The Nature of the Beast

by Dave McKenzie

I’ve been a piper for more that 21 years, and in all that time, I have never ceased to be surprised by how foreign our instrument and its music still are to the non-piping public, even in the face of a growing and robust Scottish subculture in North America. “Braveheart”, “Rob Roy” and other films have created great interest in all things Scottish, however, myths, misconceptions, and generally unfounded assumptions persist and have all-too-often created an awkward moment or two at the beginning of what I always hope will be a professional relationship and service for every client I serve…

Let’s see…Myth No.1 has to be the assumption that the bagpipe is unique to Scotland or is Scottish in origin. It is not. The bagpipe has been known all over Europe and the Middle-East in one form or another and has been played for 1500 years or more before appearing in Britain, and yes, that does include Scotland’s historical archrival, England; around the 13th century.

Ireland is often cited as the origin of the “warpipe” as the Highland Bagpipe is sometimes known. It was known in ancient times, to the Greeks and Romans in particular, being mentioned in the bible and depicted in many surviving relics of the age including coins from the emperor Nero’s time, himself a piper. It is now thought that he played the bagpipe and not the fiddle when Rome burned! It wouldn’t be until the Renaissance that fiddle would emerge as an instrument. 

Although the bagpipe is a reeded, wind instrument and shares a few basic musical features with all other melody instruments, that is where the similarity ends. From here, the bagpipe is in its own musical world, and is, idiosyncratically, what it is. It could be said, as I have to many people on occasion, that the bagpipe works on a completely different musical principal than any other European instrument from the last 500 years. The bagpipe actually has more in common with the music of Asia, India, the Middle-East and even Aboriginal Australia and Native America than it does with music from Europe from the past 500 years or so. Please refer to The Joy of Sacks for a more complete picture on the history of the bagpipe and other related instruments.

In this article I will restrict my remarks to the Highland Bagpipe and its related instruments, so as not to confuse the issue by trying to be too broad in statements about all bagpipes in general. I stand behind every assertion that I make here and they reflect my experience, opinions, and preferences, like everything else contained here in this website. So, here we go… 

The Highland Bagpipe seems to be more like a machine than a musical instrument, with all of its movable, adjustable working parts. This is where all troubleshooting for the bagpipe begins. Being a competent piper means wearing several hats: musician, technician, engineer, machinist, and meteorologist.

Tech. Specs.

(That’s engineer jargon for “Technical Specifications”. I think it’s just fun to say.) 

The Highland Bagpipe consists of three drones: one Bass, the longest, and two tenors, the shorter two. The drones consist of  three (tenor) or four (bass) interlocking parts with movable joints. This allows the length of the drones to be adjusted and therefore tuned. Drones often have a carved or “combed” pattern to the wood and are outfitted with a variety of “mounts.”  These mounts serve two purposes; most importantly, to prevent the wood parts from splitting and to add intrinsic value to the instrument by choosing finer materials such as silver and ivory. These are the “set of three pipes”, bound together by cords and tassels; that ride on a piper’s shoulder. (left usually)  In each of three drones is a long-bodied tubular reed with a vibrating tongue- cut out (traditional, natural cane) or attached (synthetic) in some fashion. The blowpipe also protrudes upward from the bag to the piper’s mouth so that the bag can be constantly replenished with air as the instrument operates.

The chanter is the only pipe that extends down while the instrument is being played and has an elongated conical appearance somewhat like a very slender megaphone. There are 10 holes drilled into the chanter to create the notes and this is the only pipe that has a “flute-like” appearance. The chanter is where the piper applies months and even years of practice to create the melodies- “the Tunes,” we call them; as more often than not there are no words accompanying traditional bagpipe music, so they’re not really “songs,” are they?   

These five pipes are attached to the bag; nowadays a synthetic affair in itself quite often; which allows air and pressure to be supplied to all four reeds at the same time to keep them vibrating. The bag is kept firmly tucked under the armpit and a gentle yet constant squeezing with the elbow is applied to maintain a constant flow of sound. It is a common misconception that the piper “pumps” the bag while playing. Myth no. 2! The piper intermittently takes a breath and then replenishes the air that has escaped during that breath in an endless cycle of inhaling and blowing. 

