The Great Highland Bagpipe - An Overview

Bagpipes are a class of musical instrument called aerophones, using enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag. Though the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe have the greatest international visibility, bagpipes have been played for centuries throughout large parts of Europe, the Caucasus, Turkey, around the Persian Gulf, and in Northern Africa. Bagpipes have been played in Scotland for more than six centuries.

The term bagpipe is equally correct in the singular or plural, although, pipers most commonly speak of them simply as "the pipes".

The instrument consists of a leather bag (or synthetic material) covered in decorative fabric, which the piper inflates via a blowstick. The bag serves as a reservoir/manifold and the air pressure is directed into four sounding locations: the chanter where the actual melody is emitted and three drones which are constantly playing a harmonious background. Two of the drones are the tenors and the longest is the bass. All three are tuned to the chanter by shortening or lengthening them along tuning slides. It is critical that the drones and chanter are tuned to each other, or the resulting sound is at best unpleasant. This reason alone explains why too many people believe the pipes nothing less than shrill and harsh noisemakers only because they've never heard properly tuned pipes played proficiently.

To play, the piper places the bag under his left arm and alternately inflates and squeezes air at a constant pressure through the chanter and drones. The art of piping is to produce an even tone and avoid any rise and fall in sound, or pauses between notes. It's a common misconception that the piper pumps the bag. Simultaneously, he must play memorized tunes, maintain rhythm, and walk or march about as needed. Few skilled pipers could be called klutzes.

The forced air passes through the drones and the chanter, and like any reed instrument causes them to vibrate and emit sound. The chanter is the only pipe that extends downward while the instrument is being played and has a slender, even delicate appearance. Ten holes drilled into the chanter allow creation of the notes. The chanter's reed is double-bladed, not unlike that of an oboe or bassoon.

The drones do not each create a single tone, but generate complex harmonic blending into an acoustic sensation of resonance that reinforces the sound of the chanter. This background "humming" is what characterises the instrument and remains steady and continuous as the pipes are being played. Many assert that the humming is what attracts aficionados to the instrument.

In the ancient development of the bagpipes, to accomodate the drones' harmonics, not all melody notes were selected. Some work extremely well, others with moderate success, and inclusion of other notes wasn't even debatable because they refused to harmonize with the drones. As a result the whole concept of sharps and flats is entirely unknown in bagpipe music. This also explains why pipers are often unable to play so many popular tunes. The total absence of certain notes, critical in Western music (classical, jazz, rock, etc) makes most of it impractical, if not impossible.

Because the pressure must remain consistent, the volume is fixed at one level: LOUD. Its origin was as an instrument of war, to be heard above the din of battle. There is no method to quiet the pipes other than distance between them and the listener.

memphis tennessee bagpipes drone chanter reed
The bagpipes are rather limited - the entire range is but nine notes. The unique 'modal' scale tends to defy defining the pipes in classical music terminology. The power and musicality of the instrument is clearly beyond debate and Great Highland Pipes well-constructed and well-played are impressive by any musical standard.

If one walks around with a set of pipes, a musician eventually will ask "What key are bagpipes in?" The root note of the chanter is close to a B-flat, but the key signature is E-flat. Equally accurate is that the pipes are in B-flat mixolydian, but this almost seems to mystify even many musicians. Perhaps the best answer to stick with is, "They're in E-flat."

For our convenience, pipe music is written in standard musical notation without sharps or flats. It has been claimed that this unusual scale resembles the human voice, hence the old saying, "Let the pipes speak.", and the fascination so many people have with them. Children are particularly susceptible - ever read the story of The Pied Piper of Hamlin?

When listening to the bagpipes, one hears blips, chirps, and ripples throughout the music. These are intentional and known as grace notes. They consist of rapid short notes or elaborate combinations of short notes inserted between the notes of the melody and give the music its distinctiveness. And the various grace notes even have tongue-twisting Gaelic names such as leumluath and taorluath.

scottish memphis tennessee bagpipers chanter

Grace notes separate main notes, add body, and serve as accents, since the continuous airflow prevents breaks or rests during performances. Without grace notes, pipe music would sound terribly dull, even lifeless - akin to beer without carbonation.

To the right is a typical chanter reed. These are the very heart of the instrument and are made by carefully planing and shaping pieces of cane (Arundo donax) until 1.5" to 1.75" in length and ~0.5" wide. Then they are wrapped securely around a small metal tube known as a staple. Chanter reeds are a double-bladed reed similar to those used in oboes and bassoons. They are created by a variety of reedmakers each with his own idea of how to produce the best product.

memphis tennessee bagpipes flat reed drone
bagpipers chanter scottish reeds sharps

Drone reeds (below) are snugly fitted into the bottom of the drones which are subsequently friction fitted to interfaces called stocks which are tied tightly to the bag. Drone reeds are of two types: natural and synthetic. The one on the top is a traditional cane reed. It's a hollow cane tube with a tongue that vibrates when air passes through it. They are renown for their capricious temperment. Even slight changes in weather can cause cane drone reeds to go out of tune or shut down.

The two reeds at bottom are the collective idea of contemporary pipers who wanted something durable, reliable, and dependable. These reeds are made from various plastics and carbon fibers. They should last years with little maintenance. Weather conditions usually have little effect on synthetics. There are several manufacturers of synthetic drone reeds, each claiming to have the latest features or truest sound. The biggest difference between the two types is cost. Cane reeds are several dollars each, while a set of synthetic drone reeds can cost well over a hundred bucks.

scottish drones bagpipes reed


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