Strathspey Ornamentation and Variation

Strathspey Ornamentation and Variation

I’ve been digging into strathspeys a bit more recently, and I have been wondering how fixed the placement of the scotch snaps should be within a tune. From what I’ve heard, most players seem to stay fairly consistent with where they place the snaps as they repeat each part of a tune, but different players may place the snaps in different spots such that two recordings are unlikely to line up exactly. To make things even more confusing, often when I see strathspeys written out, the placement of the snaps is inconsistent between transcriptions and some don’t notate them at all. This had me wondering whether you might vary where the snaps are placed between repetitions as you might with more your ornamentation.

Does anyone with more experience on playing strathspeys have any insights into the traditional way of approaching this? I imagine having any number of players snapping differently in a session could quickly send things spiraling into chaos, not that I hear strathspeys too often at sessions to begin with. However, if you only had one person playing the melody, lining things up might be less of a hassle.

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You should read this thread at C&F:
http://forums.chiffandfipple.com/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=110459&sid=3b90a52d4ca6e7afe0da00dae7e0a97b

and then get in touch with Munro. His audio files are very good in a performance context, but not as useful in a country dance performance scenario. He, BTW, plays flute. You have not said what instrument you’re applying this to - so while the snaps will line up between winds and strings, the techniques will not.

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Ideally, I guess, to see where the snaps should be, it’s best to go back to the composer’s original scores, many of which may be found in, for example, the National Library of Scotland’s digitised collections, or, for Scott Skinner, in the Aberdeen University Elphinstone collection. For bagpipers it is essential to get all the snaps and ornamentation just right for any competitions, so also worth looking at bagpipe scores.
It is very true that different players play them differently, and that this can turn into a bit of a mush in a session. If, as I do, you play in a band, it is crucial that everyone "plays from the same hymnsheet" for the band to sound "tight" and "together". I mark all snaps in my scores with highlighter pen, and of course, try to memorise as well. We also have some recordings for those who are more "ear-orientated" to learn the tunes and where the snaps go.
As for how to play snaps, it does seem that different players and different instruments have more or less of a struggle with them: easy on the piano, less so on my buttonbox, especially if it involves a direction change, and I get the impression that at least some of our string players find them tricky.

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In my experience, it works best in a session where the session leader — usually the Alpha Fiddler — leads the tune, and everyone else follows their timing of the snaps. Regardless of how you learned it at home off recordings or sheet music. Anything else is a muddled mush as everyone goes their own way, and the energy is lost.

It’s a completely different dynamic from ornaments in Irish tunes, where everyone doing their own thing doesn’t kill the tune.

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Yes, I would say I generally play most strathspeys the same way most of the time, but that said, equally I wouldn’t be averse to varying them due to boredom or devilment. Some are "more" fixed than others, for melodic or technical or sociological reasons.

> Does anyone with more experience on playing strathspeys have any insights into the traditional way of approaching this?

Learn as many tunes as you can from *reliable* sources - ie not the internet - and listen to as much playing as you can. I personally think it’s invaluable to study what pipers do in strathspey playing as we have so few expressive tools to work with - and yet we (hopefully) do. If you can emulate that then it’s easy to add in the expressive devices native to your instrument.

One you have all that (easy, huh), you should have a pretty sound basis for judging whether a particular phrase can be varied or sounds idiomatic or whatever. Also, if you can get a chance, learn to dance some strathspey steps, whether Highland, SCD, or whatever style. I maintain that I learnt more about strathspey playing from the few years of Highland dancing I did at Aberdeen University than from any teacher.

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Are snaps used in west Clare music, or any other area of the island of Ireland.

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There are some MSS of tunes with snaps given in ‘The Northern Fiddler’. Perhaps unsurprising, given the proximity and historical links between Scotland and the North of Ireland.

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Have you ever been to Donegal gooseinthenettles?

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Loads of times, they play a lot of Scottish music there.

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"Are snaps used in west Clare music, or any other area of the island of Ireland."

I have heard various recordings of Irish players playing hornpipes and jigs with the occasional snap in them (granted, not as ‘snappy’ as in an authentically-played strathspey but unmistakably ‘reverse-dotted’ groupings) - perhaps not in West Clare (where hornpipes are often played completely ‘smoothed out’) but also not specifically players from Donegal or any part of Ulster.