A reputable manufacturer with a good reputation is central to a well-made instrument. Almost all bagpipes today are made from African Blackwood (Dalbergia Melanoxylon). Some other woods can and have been used with success including Cocobolo (Dalbergia Retusa), Ebony (Diospyros), seen mostly in older, vintage sets), Cocus Wood (Brya Ebenus) from Jamaica, and even the rare and wild-looking Pink Ivory (Berchemia Zeyheri) from South Africa. Time is one of the chief ingredients that goes into a well-crafted set. African Blackwood is extremely dense; so dense, that it will sink in water. It is this density that gives it its superior and desirable acoustic characteristics. It is also the density that requires drying or “seasoning” the wood from 6 months to a year or more until it is ready to be bored out and turned on a lathe. If the wood is the heart of the bagpipe, then the bore is truly its soul. This is where the rubber meets the road for the bagpipe maker, since even the slightest deviation in a bore’s design or manufacture can lead to pipes that will never play well. Or they may play well enough but have a coarse, blared, unrefined sound. This is especially true for chanters, as the difference in a 1000th of a millimeter anywhere along the bore can make a difference. Drones tend to be more forgiving in any deviation in precision measurements. It’s all science…

Tone and Tuning  

The modern pitch of the Highland Bagpipe varies with the playing conditions but is always in the ballpark of “B-flat.” This is a substantial climb in pitch from the same instrument of 100 years ago or so when the bagpipe tuned in “A,” a fact still reflected in how bagpipe music continues to be written. The first factor that sets the bagpipe apart is the characteristic “hum” that defines the instrument. It is this background hum or “harmonic envelope” that is heard throughout a performance, and remains continuous as long as the instrument is being played.   It could be argued that this unbroken, hypnotic lure of the drones alone is what draws listeners and later lovers of good, authentic bagpipe music. But I digress… 

The drones themselves create not one tone each, as is often too simply stated, but many “overtones” or  “harmonics” that create an acoustic atmosphere of richness and depth of resonance that supports the otherwise high-pitched, shrill, “naked” sound of the chanter. The end result is many frequencies competing for space. In the push and pull of the Physics, the tones or “notes” in the chanter get sorted out in the mix. Some work extremely well, others with varying success, and some “notes” are completely eliminated as a possibility because they refuse to harmonize or “chord” with the drones. This is why the whole concept of “sharps and flats” is unknown in bagpipe music. This is also why pipers are often at a loss to play many more familiar tunes. The total absence of certain notes, critical in 12-tone or “Western” music- classical, jazz, rock, Latin, blues, and so forth, makes most of it problematic at best. Christmas carols and Hymns from any church music book are an interesting study in tonal warfare for the often frustrated piper, having all but one note to make the tune complete, and the equally baffled organist or keyboard player who can’t figure out why the piper keeps changing keys without even knowing it. Many people experiencing the bagpipe live for the first time are often disappointed when their requests go unheeded or unplayed. They have assumed that all music is equally possible on all instruments. It is not. Myth No. 3! . “Danny Boy”, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” and even “Auld Lang Syne” make better songs than pipe tunes, because of the tonal problem solving that has to be done with them. This is why the pipe music deviates from the more familiar melody of the songs.

All “Western music” since about the mid 1700’s has been “equal tempered”, that is, all of the notes are tuned equidistant from each other to give us the system of tones that reign today in every form of music that we encounter, however artificially contrived or divided they might be. This allows for the interchangeability of scales and keys in all modern music. Not so with the bagpipe. The notes conform more to a pattern first derived by Pythagoras in Ancient Greece, specifically the mixolydian mode. Ultimately, it is the unforgiving nature of the drones that creates this unique set of tones and intervals that are “just tempered.” The scale consists of eight notes plus one extra below the “octave,” used with great effect and frequency in the music of the Highland Bagpipe. This gives us nine notes or, better stated, eight intervals to work with. The scale of the bagpipe is remarkably limited compared to the tonal range of most other instruments. In spite of that fact, there are more than 10,000 tunes in existence that are played or have been written specifically for the Highland Bagpipe. They are all different although they may share several features or ideas in common.  How is this achieved? The secret to the bagpipe’s endurance as a musical art form is in the magic of the scale. Within the seemingly limited range of just nine notes there are five “sub-scales” or “modes” that overlap using the tones available to create whole new worlds of musical possibility. This is where the major difference in bagpipe music and “Western” music arises. The “modes” or smaller scales within the scale are characteristically 5-tone or “pentatonic” scales. These are most commonly associated with the music of Asia, Africa and Native America. This is why the spirit of a Highland air can be evoked at the same time that an Asian strain can be heard when anyone noodles with just the black keys of the piano. Try it sometime. You’ll see what I mean. This aspect in combination with the presence of a droning sound as a keynote that is the common thread or missing link that relates bagpipe music more easily to music from outside Europe, and to European music itself from the Middle Ages and before. This is why in modern times there is little overlap of the repertoires of the Highland Bagpipe and Western Music. Regardless of the complexity of the tune, the music of the bagpipe is still one note at a time, one grace note at a time, no matter how fast or slow. Chords and harmonies in melodies are only possible by the addition of a second, third and even fourth piper, and this is heard everywhere in the world of Pipe Bands.

