Cantaireachd is an archaic musical tradition that employs chanting, or cantaireachd in Scottish Gaelic, as a tool for teaching and learning music. In its traditional form, every note, gracenote, and embellishment has its own "word." Thus, a tune can be passed between teacher and student or musician to musician by singing to one another without writing anything down. After learning a cantaireachd song, a musician can then translate the tune to his instrument. In modern understanding, cantaireachd is bound to highland bagpiping traditions, specifically the piobaireachd / ceol mor. It is often romantically referred to as "the bagpipe language."
Developed during the 16th century and employed well into the 18th century, the impetus behind cantaireachd's development was the lack of widely standardized or accepted staff notation. Combine that with general illiteracy and lack of available media and one can see its value. Cantaireachd's benefits lie not only in this "platform independence" and relative ease for sharing and teaching tunes, but also in how it can be used to demonstrate and introduce expression into the playing of the highland bagpipe. Chanting can really assist the student with learning the feeling and expression of a tune in a way that staff notation cannot.1
Cantaireachd itself was not standardized and families and regions developed different dialects of the method. Today, there are two well-known dialects: the Campbell/Netherlorn Cantaireachd and the MacCrimmon/Gesto Cantaireachd. Unlike other dialects, these two survive today because they were eventually written down by students in the 18th century, allowing modern players, historians, and ethnomusicologists to study and hear tunes that otherwise might have been lost. Indeed, the "nonsense" words in the Netherlorn manuscript were not readily recognized as representing music notation until the 20th Century. Once deciphered, nearly 150 16th, 17th, and 18th century tunes were resurrected.
Let's look at a piece of Donald Mor MacCrimmon's 1610 piece "Cave of Gold." In the Netherlorn method, the tune begins as "Hienodro hiemotro, hienodro dare edre, hienodro hiemotro, hiendre odrorode," while in the MacCrimmon the same phrase is sung as, "Heinbodrie heunbodro, heinbodrie bitri betre, heinbodrie heunbodro, heinbetre odrierarierin."2 One can think of this as ancient Highland Scat.
1. Irish Pipe Band Association, "Review of Whispers of the Past, Andrew Wright," http://www.ipba.ie/reviews/andrewwright.html (Last checked, Oct 2005)
2. The Murray Pipes and Drums of Gothenburg, "Canntaireachd," http://murrays.nu/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=11 (Last checked, Oct 2005)
Andrew Wright, "Whispers of the Past," CD Produced by NORTHERN IRELAND PIPING AND DRUMMING SCHOOL. On this CD Wright sings the theme to the piobaireachd, in cantaireachd form, then performs the translated tune on the highland pipes.