A couple of examples:
https://thesession.org/recordings/281 track 15, 2nd tune (James McMahon’s Favourite)
https://thesession.org/recordings/578 track 6

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Bogman, have you ever been to Donegal.

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The very topic of snap placement came up at a Scottish party/session at Colin Gordon’s home years ago (he has sadly passed away).

Colin, a Scot, was an excellent Scottish-style fiddler.

So some of us were talking about snaps and Colin said it was perfectly fine to play each snap either way you chose, and he proceeded to play a Strathspey twice, the second time with every snap reversed.

His point was that it was a matter of the player’s discretion and not something poured in concrete. After all, Strathspeys are only a different way of playing reels, so "composer’s intent" doesn’t enter into it, with many tunes.

Obviously for group performance you would get everyone on the same page. (Literally, in the case of a Strathspey & Reel Society.)

I know in the Highland pipe world you’ll hear various players and bands flip the snaps in Strathspeys, and with some reels and hornpipes flip, remove, or insert snaps regardless how the composer originally published the tune. (Of course many of the tunes have no known composers anyhow.)

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gooseinthenettles. I have, it’s an excellent place I’m sure we can agree.

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Yes indeed, a fantastic part of the world.

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"… they play a lot of Scottish music there (Donegal)."

They play a lot of Donegal music there, some of it very close to Scottish music, some of it less so.

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Highlands are Scottish.

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They may have Scottish origins but they’re not Scottish. Hardly anyone in Scotland plays "highlands" - they’re not the same as strathspeys, by my understanding.

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They may have Scottish origins but they’re not Scottish?

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So Miss McLeod’s is Scottish then?

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Sorry I haven’t heard that tune.

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Perhaps it would be more useful to talk about strathspeys than trolls, so with that in mind I’ll talk a little about how I conceptualise and teach strathspeys, which someone or other may find interesting, or at least disagree with, which would be more interesting.

On the GHB, we only have length of note available to us as an expressive device. Everything else is built up from how you layer note lengths, whether melody note or embellishment or somewhere in between.

So to begin at the beginning, the strathspey is a genre of dance tunes (with many sub-types) in common time. Each beat has a long note[1], whose position varies - it may be at the start, end, or middle of the beat.

Once the long notes have been identified, they must be connected, and the connection must consist of a series of even pulses. Identifying what those even pulses are, and learning to play them correctly, is to me the foundation of good strathspey playing on the GHB.

The even pulse connections are not necessarily equal from beat to beat - it depends on musical context and technique, and the rhythm of it, but they are as fast as reasonably possible, allowing the long note to be as long as possible.

[1] It’s unusual on the GHB to have a beat consisting entirely of short equal pulses in strathspey playing, so I tend to omit mention of it until necessary.

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Oh, and I thought you were au fait with Irish Traditional Music, gooseinthenettles. (The Scottish original is called Mrs MacLeod of Raasay.)

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Very informative and interesting, but so different to our music.

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Indeed, that’s why Highlands aren’t Scottish - so different to our music.

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I really would like to know where highlands are from, Donegal people think they are from Scotland.

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Nice set of tunes and you can hear hints of Scottish origin, but I don’t hear anything that sounds like a strathspey (but perhaps that’s not surprising as they are Highlands).

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The second tune on the video sounds like a version of the Scottish song "Katie Bairdie had a coo", but as DonaldK says, as played it isn’t a strathspey.

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Fintan Vallely’s "The Companion To Irish Traditional Music" [ 1st edition ] - pp187 / 188 :
"Highland" - Properly called "The Highland Schottische". This is a couple dance introduced to Co. Donegal in the mid-1800s by migratory workers returning from Scotland. A local variant of the dance also emerged which was known as the Irish Highland. The dance itself is no longer common, but the tune type remains popular within the Donegal fiddle music repertoire. The higland is in 4/4 time with an accent on the first beat of the bar, which is usually a crotchet value. The tempo is more relaxed than that of the reel. The highland is characterised by the use of dotted rhythms articulated in a subtle manner and not in the jagged fashion popular in Scotland. This, combined with the tempo chosen creates the swing peculiar to the highland".

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Wow, thank you so much to everyone for helping me out with this! There’s a lot of tremendously helpful information here.

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Calum, it’s interesting to hear the different approaches pipers take to the timing in Strathspeys.

