale, which is most commonly associated with Scottish folk music, is older than the actual existence of Celts in the British Isles, meaning from the the time of the megalithic people. The tradition of pentatonicism is particularly strong in the music of the Western Isles. A pentatonic scale is composed of five notes usually leaving aside the fourth and seventh of the conventional octave scale. This relates it to the Ionian, Mixolydian and Lydian modes. This would mean that in the scale of C-major F would be missed out and also B. The pentatonic tradition is considered to be very strong in Scotland, weaker in Ireland and virtually non-existent in England and Wales. Maybe the reason for it being so strong in the Hebrides is the fact that until the beginning of this century the people lived very much as they had done since the early Iron Age. This does not mean to say, however, that it is possible to destinguish how ancient a tune is by whether or not it is pentatonic. Two well-known pentatonic tunes are Invercauld s reel and Whistle o er the lave o t .

There are other versions of pentatonic scales which can be found pieces. These are based on the scale I have just described but they involve the inversion of the scale from the first inversion as described to the fifth inversion. The second note of the first position, for example would become the first note of the scale and the previous tonic note taken to the top of the scale. Consequently the note gaps are now the third and sixth of the scale rather than the fourth and seventh (see below for the five inversions).

The six note hexatonic scale can leave out either the seventh of the conventional tonic scale (which would relate it to the Mixolydian and Iolian modes), or the third (which would relate it to Dorian Mode). Since in the pentatonic scale of the first position the gaps are minor thirds, this would mean that any note filling this gap would be preceded by a semi-tone step and two full tones after; or alternatively being proceeded by two full tones and a semi-tone step being between it and the next note. This creates, like the pentatonic scale, its own distinctive flavour. Also as with the pentatonic scale the are different positions and Scottish tunes can be found on all sixteen hexatonic scales.

It is thought to be a development from the more famous pentatonic scale. A piece written using this scale is Ca the Yowes .

The seven note scale is the next logical step in the evolution of Scottish music. In scottish music, despite there being a great many seven note scales that could be in theory formed using various possible permutations with their inversions. Despite this in Scottish folk music these seven note scales are limmited to seven variations which corespond to the seven possible inversions of the major scale. This is the heptatonic scale in its first form showing the first gap to be filled in with a semi-tone step from the previous not and the second gap with a tone step:

This is the ordinary form of the major scale.

The seven scales which are formed by the inversions correspond exactly to the seven Church modes. The church has other theories for the development of the modes, however the modes are very important when classifying Scottish folk music.

To begin with we have the Ionian mode which is C-major found in such Scottish airs as My love is but a lassie yet and The Birks of Invermay . When this scale is inverted the scale resulting starts on D, it is called the Dorian mode. This mode is rare in Lowland music but common in Gaelic music. The following a Gaelic song in the Dorian mode transposed into the second inversion of F major.

The second inversion of the C-major scale begins on E. This forms the Phrygian mode. As it is similar to E -minor I have put a natural sign by the F. There are some Scottish tunes in this mode, such as Auld Robin Gray .

The next inversion forms the Lydian mode which begins on F. This particular mode exists in both Lowland and Highland melodies. It is rather rare though and Collinson could only find two examples of this mode in a waulking-song-type of tune Smi m shuidh air cragan a Chiuil :

A further inversion creates the Mixolydian mode which has a G-major feel but with a naturalised seventh or minor seventh. Transposed up a tone this is the scale of the Scottish Highland bagpipe. This is a typical mixolodian Scottish bagpipe tune A Shean Bhean Bhochd :

The next inversion takes us to the Aeolian mode starting on A in this form and exactly the same as the A-minor scale. This is one of the commonestseven note scales in Scottish song. Its characteristic minor key is similar to that of the Dorian and Phrygian modes, but it has a major second and a minor sixth. The Laird of Cockpen is a typical Aeolian Scots tune:

The final mode is the Locrian mode. This was a modified mode in Church modes due to its imperfect fifth and as a mode it was only theoretical. Despite this there does exist at least one Scottish tune which is The Souters of Selkirk . However, alowing for the cadence on B the melody is in the key of C-major. Even then the ending on B sounds more like it is ending on an imperfect cadence, i.e. on the seventh of the key of C.

Following on from the subject of cadences it is a fact that most folk music of Europe ends on a perfect cadence so as to establish the key note. This is not always the case in Scottish folk music which makes it fairly unusual, there are numerous examples of the melody key and scale not being so definable to be able to correctly call the ending note the key note or final note of the mode. A prime example of this is the famous tune The Campbells are Comin :

If the last note is taken as the final mode note then it would be in the Phrygian mode. However there are no Phrygian mode characteristics. The Phrygian mode has a minor feel and this piece is definately major.

The Scots Snap is one of the characteristics of Scottish music which is most widely known along with the pentatonic scale. However, as in the case of the pentatonic scale the Scots snap is only one aspect of rhythm in the music. The snap, as can be seen in the analysis, is most often found in the Strathspey style of dance music but it also occurs in every other form of Scottish music. This rhythm starts on a semi-quaver going to a dotted note: or alternatively from a shorter note like a demi-semi-quaver to a longer note like a double dotted quaver like the following.

There is controversy surrounding the use of the Scots snap, some such as the Groves Dictionary of Music saying that if it is not in the Strathspey, Reel or Gaelic vocal music it is not original. Collins says in answere to this that due to the lack of musical manuscript before the 18th century such a statement cannot be substantiated – especially since early manuscript was written for court instruments like the lute to which the snap rhythm was alien and other such un-folk-like instruments. In fact Collins would go as far as to say that the snap is, the very lifeblood of Scots musical rhythm, in both instrumental and and vocal music. This seems to be especially the case in Gaelic vocal music

Burns, himself an expert on Scottish music and song realised the importance and significance of the Scots snap shown by his putting words to the tune of Invercauld s Reel, where the natural rhythm of the speachexactly marked the musical snap:

The movement against the Scots snap was, at the time when Collins was writing, institutionalised e.g. competition manuscripts in Gaelic and Scots song are liable to have the Scots snap tastefully ironed out.

This is especially bad if the competitor had learned the pieces orally. Amy Murray, a reliable collector of Gaelic song found that a tune that she learned as a child in South Uist was bastardised in the competition version and she wrote down both versions as a comparison:

Scots snap may actually be linked to Gaelic intonation and syllablic structure. This is a field which has been studied but I have not been able to obtain much information about this idea. There is mention of William Matheson, Lecturer in Celtic in Edinburgh, who says that the Scots snap may not be so typical of Gaelic vocal music because in some cases there is an unnatural shortening and lengthening of syllabic values. If this is so, why is it common especially in Gaelic music (if we are to assume Emmerson and Collinson are correct)?

By straight rhythm is an uncomplicated rhythm in a tune which is composed of notes of mostly the same, regular time value such as quavers or semi-quavers.

We can see from The analysis of the four Scottish danced study which I completed that straight rhythm is most commonly seen in the reel genre of Scottish dance music throughout Scotland (excluding Perth for which I have notsources). This makes the music more flowing which directly relates to the actual reel dances that I know, which involve the movement of four dancers in a flowing traveling style creating, roughly, a figure of eight. It is often found in jigs, sometimes in Hornpipes and from my information I would deduce that it is never found in the strathspey. It does not show in the analysis but from several Aural sources it is probably rights to say that reels are usually fast which seems to go hand in hand with the rhythm as a simpler, uncomplicated rhythm would be preferable when playing fast to a more complicated scots snap rhythm (though the snap does appear in conjunction straight rhythm).

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