Piobaireachd, or Ceol Mor, is generally regarded as the "classical" form of music for the great Highland bagpipe. Appreciation for piobaireachd has grown dramatically in North America over the last 25 years or so. Players of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds produce a high standard of this ancient musical form in North America, performing in competitive and concert venues as far-flung as Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto, Calgary, Houston, Vancouver and Portland. They have put to rest the notion that ceol mor (literally "great music") is somehow the exclusive province of players with a Gaelic or Highland connection.
Players of piobaireachd events at the Portland Games represent a large range of ethnic and national origins, as they do at most major competitions in North America. It is clear from listening to the Professional Piobaireachd event, for example, that the playing transcends ethnic barriers; the topic at hand is music.
The origins of piobaireachd are lost in antiquity, as it stems from an oral traditions which has been passed down from teacher to student through the centuries. Even though some 350 piobaireachd tunes survive, the written musical scores are only approximations of the original compositions. For players to achieve tune proficiency, they must learn the tunes from skilled instructors who pass along what they have learned from their own instruction and gained from experience.
Tunes played in the piobaireachd events generally fall into one of several styles: laments, salutes, marches and other commemorative pieces. As the listener's familiarity with the music increased, these styles can be distinguished. For the most part, piobaireachd tunes of all types typically take 10 to 15 minutes to play. Each begins with the urlar (or "ground"), followed by successively faster and more ornamented restatements, or variations of the basic melody. The tune usually reaches its climax in the crunluath, the most complex and quickest of the variations. The competitor will generally conclude his presentation with the replaying of the melody introduced in the ground, in effect "closing the circle".
Because the tunes are complex and variations are often subtle, and because the pipes must be tuned perfectly and in a manner which will ensure a steady sound throughout the tune, piobaireachd requires a great deal of concentration and sometimes a lengthy tuning period. Listeners will usually be rewarded by pipes with a very "sweet" sound. This tone can be contrasted to the more strident tone and higher volume sought by many pipe band players.
To assist the competitors in getting their pipes "settled in" under performance conditions, the PHGA Professional Piobaireachd Competition sponsors a special 2/4 March Competition. Each competitor plays and optional 2/4 march of his/her choice while tuning up for the piobaireachd. The March is judged separately.