In a band we in turn worked on a Strathspey on chanters with the Pipe Sergeant and the Pipe Major. Both of these guys had decades of Grade One band experience, won at the Worlds with FMM etc etc and when they played the Strathspey together it sounded tight.

But when they worked with us one at a time it was night and day! The PM played all four beats in each bar the same, the "bouncing ball" thing.

The Pipe Sergeant was great to listen to, he had a clearly defined strong-weak-medium-weak pulse.

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Yes, I often joke that teaching kids to play is much easier because they ignore what you tell them, and just copy what you play, meaning that they aren’t encumbered with our terrible models for how tunes should be played! I remember sitting in a workshop with a top level player many years ago who carefully demonstrated a strathspey nice and slowly, and played it in 12/8 time! I think that kind of thing can be really unhelpful, especially to learners in the first few years who are still playing entirely by muscle memory.

There’s a lot of models out there for strathspey playing, and I think pipers are much more understanding of that these days. Happily the SWMW model in particular is a bit better understood as being the map and not the landscape, as it were.

I think if you follow my approach and play at a steady, manageable tempo, you get a very competent performance back from a student. My system very much isn’t a finished article, and there would be lots you could say about someone who played a tune they learnt in such a way, but I think it takes care of the fundamental structure such that you can think about pulse and phrase and all those things.

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Donegal players have their own lovely style of playing - it is an Irish style. If you start trying to purge tune types from Irish music that don’t have some sort of pure Irish origin you can bump reels, hornpipes and polkas off for a start. If your mission is to police a website forum then I suggest you start your own site and learn a bit more about the subject little goose.

Otherwise an excellent topic well discussed.

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I am au fait in Traditional Irish Music, so I would not be familiar with Mrs mcloud of where ever, because you told me its a Scottish tune.

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Miss McCleod is played in just about every fiddle tradition around the North Atlantic [including Ireland] its hard to believe anyone involved in trad music could not have heard it!

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Have you heard the Buttercup and saucer hornpipe.

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"Mrs McLeod" has been thoroughly absorbed into the Irish tradition. As Harry Bradley put it once about a Scott Skinner tune, "it came over to Ireland and went its’ own way". Long may it continue.

https://youtu.be/nX6t4KRM4sI


QED.

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"I am au fait in Traditional Irish Music, so I would not be familiar with Mrs mcloud [sic] of where ever, because you told me its a Scottish tune."

One: that logic, I’m afraid, leaves a lot to be desired. Because one is familiar with one thing does not imply unfamiliarity with another thing.

Two: it was Miss McLeod’s (note the exact spelling as on site here), https://thesession.org/tunes/75, for which gooseinthenettles said, "Sorry I haven’t heard that tune." I find that almost unbelievable. But, on reflection, perhaps not in his/her case.

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(once more)
> Perhaps it would be more useful to talk about strathspeys than trolls

So just a comment that might be helpful to anyone still scratching their heads over the distinction between strathspeys and other "dotted" rhythms, such as hornpipes, scottisches, highlands, or indeed puirt (is there any equivalent in Irish puirt a beul to oran luaidh, or other types of mouth music with strongly dotted rhythms?).

I described before the idea of the strathspey as a type of music with one long note in each beat, made as long as possible. The crucial difference is that most types of dotted rhythm are actually some form of 12/8 compound time - that is to say, the long note is twice as long as the short note. That said, though, when the dotting is inverted, or snapped, the short note is generally much shorter or tighter than compound time would suggest (think of a hornpipe that goes e>dB<d - the d will be played longer than the B.

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That’ll be the first d being longer than the B. I agree. Of course, in certain circumstances, as the tempo increases, say, for stepdancing, the rhythm will become more 12/8ish in feel.

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> That’ll be the first d being longer than the B.

Aye, quite right! And yes, agree it becomes "more compound" with speed, though I think of it more as the long note starts to take on the 12.8 shape rather than the short notes becoming quavers, if that makes sense?

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Again, I agree. I like to think of the short notes (in the snaps) being as short as possible. As the tempo increases they occupy a larger percentage of the time allowed for each crotchet but their absolute time length does not change whereas the absolute time for the long note does.

