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Four-Parted Pipe Tunes Graded by Difficulty

Back in 2004, Jim Harrington, the former Pipe Major of Madison Pipes and Drums, compiled a reference of 800 four-part bagpipe tunes in which he applied a competition grade level to each tune. (Yes, that's a lot of tunes.)

(For those of us based in the western USA, this Jim Harrington has no connection to the California-based WUSPBA drum major judge of the same name who is the father of piper Megan Harrington who was at one time married to reedmaker Ryan Canning.)

A complete discussion from which the following excerpt was extracted can be found on the Bob Dunsire Forums here:
but in Jim's own words (without the context—and I added bold in spots for clarity):

"Here's what I tried to consider when I was grading the tunes:

First of all, reputation and popularity of a tune, and necessity of expressing a classic tune very well so as not to 'degrade' it, were not considered at all. It's strictly technical difficulty that was considered, and only my impression, at that.

I considered not using the competition grades at all for category 'titles', but just have nameless levels of increasing difficulty. I decided to use the competition grade names, though. However, that doesn't necessarily mean the tunes are assigned to where one should play them in competition, because of the way advancement in competitions works. Two people may be in the same grade, but be of different levels of ability - it happens all the time. All the tunes in the same grade in the database are theoretically of similar difficulty (except for novice march, which varies considerably).

The tunes are not placed in the 'center grade' of the range they may be played in. Rather, with grades assigned to the difficulty groups from easiest to hardest as they are, it seems to work out that the tunes are about at the earliest grade where a good portion of the people in that grade would be able to play the tunes decently, with practice and good instruction. Many people in grade X could play them well enough to compete with; others in grade X might be best off actually competing with an easier tune, but using the harder tune to work on technique as something reasonable to aim for next. I'd advise people to read through several of the tunes in the category and decide whether they're of reasonable difficulty for them to work on. If too hard, try the next easier category, or if too easy, choose from the next harder one. They're *all* good tunes regardless of grade. I observed that many of the tunes were appropriate to compete with in the grade above where they landed as well, many even two grades higher, and a few even three grades higher! After considerable thought, I wound up putting Highland Wedding and Lord Alexander Kennedy in grade III. I'm well aware of their high reputations. But I remember what I could do in grade III - they're playable, and I believe a student who is quite talented at learning musical expression and has a good instructor could pull them off pretty decently in grade III. But geez, a four-level range - well, that's the way it is.

novice - All the tunes that are basically eighth notes and dotted eighths and sixteenths are in the 'novice' category. Also marches with dotted sixteenths and thirty-seconds, but with limited and easy doublings and few tricky hand crossings, and also plenty of “rests” to get ready for the next challenge, are in the 'novice' category. 
grade IV - more doublings in these tunes, not in really difficult contexts. Few tachums. no difficult movements like birls off low g, etc.
grade III - more going on in these tunes. some trickier things, like d gracenote on 32nd note c, right before a d throw, or the bubbly note, but nothing piled up, so person can focus on the two or three harder things in the tune and get them down. more hand changes allowed. the tune may be moving constantly along, but there is a certain flow to the movement so it's not a big struggle to make it happen. This “flow” is hard for me to define. I played every tune to get a feel for how it works in my hands, some many times if I was uncertain how difficult it seemed. I'm a good sight-reader, so I can play most anything nearly at tempo pretty much off the bat, admittedly somewhat haltingly. What flows for me could conceivably be exactly the opposite for someone else, or it could be that most people would get the same feeling as me, I have no way of knowing, but I'm hoping I'm not that different from most people. But if it “flows”, it comes out without me feeling like I’m concentrating to make it happen. The way I play these days, I definitely have to concentrate on execution in the harder tunes. Finally, the ring finger on right hand is typically uncoordinated - these grade III tunes should not be very demanding in that area.
grade II - tune has some notably (relatively) difficult things - a series of doublings after each other in rapid succession, or a number of measures of tachums in every beat, or certain somewhat awkward hand changes, but the difficulty mostly limited to one general thing, so the person can focus on working on that and, while they play, not have to have everything thrown at them at the same time, downbeat one thing, upbeat something else, etc.
grade I - tune has difficult things of various types so both hands are working fairly constantly. Typically lots of doublings *and* lots of tachums *and* lots of hand changes. But not all. Basically, it's just a good workout to play.
open - tunes I found challenging to play well technically even when my hands were in great shape. Not a great criterion, but I know if it was hard for me back then, the tune is just plain HARD and deserves to be in the hardest category.

