John McPhee's Musical Ear

Anna Sussman '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

In The Crofter and the Laird, John McPhee's portrait of life on the Scottish island of Colonsay, he recounts an instance in which a famed bagpipe player plays him some traditional tunes. The pipers are a rare and dying breed, trained by their forebears, and capable of evoking emotional reactions that are quite beyond words.

He showed me his basic text of piobaireachd, The Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor. As I turned the pages slowly, he hummed some of the tunes that went by, and the tunes he was humming were so sad, beautiful, lilting and melodic that I found myself wondering if, when these themes emerged from the great Highland bagpipes, Andrew could hear something that I could not. My ear is not a good one for the sound of the pipes. The possibility crossed my mind that there might be some congenital difference in the architecture of our ears. Perhaps he had a double, a triple, a braided auditory nerve that evolution had prepared for the piper alone. My ear, on the other hand, was more than receptive to the sound of the names of the great ceol-mor tunes that were now passing before me on the pages of the book, and I remember thinking that if I was deprived of some of the magic of the sound of the pipes I could hear at least the roll of the titles.

McPhee then goes on to list eleven song names.

Reading Questions

This is not the first time McPhee uses lists. He frequently uses lists of places, people, names, possessions, and the like in his descriptions. Even the dialogues that he quotes, usually without attribution, sound like lists of quotations. Do you find his lists musical or melodious in any way?

Is there a way in which, by describing the special auditory equipment he imagines the piper to possess, McPhee is drawing attention to his own carefully attentive ear for dialogue?

Does this passage serve to draw the reader's attention to anything? If so, what?

What is the passage's relation to the rest of the book with respect to themes? To names? To the author's attention to detail?

Does it make us appreciative or is it an irritating admonition that we should be appreciative of McPhee's gift for enumeration?


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Last modified 10 November 2003