A website by Barnaby Brown

Binary Measures

The MP3s on this page introduce a compositional principle usefully summed up by Bill Taylor in teaching workshops as "home and away". Home has the qualities of concord and repose, and is represented by the digit "1". Away has the qualities of dischord and instability, and is represented by "0".

Robert ap Huw's MS, c.1613

Patterns of "1s" and "0s" are repeated to form variations, and varied or temporarily abandoned within larger musical structures. They constitute a musical grammar established over generations by musicians in the Irish and British Isles. It was not a rigid system, but provided familiar territory from which creative genius departed, new fashions evolved, and regional differences arose.

In medieval Wales, the patterns were known as mesur (measures). A list of 24 survives in the Robert ap Huw manuscript of c.1613. As in blues and jazz, the use of standard progressions facilitates the creation, appreciation, and memorisation of music.

Identifying binary measures is rarely straightforward. They tend to be buried below the melodic surface, or creatively departed from to avoid the music becoming predictable. The following excerpts have been carefully chosen to help listeners identify a few of the more common measures.

1100 1101—Pòg o leannan an fhidhleir

Barnaby Brown & Javier Sáinz 2007 (recorded at Glasgow's Piping Live! festival)

1100 1101March: Bonnie Anne
1011 1011Strathspey: Tulloch Gorm
1110 1100Reel: Sandy Duff

William Ross 1910 (made available by Tony Langford & Ross Anderson)

0001 0001Hornpipe: Berwick Bully, from William Dixon's 1733 MS

Barnaby Brown & Gianluca Dessì 2005 (Band-Re: Strathosphere)

1100 1100—Kaniad y gwynn bibydd/Caniad of the white piper
(Robert ap Huw MS, pp.36-37) — Bray harp

William Taylor 1997 (Two Worlds of the Welsh Harp)

One of the 24 measures listed by Robert ap Huw is called Korffiniwr:

The first work in his manuscript is a magnificent example attributed to Dafydd Athro (fl.1350-65), or "Master David":

1100 1011—Gosteg Dafydd Athro (Robert ap Huw MS, pp.15-17) — Bray harp

William Taylor 1997 (Two Worlds of the Welsh Harp)

The same measure is widely found in Scottish pibroch: for example, in Cruinneachadh na' Fineachan—The Gathering of the Clans. Though not written down until the 1830s (Angus MacKay MS, vol.2, p.93), this work may have been in transmission since the sixteenth century:

As Korffiniwr was widely used at an early period, I used it as the measure of my first compositions for northern triplepipe:

1100 1011

Capturing the dromondArdchattan triplepipe & drum

Barnaby Brown & Alistair MacLeod 2003 (Out of the Stones)

The John Purser SonataIona triplepipe & early clarsach

Barnaby Brown & Ann Heymann 2003 (private recording)

Further Reading:

Frans Buisman 2005 — "A Parallel between Scottish Pibroch and Early Welsh Harp Music", Welsh Music History 6

Peter Greenhill 2000 — "Melodic formulae in the Robert ap Huw Manuscript", Welsh Music History 3

Paul Whittaker 2007 — "Harmonic Forms in the Robert ap Huw Manuscript", Welsh Music History 7

Future Directions for Research:

The oscillation of melodic centricity between two pitches a tone apart is characteristic of many isolated musical cultures, including that of the Greek island of Karpathos, and Sardinian a tenores singing. Can meaningful relationships be identified between oscillations like these and the binary measures of the British Isles?

In this clip, filmed in Olympos, Karpathos, larger-scale oscillations are provided by the laòuto, and smaller-scale oscillations by the tsaboùna and lyra.

Antonis Zografidis tsaboùna, Mihalis Zografidis lyra, Andreas Zografidis & Giannis Prearis laòuto. From a 1-hour documentary by Zisopoulos, O topos kai ta tragoudia tou (The place and its songs), broadcast 4/11/2007 on Greek TV ERT 3.

This page first published 30 Dec 2007
Supported by The Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama
Contact: barnaby(at) +44 (0)78 1000 1377