novice - none
grade IV - none of the double c-e gracenote on low a movement (double b-low g, double b-low a, etc.). Nearly all beats are [dotted eighth followed by sixteenth], and doublings are in relatively easy contexts. No triplet rhythms.
grade III - a few of the double c-e gracenote on low a movement (double b-low g, double b-low a, etc.), but not piled up. More varying rhythm. More doublings, more hand changes. A few triplet rhythms, not in succession. Tricky execution is intermittent.
grade II - significant numbers of double c-e gracenote on low a movement (double b-low g, double b-low a, etc.), mixed with other movements. Bubbly note. triplet rhythms in succession, but not in too difficult a context. Widely varying rhythms. not absolute killer bottom hand or top hand work.
grade I - lots of hand changes, difficult movements thrown in frequently, beat after beat of hard work, innumerable triplets in sequence that all have to have the right balance and lift and proportion to each other, etc.
open - same as for marches

novice - none
grade IV - seems extremely easy as reels go, hardly any doublings, few hand crossings. (only two reels came out here, maybe it's a bogus category)
grade III - g-d-e tunes, few doublings, tachums and hand crossings are present but not in copious quantity; anything particularly difficult is easily isolated for practice, and very narrow variety of difficult things in
a given tune. good right-hand ring finger coordination not required
grade II - plenty of work at speed, but not a steady diet, and nothing extremely difficult. Anything especially repetitive shouldn't be too difficult to do repetitively well.
grade I - lots of doublings; lots of tachums, hand crossings in copious quantity, some in awkward places
open - same as for marches

Also, when categorizing tunes, I frequently imagined which of my students would be able to play them. I have two students solidly in grade III. If I thought they would have a lot of difficulty, it was not a grade III tune. I also considered remarks some of my instructors have made about appropriateness for grades. I also remembered what I was capable of doing technically well back when I was in grade X.

These were the guidelines. I did my best to be consistent. There are many tunes that are in more than one book, and I checked my consistency frequently by grading them independtly as I came up on them. I got tunes in the same category both times about 90-95% of the time. Grading 800 tunes, most of which I have never played a lot, I will certainly have slipped up plenty of times and not put a tune in the right grade even by my own criteria - but I did my best. I am very willing to make adjustments for specific tunes, as long as it still winds up in the category it should be in according to the above criteria. I have to be careful, because if the criteria switch midstream the whole thing becomes too undefined to be useful - and I'm not willing to go back and regrade all the tunes right now because somebody thinks I should have considered such-and-such, because it takes so much time. Maybe someday, if I get a list of clear-cut things to evaluate for. As to the 'flows in the hands' thing, if somebody says a tune definitely does not flow in *their* hands while others in the grade III march list do, I'm willing to move it out of the grade III march into the grade II.

The biggest drawback is that the grading draws considerably on my knowledge of what's difficult for me, and different people find different things difficult. There's nothing I can do about that - I just don't have experience with a hundred different students. Unfortunately, the people who have had a zillion students are typically way too busy to do something like this, because believe me, it takes a lot of time. Or they aren't good sightreaders and couldn't evaluate tunes without actually spending a lot of time trying to see how each one goes; that makes grading a huge quantity of tunes completely impractical. I just hope what I did takes enough things into account that 90% of the tunes are 'in the ballpark' for most people. It was the best job I could do, and probably the best contribution I could make to the piping community. I can think of many ways to use the list, and I hope people will be inventive. I will indeed continue to develop the site as my time and money allow. My first priority is to get tunes from more of the modern books on there – my personal library is somewhat aged and I’ll have to invest in the 50 or so modern books I’ve identified I don’t own. That will take a while. I have taken note of the problem with tunes that are in multiple books not showing up in the results as being in more than one book. I noticed that myself a couple of weeks ago. It’s an unintended 'feature' of the filter function (we all know what that means), and at some point in the not-too-distant future I hope Don Thomson will have time to change the search code to show all books. (I should note, sometimes the settings are not the best to play when considering risk of surprising a judge in a negative way, and I exercised some judgement in not necessarily listing every known setting in the database. People can always look elsewhere to find all the possible settings if they aren’t happy with what they find.) People’s suggestions for improvements are most welcome. Many thanks to all who have taken time to give comments here.


The Tune Reference

While I don't have the original code used for the online search feature, I do have a spreadsheet of Jim's work, which was kindly provided to me by those involved with Madison Pipes and Drums in the summer of 2020, and that file, with their permission, is hosted here:
4-Parted Tunes by Difficulty (XLS file) (Approximately 100K)

While this is a native Microsoft Excel file, it can also be opened by a number of free programs which can easily be found by doing an online search. The file is currently sorted by difficulty but can easily be sorted by tune title, music book, or tune type.

Please note that if you disagree with the grade of difficulty assigned to a tune, I'm not going to change the file. I'm leaving it fully intact as PM Jim Harrington originally saw fit.

If you've have corrections to this page (heaven forbid), clarifications, or additional insight, please contact me.

This page last updated Monday, July 13, 2020
Page first created in July 13, 2020.

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