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What Is a Pipes and Drums Band?

Pipes and drums bands feature bagpipers and several different types of drums.
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  • Written By: Laura Metz
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2014
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A pipes and drums band is a musical group composed of bagpipers, Highland snare drums, tenor drums, and bass drums. Originally these bands were military organizations used to mark time for marching and for signaling commands. Since the early 1900s, most pipes and drums bands perform primarily for competitions, parades, and social functions.

The bagpipe is a reed instrument with a double-reed chanter for fingering different notes and a few single-reed drones which each play a single pitch throughout the song. In a pipes and drums band, the bagpipers typically begin by playing the melody in unison, under the leadership of the pipe major. Later, some pipers may play a harmony or a countermelody, while others repeat the melody.

Within the drum section, the highest pitch and most complicated rhythm belongs to the Highland snare drums, while the bass drums have the lowest pitch and usually the most basic rhythms. In between are tenor drums, where each drummer plays a set of drums, each with a specific pitch. During many songs, the drum major plays a rhythm and the rest of the section responds or repeats it, using a common technique known as seconds or chips,

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Traditional Celtic tunes compose the majority of the repertoire for most pipes and drums bands. Many of these songs have written music only for the bagpipes, so the drum major composes a drum score to fit the music and the band’s capabilities. In the twentieth century, some musicians composed other works specifically for the pipes and drums band, such as Don Thompson’s suite Journey to Skye.

For many pipes and drums bands, the visual performance is as important as musical. Members typically wear kilts with specially chosen tartans. Drummers, especially those on tenor drum, often twirl their sticks in unison while playing, or create a ripple effect by drumming twirling one after another.

Pipes and drums bands were established as military organizations by the early 1600s, for the purpose of keeping rhythm when marching and signaling troop movements. Throughout the twentieth century, many municipal police and fire departments began their own pipes and drums band. While these groups perform at parades, fundraisers, and other public events, they are often best known for playing at funerals, particularly for those killed in the line of duty.

Most pipes and drums bands participate in a variety of competitions, often regulated by the area’s Pipe Band Association. The Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association holds the World Pipe Band Championship yearly in Glasgow, Scotland. Established in 1930, this championship is considered the highest honor a pipes and drums band can receive.

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