The Scottish Fiddler as Bimusical

Playing ‘by ear’ is and always has been a common approach to the performance of Scottish fiddle music: the fiddler who is able to take to the stage without music books makes an excellent impression, and the assertion that ‘you cannae take a music stand into a pub’ really emphasises the dynamism and spontaneity of pub music sessions. Indeed, this image of the Scottish fiddler is so popular that many people are surprised to learn of the extensive catalogue of printed Scottish fiddle music which goes back to the seventeenth century. Charlie Gore has been devoted to this catalogue and in 1994 published an index of the tunes contained in each collection, which numbered no fewer than 14,000 individual entries!

While it is common for fiddlers to play by ear, this is often the result of memorisation: they will learn a new tune from music notation, and since tunes are usually relatively short (sixteen bars) the written notes quickly become superfluous. Of course, it is also common for fiddlers to learn tunes from other fiddlers or recordings for which music notation is not required, but even then it can be useful as an aide-mémoire. The level of music literacy among fiddlers in Scotland is, and always has been, very high.

Ethnomusicologist, Mantle Hood, encouraged his classically-trained students to learn an instrument in the foreign, exotic, and unfamiliar music traditions they were studying in order to gain an insight into how these different musical systems worked. This method Hood termed bi-musicality, and it is useful for understanding the habits and practices of Scottish fiddlers of both today and the past. It needs to be tweaked a little, because most fiddlers don’t make a conscious decision to be bimusical – it is just a result of their upbringing and musical training, in which classical and traditional structures have combined – but none the less it can help explain a lot.

Historically, music was not categorised as being either classical or folk. Instead it was defined by its function: music for dancing, music for listening, or music for church. Thus, while today we would categorise Scottish fiddle music as folk (or traditional) music, that is not how it has always been thought of. In the eighteenth century, fiddlers such as Niel Gow or William Marshall were active as fiddlers in dance bands, dancing masters, and composers, for which they would need to be musically literate. Fiddler-composer Robert Mackintosh composed four collections of tunes but was also a musician in the Aberdeen Musical Society, an institution which existed from 1748 to 1805 to perform the compositions of Corelli, Handel, and Geminiani among others. This clashing of cultures (folk in the case of his collections of tunes and classical in the case of the Musical Society) strikes our modern sensibilities as incongruous, but when we take into mind categorisation by function and consider that Mackintosh was bimusical things are made clearer.

The case of Niel Gow is curious. While his name is attached to six collections of tunes (two of which appeared posthumously) it is not at all clear that he was musically literate. It was the business acumen of his son, Nathaniel, which made such a success of Niel Gow the composer, and it was he who managed the collections. (Niel, of course, was famous as a performer before being recognised in print as a composer). Nathaniel’s recollection that Niel’s favourite Italian composition was the ninth of Corelli’s Op. 5 Sonatas may have been yet another exercise in myth-making, but even if not it is still unclear if he performed the sonata or only enjoyed listening to it. Oh, to hear how it would have sounded from Niel Gow’s fiddle!

In the present, the concept of bimusicality highlights a particular strength of fiddlers/violinists who have highly developed skills for performing both from music notation and by ear. The massive amounts of energy required to learn to read music means it can become an end in itself, with learners focusing on the written page rather than the resulting sound. However, a combination of playing from notes and by ear can encourage a more aurally aware approach which results in the learner progressing faster.

Ronnie Gibson (11th February 2013)


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