The Role of the Drum Corps in Pipe Band Performance

By Allan Chatto OAM

This article is abridged from a paper written by the respected pipe band authority Allan Chatto in 1995. Based in Australia, Allan was a leading drummer of renown, adjudicator and pipe band educator of international standing and we are grateful that he has made his paper available to Piping Press readers.

The drum corps’ responsibility within pipe band performance is to provide the rhythmic and dynamic accompaniment to the pipe melody.

The bagpipe is a legato instrument which is not capable of having any variation of amplitude during a performance. Therefore the drum corps can add much by way of dynamics to the band performance. This however requires integrated teamwork in a musical sense, between the pipe major and the leading drummer.

In the past many a pipe major may have considered the drummer’s role as simply a time keeper. The drummer of today must have a much broader concept of musical appreciation.



Good ensemble may be achieved with good score arrangements and tonal harmony combining snare, bass and tenor drums with the subtle use of dynamic phrasing and effective rhythm and expression.

This will enhance and reinforce the piping melody line giving excitement, vitality and fire within the whole performance.

There may be some drum corps that appear to be only concerned with presenting ‘drum-nastics’ rather than giving a creative rhythmic musical accompaniment, the drum score cutting across the piper’s phrasing and completely destroying the musical interpretation of a tune in the process.

Drummers in the Rutherglen pipe band in 1958

The Drum Fanfare certainly has its place in a pipe band’s concert performance, but the competition field is a different scenario. Of course there are many of Leading Drummers who have learnt, either intentionally or sub-conciously, something of the art of good drum score composition and musicianship. Their performances make most enjoyable listening.

Let us now analyse the constituents of the drum corps contribution to the band performance. These could be defined as follows:

a) The introduction.
b) The sound, influenced by the environment. This would include, tuning instruments and stick control.
c) The weight (volume) and balance of the corps in relation to the amplitude or volume of the pipe corps.
d) The score arrangements, integrating snare, tenor and bass.
e) Rhythm and expression within the scores.
f) The use of dynamics within the scores.
g) The overall quality of the accompaniment presentation.

In the pipe band or the mini-band contest, the musical performance of the band is assessed by the adjudicator from the start of the first drum roll, to the last sound made.



The introduction is the band’s first impression on the adjudicator, so points will then be awarded accordingly. This may determine a band’s placing within the competition prize list.

The introduction rolls should be confident, full, firm and well sustained, maybe with a slight hint of crescendo. A ‘forced’ roll start, ragged roll sound, poor finish or terminal stroke not in unison, would not be acceptable to the adjudicator.

The drum corps must play in unison and establish tempo through the introductory rolls. This tempo must be carried through into the first tune.

We must now consider the sound of each instrument. Each must have tonal harmony. The snare drum is like the pipe chanter. The drum should be tuned with a bright resonant ‘crack’ with warm tonal colour and good response. Ideally the snare drummers should all use the same make and weight of stick.

The tenor drums should be tuned with the pipers’ tenor drones, trying to achieve an integrated and mellow sound. Different pitch tenors if overdone become very monotonous.

The bass drum can make or destroy a band’s performance. It should have a sonorous quality with well defined pitch in harmony with the pipers’ bass drone. It should be free from annoying overtones and ‘ring’. The bass drummer should try to beat ‘through’ the drum head rather than into it.

Bass drum….beat ‘through’ the drum not in to it

In summary: Stick control, volume, weight of beating and metrical pulsation are all most important aspects in projecting the drum corps’ tonal effect. Also remember that a drum corps having having eight snare drummers will not necessarily be twice as loud as a corps having four.

The development of good technique will allow a snare corps to have much greater control over dynamics. It is easy for a drummer to beat loudly but it is much more difficult to play softly with a control. Accents and embellishments must be clearly defined thus giving lift to rhythm and expression.

It would seem very un-balanced if a band competed with ten pipers, eight snares, four tenors and a bass. The weight of beating may be too overpowering for the pipers thus destroying the melodic interpretation of the pipe corps. The ensemble adjudicator would then remark adversely on a band’s balance of pipes and drums.

  • To conclude with a look at drum score arrangements.

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