A strathspey is a type of dance tune in 4
4 time. It is, simply stated, a reel played at a slightly slower tempo, with slightly more emphasis on certain beats. This emphasis can be the same measure to measure or vary throughout the tune, depending on the player. Cut-dot snap rhythms, or "Scotch snaps", are a feature of both. These are short notes before a dotted notes, which in traditional playing is generally exaggerated rhythmically for musical expression. An example of a strathspey would be the song "The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond", provided it is sung staccato:
You'll tak the high road, and I'll tak the low road, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye.
Other examples are "Auld Lang Syne" (based on Sir Alexander Don's Strathspey) and "Coming Through the Rye" (based on an old strathspey tune called "The Miller's Daughter").
Because the strathspey rhythm has four strong beats to the bar, it is played quickly (generally ranging from 108 beats per minute, for Highland dance, up to 160 beats per minute, for step dance), and contains many dot-cut "snaps", it is a rhythmically tense idiom. Traditionally, a strathspey will be followed by a reel, which is in 2
2 with a swung rhythm, as a release of the rhythmic tension created during the strathspey.
It has been hypothesized that strathspeys mimic the rhythms of Scottish Gaelic song. Among traditional musicians, strathspeys are occasionally transmitted as canntaireachd, a style of singing in which various syllables stand in for traditional bagpipe ornaments.
The dance is named after the Strathspey region of Scotland, in Moray and Badenoch and Strathspey. Strathspey refers both to the type of tune and to the type of dance usually done to it (although strathspeys are also frequently danced to pastoral airs played at the same tempo; an example of which would be the dance Autumn in Appin, danced to the tune "The Hills of Lorne"). The strathspey is one of the dance types in Scottish country dancing. A Scottish country dance will typically consist of equal numbers of strathspeys, jigs and reels. The strathspey step is a slower and more stately version of the skip-change step used for jigs and reels. The strathspey also forms part of the musical format for competing pipe bands. Modern high grade pipe bands are required to play a march, a strathspey and a reel for competition purposes.
The strathspey was originally conceived for the fiddle, using a peculiar bowing technique that would produce its characteristic "scotch-snap" rhythm; many newer strathspeys were written in the 18th and 19th centuries by composers such as William Marshall and James Scott Skinner, who utilised the full range of the fiddle to produce many memorable tunes. Skinner distinguished between dance tunes, which retained the staccato bowing (Laird o Drumblair), and airs which were for listening (Music of Spey). Angus Cumming produced the first collection of strathspeys to be published by a person from Strathspey. More recently, Muriel Johnstone has written some elegant piano strathspeys. These days there are at least four, some would say seven, varieties: the bouncy schottische, the strong strathspey, the song or air strathspey, all three of which can be enjoyed for dancing, and the competition strathspey for the Great Highland bagpipe, primarily intended as a display of virtuosity. Although band and solo competition bagpiping generally involves a complicated, heavily ornamented setting, traditional pipers often play simpler, more rhythmically driven versions.
In the Irish tradition, strathspeys are largely relegated to the Scottish-influenced traditions of Donegal, where they are commonly called highlands. Unlike many duple-time tune types in the Irish tradition, Highlands are articulated with four distinct beats to the bar, rather than two. Unlike their Scottish counterparts, highlands are played with a smoother, less-jagged bowing articulation. The Irish repertoire also gravitates to tunes with long passages of triplets.
In the New World, the Cape Breton strathspey differs from its Scottish cousins in its rhythm patterns. While the dot-cut snaps are fairly standard in European strathspeys, in the Cape Breton style the dotted note can come before the short note, and the snaps can come at any point in the measure. These changes allow for the rhythmic "lift" needed for the Cape Breton style of Scottish step dancing. The dot-snap variations have been described as more "wild" than in Scottish playing. Cape Breton dot-snaps often follow the same pattern within any given piece of music, and adhere to a local pattern shared among the community of Cape Breton-style players. The same tune can be played in the Scottish and Cape Breton styles, but will sound different.