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FWIW: Many of the older Cape Breton players were thoroughly inconsistent in their placement of snaps - but wherever they put them or didn’t sounded exactly right - even when alteration came the second time through a turn, if not within the repeat of a phrase a couple of measures later. That’s the point you (and I!) want to reach, where the music is so much a part of you, that whatever you do with it sounds right ……

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Totally agree about keeping snaps as short as possible: they should be almost as grace notes or double-dotted at least, and yes, they can disappear if you try to play a strathspey too fast.
As for hornpipes, I have heard it said by an eminent English player/tutor that the short notes after the dotted notes in those are TOO short, and while many are written in 4/4, they would be more correctly written in in 12/8 to conform to how they are actually played, and in keeping with the triplet patterns in them. Again, you do hear them played too fast: they lose all the dottedness and just become reels.

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That’s true, Trish, but as I think I’ve mentioned before, 12/8 is harder to read than 4/4 because of the lack of beaming - apart from the triplets it’s all separate notes.

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> As for hornpipes, I have heard it said by an eminent English player/tutor that the short notes after the dotted notes in those are TOO short

I absolutely agree with this. I think it’s a really useful skill to be able to identify clearly if a long/short pair is a 2:1 ratio (compound), or 3:1 (dotted) or 7:1 (double dotted), because an awful lot of subtleties in traditional music involve playing with these structures.

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"Beaming"? Not heard that term before.
I don’t think he was suggesting that the music should be written in 12/8, (even if he said that is how it is played) but just that it should be played with that feel to it. And some hornpipes are written "straight" though played dotted.
Not so for strathspeys, where you do need to see where the snaps come.

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"Beaming"? Not heard that term before.

As in a beam connecting all the notes within a beat: | AB cd | A and B are beamed together, B and c are not.

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Aye, Calum, the noteheads are joined by beams and stems.

Beaming conventions have changed over time. In older vocal scores, for instance, only notes on the same syllable are beamed whereas nowadays it’s more common to beam as normal and slur notes on the same syllable.

The beaming emphasises the rhythmic groupings. In 12/8 that doesn’t happen.

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Have people talked about triplets in Scottish Strathspeys?

It’s interesting because Scottish fiddlers will play quadruplets as well as triplets, but when those same tunes have passed into the Highland piping tradition the quadruplets will be played as triplets.

And in the Highland piping world the triplets vary so much from player to player, from band to band. It’s the thing that stands out to me as being most open to interpretation.

None of the various styles are actual triplets in the normal musical sense.

The very "open" or "round" triplets are two sixteenths and an eighth more or less. From that extreme the first two notes get shorter and shorter, the third note getting correspondingly longer and longer of course.

I’ll see if I can find Youtube examples of those.

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> when those same tunes have passed into the Highland piping tradition the quadruplets will be played as triplets.

Yes, I’ve never heard a good explanation of why those quadruplets fell out of the GHB tradition (they do exist in a few Victorian books, but not commonly), because they work very well. I’ve heard people and bands play with them here and there but they’ve never become a routine device.

> None of the various styles are actual triplets in the normal musical sense.

The one exception I can think of, though rarely played these days, is the full umpteen parts of the Caledonian Society of London, and those last two parts towards the ends with the long run of triplets that are actually played as true triplets.

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I don’t think I’ve heard that, I’ll try to find a Youtube of it.

A Strathspey bar containing four actual triplets would sound exactly the same as two bars of jig played completely round, in other words 12 equally timed notes. I’ll look for that.

Here’s the sort of thing one often hears, this approach is rather more snapped than two sixteenths and an eighth, at 2:49

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SVqMrDAlWg

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Found it Calum, after watching 20 videos with the usual approach, Angus Macdonald no less!

Jump to 1:54

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2HQhPIyqL0


I think any band that tried it this way, unless they were FMM or somebody, would get crucified by the judges.

I know a band I played in years ago did!

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DonaldK, I think you can beam rhythmic groupings in 12/8. I don’t understand why you think otherwise. Unless I’m misunderstanding a context here.

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I was just going to say the same (now I know what beaming means - I’d heard of stems, but never beams!): look at this one, for example:
https://thesession.org/tunes/159
Even if I didn’t have sight of the time signature, the arrangement of notes would immediately say to me that it’s in 12/8. (Compound quadruple time).

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> I know a band I played in years ago did!

Ah well, now you know where to tell the judge to go study some decent piping! For what it’s worth we won an MSR competition playing it like this as a quartet back in the 90s. Sorry to send you on such a search. I’ve never been taught to play anything else in that tune, though all my teachers had army backgrounds or influences. The insidious influence of competition, anything that is different or unusual must be crushed.

