In the competitions, bands play a medley of marches, strathspeys and reels for between three and nine minutes, dependent upon the grade in which they are competing.
In solo piping the most valuable prizes are usually for Piobaireachd (pronounced peebroch and in writing, Anglicised to pibroch) which although meaning simply pipe music, has come to be applied to the classical music of the bagpipes - the great music or in GaeliPage 16c ceol mor, (pronounced keyall more).
Lighter music, for dancing or marching is known as ceol aotrom or ceol beag but it is for the Piobaireachd that competitors and connoisseurs alike will travel the globe.
Like much classical music, it consists of themes with variations and since each Piobaireachd can last up to 15 or 20 minutes, it demands considerable feats of memory as well as playing skill.
The composers of the golden age, including the famous McCrimmons, taught their pupils by word of mouth and chanting - canntaireachd, which was the form in which these compositions were first written down. Unlike the composers of other types of classical music they left no instructions about how the tunes should be played including whether they should be fast or slow.
A Piobaireachd starts with the ground or basic theme and is developed in more and more complex variations until the climax when the simple ground is repeated as a finale. In normal Piobaireachd competitions, the player has to submit three tunes and the judges select one of these tunes to be played. Thus the Piobaireachd competition is a test, not only of piping skills but of memory and concentration.
What judges are looking for is not only good technical execution in fingering and in the playing of the grace notes, but a well-tuned and balanced instrument. They are also judging on whether the player seems to convey what they believe to be the emotional expression required by the chosen tune.
Whilst the Great Highland Bagpipe was often regarded as an instrument of war with its battle tunes, gatherings and salutes, much of the repertoire consists of Laments. With an instrument on which one cannot vary the pitch, cannot play more loudly or softly, it is not easy to express pathos but some of our best players, playing some of our most famous laments, accomplish this with great skill.
In the old days, pipers would sometimes say, not that a man had won a competition but that he had pleased the judges. This acknowledges the fact that good interpretation is of the essence of rine Piobaireachd playing.