The Gesto Canntaireachd

What is canntaireachd?

Canntaireachd (“counter-ack”), Gaelic for chanting, is the tradition for singing vocables to teach pibroch, the classical music of the Highland bagpipes.

Niel MacLeod of Gesto transcribed the chanting of piper John MacCrimmon and, to preserve a dying tradition, published the transcription in 1828 as A Collection of Piobaireachd or Pipe Tunes. The book, nicknamed “The Gesto Canntaireachd”, contains lines upon lines of plain text. On its own Gesto’s book could not serve as the sole means of communicating pibroch; without hearing these vocables sung the musicality and meaning of the tunes is obscured.

However, Gesto’s original aim of preserving a dying tradition succeeded. Modern scholars, such as Roderick Cannon, have conducted extensive research to pair Gesto’s vocables (or Gesto’s transcription of John MacCrimmon’s vocables) with their most likely musical meaning.

This book

The traditions of pibroch in Gaelic Scotland eschewed written notation; canntaireachd was how these tunes were learned and taught. Sheet music suggests levels of fixity and regularity that are not found in historic sources of pibroch. Spurred on by these reasons, and feeding off my own bias (I am a graphic designer and I am not a musician), I developed an alternate system for conveying the musical meaning held in the mysterious canntaireachd vocables.

Creating a “natural language”, I encoded the musical information using colour and typeface weights. Typeface weights work as a primary metaphor for note length: it is quick and intuitive to understand that a heavier typeface indicates a note should be given more time and emphasis. Using reddish colours for the brash, dissonant notes and blues for the calmer, consonant notes feels reasonably intuitive, but of course this interpretation also depends on cultural associations, so is less universal.

Other updates I incorporated were more straightforward: I have added line numbers for ease of reference and cross-checking, and greater space between lines for ease of reading and allowing space to make notes.

With these changes, I have – hopefully! – made it easier to engage with the original text Niel MacLeod published nearly 200 years ago.