These "true" triplets aren’t unusual in other forms of strathspey playing, though I interpret them as a deliberate breaking of the idomatic structure. Scott Skinner uses them quite a lot.

> I think you can beam rhythmic groupings in 12/8

Maybe I’m being thick, but how do you beam, say | A2 B A2 F A2 B d3 |?

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"A Strathspey bar containing four actual triplets would sound exactly the same as two bars of jig played completely round, in other words 12 equally timed notes."

I wouldn’t agree. The triplets in a strathspey sound far better if played with a bit of pointing, especially for slower strathspeys.


"I think you can beam rhythmic groupings in 12/8."

I’m with Calum. You can if there are triplets, but they are usually in the minority. With, say, Harvest Home you have to wait until the fourth bar:
D2A F2A D2A F2A|d2e f2e d2c B2A|e2A f2A g2A f2A| efe dcB ABA GFE|

In jazz, the vast majority of bebop is swung for a 12/8 feel but it’s always written in straight eighths. Apart from reading it’s also easier to write in most of today’s programs. You can always put a metric modulation at the start to show the actual rhythmic intention.

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Off-topic, I know, but I mentioned before the lack of beams in vocal scores.
Well, looking in my tattered copy of Beatles ‘67, the first two bars of the vocal line of A Day In The Life are given as:
z B d B e B/ d/- d e|B6 z2|
The equivalent piano line has:
z BdB eB/d/- de|B6 z2|

Why? What an idiotic convention.

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On the off-topic issue of beaming 12/8, and not notating hornpipes in 12/8, I think point is that with a hornpipe notated as dotted quavers, or as undotted quavers and the fact that they are swung indicated in some way, the notes of each beat can be bound by the beam to aid readability. That’s what can’t be done in 12/8.

I have also heard an "an eminent English player/tutor" make the comment reported by trish santer. In the context of a mixed instrument festival workshop the information instantly set all the ‘formally trained’ musicians who were not familiar with hornpipe rhythm on the right track, rather than playing the dotted quavers ‘as written’.

Is there anything similarly succinct advice for strathspeys? Grace notes were mentioned above in the context of the short notes. That leaves me unsure as the whether the short note of a short-long pair is always on the beat. For some traditions discussed here a leading grace note can be before the beat.

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Well said, David50, regarding beaming.

Regarding the short note of a short-long in a strathspey, I would say it should always be on the beat.

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> Why? What an idiotic convention.

And you’ll notice that it broke down at the point where transcribing pop, rock and jazz vocals became a regular thing. The old school style has some sense to it for simpler rhythms, such as choral music, hymns, etc, because it means fewer entities on the page. The breaks down when you get syncopations, semiquavers, etc all over the shop. I sing quite a bit of Sacred Harp (well, I did) and that is printed in the old style and for the most part it’s easy enough to read - you memorise a lyric line then sing it out syllable by syllable unless beamed. The modern convention is the better one but for simpler music, the old one had its merits.

> The triplets in a strathspey sound far better if played with a bit of pointing, especially for slower strathspeys.

Agreed in general though you do hear (mostly North-East) fiddlers subverting the idiom by making them even. Given the detail Scott Skinner wrote his tunes in, if he wanted pointing in a triplet, he’d say so.

> Is there anything similarly succinct advice for strathspeys?

It’s been a long and meandering thread, so you may have missed my post here: https://thesession.org/discussions/45235#comment902926 - it’s not exactly as succinct as "play it in 12/8" but it’s the pithiest description of the basic idiom that I can come up with, at least.

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Well, it has been an interesting discussion, even we have strayed in various directions beyond what the OP wanted to know. I have learned things ("beaming"!).
Glad that David50 seems to support what I said about a certain English player/tutor: could we have even been in the same workshops?
I would agree with Donald (despite what I said about grace notes) about the short note of a snap being on the beat: what I really meant here was that the snap could be as short as a grace note.
But in the end, I guess it’s how the music actually sounds: you hear a strathspey and know its a strathspey, you hear a hornpipe and know it’s a hornpipe, etc.
And yes, many pop songs as written music are actually very syncopated, off beat, and hard to read from a written score, though if you know the song, it hopefully comes naturally!