Handling and Performance 

An overwhelming aspect of the Highland Bagpipe live is sheer volume. The instrument can fill a large space easily, a small space with some compression, and are truly suited to the outdoors.  Bagpipe music is also punctuated heavily with grace notes. This is to compensate for a complete lack of dynamics- the ability to play loudly and softly for musical emphasis. The Highland Bagpipe has one dynamic- Loud! Its origin and reputation are as an instrument of war, meant to be heard above the clamor of battle- first the clanking of swords and armor and later gunfire and cannon. If you need something quieter or more intimate, there are options like the shuttle pipes, or the electric pipes for more indoor and listener-friendly occasions, like cocktail parties, dinner parties and such. 

How a piper handles, plays and performs not only music but also a good tuning routine, is a matter of special consideration. The bagpipe is not an instrument that can be played, in tune, right out of the case. This is THE assumption made more often than not by prospective clients that creates the most potential problems, as the tuning of the instrument is constantly changing. No other instrument is so unforgiving as the bagpipe if it is not in tune with itself. Time prior to any performance is required to allow the instrument, and the reeds in particular, to warm and “settle”, given the particular playing conditions that the moment brings. This is the biggest obstacle when I am intended to be a surprise, as the bagpipe is difficult to conceal, both visually and acoustically, in close proximity of either time or distance to an event. A good staging area, like a separate room with a door that shuts, out of sight and earshot, is often the best, simplest solution to retain the element of surprise.  

Just getting the instrument going is unusual to the uninitiated. The piper “strikes-in” the pipe by gently yet firmly compressing the bag in one swift, deft motion so as to sound the drones. If the “strike-in” is unsuccessful, squealing, howling, and roaring of the drones may be heard as well as early, uncontrolled squawks from the chanter. If the “strike-in” is successful, the drones will all sound together and make a more-or-less uniform sound, if not somewhat disorganized at first. This is called the “single-tone.” As the piper quickly builds the pressure in the bag the drones should be heard to “snap” or “jump’ into the “double-tone” or playing sound. This is followed by a further slight increase in pressure to bring the chanter into the mix and thus begins the tuning routine. Often, a particularly well-set bagpipe will be heard to sound both the “double-tone” and the chanter voices at the same time. At the end of a performance, especially a band performance, a good “cut-off” should be heard; something that is aesthetically pleasing and takes the listener from a musical experience instantly to silence. The piper will be seen to end his performance and, applying pressure for several seconds without blowing into the bag, suddenly and deliberately relax the entire instrument in his arm in less that a second. This sudden depressurization is preferable to allowing the bag to slowly deflate, resulting in a sound effect more like a dying animal than anything else...  “Fading-in” or “Fading-out” as I have been sometimes asked to do, is not an option. It is not even possible. Like Scotty says in classic Star Trek, “I canna change the Laws of Physics, Captain. I donna have the pouwer.”

 Most pipers will go through a tuning routine where notes, scales, and progressions- the “tuning phrases” all punctuated by the grace note technique are part of the warm-up before any actual music is attempted. Frequent tuning, re-tuning, and fine-tuning of the drones is common as the instrument’s tuning stabilizes. The piper will be seen to reach across his body and turn the tops of the drones in search of the “sweet spot.”  This may also involve turning off one or more drones and then “plucking” them back on as the piper inserts the end of his finger into the bell of the drone like a coke bottle. The “strike-in” may be seen here again as well. Tuning routines are most frequently witnessed at competitions where tuning is critical to good results.  Often the tuning routine may seen again after several minutes of playing when the piper begins to hear the tuning slipping away. Fine tuning the holes of the chanter with black vinyl tape is seen everywhere and readjusting the tape is often part of the tuning process.  The tuning routine and a judicious use of playing/tuning time is key to a piper’s success at always staying on the shy side of “peaking” the instrument out.

