What Is a Pipes and Drums Band?

Bagpipers, Highland snare drums, tenor drums, and bass drums are all part of a pipes and drums band. These bands were originally military organizations that used to keep time for marching and signaling commands. Most pipes and drums bands have been performing primarily for competitions, parades, and social functions since the early 1900s.

The bagpipe is a reed instrument with a double-reed chanter for fingering various notes and a few single-reed drones that each play one pitch throughout the song. The bagpipers in a pipes and drums band usually start playing the melody in unison, under the direction of the pipe major. Some pipers may later play a harmony or countermelody, while others repeat the melody.

Highland snare drums have the highest pitch and most complicated rhythms within the drum section, while bass drums have the lowest pitch and most basic rhythms. Tenor drums are used in between, with each drummer playing a set of drums with a different pitch. Using a technique known as seconds or chips, the drum major plays a rhythm and the rest of the section responds or repeats it during many songs.

For most pipes and drums bands, traditional Celtic tunes make up the majority of their repertoire. The drum major composes a drum score to fit the music and the band’s capabilities because many of these songs have written music only for the bagpipes. Some musicians composed works specifically for the pipes and drums band in the twentieth century, such as Don Thompson’s suite Journey to Skye.

The visual performance of many pipes and drums bands is just as important as the musical performance. Kilts with specially chosen tartans are typically worn members. Drummers, particularly those on the tenor drum, frequently twirl their sticks in unison while playing, or create a ripple effect twirling their sticks one after the other.

By the early 1600s, military pipe and drum bands had been established for the purpose of keeping marching rhythm and signaling troop movements. Many municipal police and fire departments formed their own pipes and drums bands during the twentieth century. While these groups perform at parades, fundraisers, and other public events, they are best known for playing at funerals, especially for those who have been killed in the line of duty.

Most pipe and drum bands compete in a variety of competitions, which are often governed the Pipe Band Association in the area. The World Pipe Band Championship is held every year in Glasgow, Scotland, the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association. This championship, which dates back to 1930, is considered the highest honor a pipe and drums band can receive.