Playing Conditions

Perhaps no other instrument is so affected by the playing conditions that the moment may dictate and yet is subjected to the most extremes in playing conditions, just as part of the job of being a piper. The two main factors that affect the tuning and intonation of the Highland Bagpipe are temperature and humidity, both internal and external. The external factors are from the weather, if an outside performance or the environmental controls of the room for an inside performance. The internal factors come from the piper himself.

Humidity goes almost without saying, as it is the most powerful variable and the most underrated in its impact on tuning, both good and bad. The piper is usually the first and most abundant source of internal humidity and the most variable. Some pipers are “dry-blowers.” I can’t imagine it myself but I know they’re out there. I’m the other end of the spectrum- a “wet blower.” Like a monsoon… But my reeds break-in quickly, so that’s the trade-off. Other than the relative humidity of the air, every breath takes moisture from the piper’s lungs and delivers it into the bag, the reeds, and the bores. Some moisture is good and an essential part of the break-in process with a new reed or reeds. Too much can be disastrous and it is a fine line between the two. Most moisture problems these days have been solved or, at least, made easier to cope with in the thrust of new and ever more user- friendly technology; much of it from Australia where extremes of temperature and humidity are the norm. Synthetic bags, moisture traps and containment systems of all kinds, as well as synthetic drone reeds have all added up to a generally better sounding instrument that is easier to maintain. Synthetic drone reeds, in particular, have reduced troubleshooting the humidity and temperature variables to almost nothing. This has greatly limited the concern of the piper to just the behavior and performance of his chanter reed, the only reed that continues to be made from traditional cane, and therefore subject to change during play for several weeks or months, to possibly a year or more.

Beyond a piper knowing himself and the day well enough to control the humidity factor, temperature is the other great variable in the equation. Generally speaking, the greater the extremes of temperature combined with the humidity factor, the shorter the playing time that the bagpipe will allow before it simply becomes waterlogged and the reeds will eventually shut off. Subjecting the instrument to extremes in temperature, below 60 or above 90 degrees, will, in effect, cause the tuning of the instrument to change more quickly and in adverse directions. Colder temperatures cause bagpipes to sharpen up quickly but flatness in the tuning also quickly becomes a problem due to increased condensation over a shorter period of time from those same cold temperatures. Warmer temperatures cause bagpipes to flatten out but pitch and tuning can fluctuate wildly as humidity and its absence is more of a mitigating factor in warmer temperatures. Predictability in the performance of one’s chanter reed becomes of primary importance, especially in the competitive circuit where performances are often outdoors and in all weathers at the “Highland Games.” It’s all a matter of the laws of Physics: Rate of evaporation, rate of absorption, rates of expansion and contraction, and point of saturation…It’s all science that goes into the art of troubleshooting the bagpipe.

Some “Red-flag” playing situations: 

Playing in the rain. Period. There could be no more detrimental situation to subject the instrument to. Playing in a covered area, however, can actually be good for the instrument, while it is raining, just no direct downpours. Bagpipes, especially the vintage ones, have been known to develop splits and cracks severe enough to render the instrument unplayable after even short periods of continuous exposure to rain. I have witnessed it first hand at “the Highland Games”

Going from one temperature extreme to the other. Not necessarily from one temperature to the other.

This happens a lot here in the South. HOT summers with temperatures and humidity in the 90s is normal. Air-conditioned rooms between 65-75 with noticeably lower humidity are also the norm. Having to play from one to the other and, perhaps, even back plays havoc with the tuning of the instrument and longer performances may require several periods of retuning.

Less frequently, and the opposite is going from a cooler outside to a heated, often dry interior. A far better, lesser of two evils. 

Playing in the cold below 60 degrees.

This severely shortens playing times and will vary from one piper to the next depending on what kind of “blower” he is. It will also render a sound that is thinner, duller, more shrill and less pleasing to the ear. 

Suffice it to say that a poorly planned event has been set up for disappointment if not disaster because the instrument was taxed beyond its limits and the piper’s ability to cope with that change. This is where troubleshooting the bagpipe is most formidable for the inexperienced player. Before the advent of synthetic parts, which did not really come on the scene until the mid 1980’s, the bagpipe had a reputation of being even more temperamental, with four natural reeds, and hide bags, which are necessarily limited in performance, endurance, and normal wear-and-tear in an average playing time and lifetime…like a piper.


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