Some topics about the pipes, and piping.....


The history of the Great Highland Bagpipe

     In the Scottish Lowlands, pipers were part of the traveling minstrel  class, performing at weddings, feasts and fairs throughout the Border  country, playing song and dance music. Highland pipers on the other  hand, appear to have been more strongly influenced by their Celtic  background and occupied a high and honored position. It is considered  that by the 1700s the piper had started to replace the harpist as the  prime Celtic musician of choice within the Clan system.


     How bagpipes arrived in Scotland is somewhat of a mystery. Some historians believe that bagpipes originate from ancient Egypt  and were brought to Scotland by invading Roman Legions. Others maintain  that the instrument was brought over the water by the colonizing Scots  tribes from Ireland.

     Ancient  Egypt does appear to have prior claim to the instrument however; from  as early as 400 BC the ‘pipers of Thebes’ are reported to have been  blowing pipes made from dog skin with chanters of bone. And several  hundred years later, one of the most famous exponents of the pipes is  said to have been the great Roman Emperor Nero, who may well have been  piping rather than fiddling whilst Rome burned.  What is certain however is that bagpipes have existed in various  forms in many places around the world. In each country the construction  of the basic instrument comprises the same component parts; an air  supply, a bag with a chanter and one or more drones.

     By far the most common method of supplying  air to the bag is by blowing with the mouth, although some early  innovations included the use of bellows. The bag, commonly made from  animal skin, is simply an airtight reservoir to hold the air and  regulate its flow, thus allowing the piper to breathe and maintain a  continuous sound, both at the same time. The chanter is the melody pipe,  usually played by one or two hands. Generally comprising two or more  sliding parts, the drone allows the pitch of the pipes to be altered.

     While historians can only speculate on the actual origins of the  Piob Mhor, or great Highland bagpipe, it was the Scottish highlanders themselves that developed the instrument to its current form,  establishing it as their national musical instrument both in times of  war and peace.  The original Highland pipes probably comprised a single drone with the  second drone being added in the mid to late 1500’s. The third, or the  great drone, came into use sometime in the early 1700s.

        As a musical instrument of war, the first mention of the bagpipes  appears to date from 1549 at the Battle of Pinkie, when the pipes  replaced trumpets to help inspire the Highlanders into battle. It is  said that the shrill and penetrating sound worked well in the roar of  battle and that the pipes could be heard at distances of up to 10 miles  away.

     Due to their inspirational influence, bagpipes were classified as  instruments of war during the Highland uprisings of the early 1700s, and  following the defeat of  Bonnie Prince Charlie at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the government in London attempted to crush the rebellious  clan system. An Act of Parliament was passed which made the carrying of  weapons, such as those vicious bagpipes, and the wearing of kilts a  penal offense.  Although the Act was eventually repealed in 1785, it was the  expansion of the British Empire that spread the fame of the great  Highland bagpipes world-wide. Often spearheading the various campaigns  of the British Army would be one of the famous Highland regiments, the  ‘Devils in Skirts’, and at the head of each regiment would be the  unarmed solitary piper leading the troops into and beyond the ‘jaws of  death’.

What do pipers wear?

 What do pipers wear?  It depends on a lot of different things.  Are  they playing in a pipe band?  If so, they all try to wear conforming clothing.  Matching kilts, shirts, ties.  Or they may go for a more military look, with spats,  colored or white hose,  honor guard jackets, doublets, cross belts, horsehair sporrans, the list is endless.  For competition  or performing as a solo piper, many go the simpler route and wear Ghillies, piper hose, shirt & tie, Glengarry or  Balmoral hats, and the list could go on and on.  Bottom line is this:  no matter what the piper is wearing, it has absolutely no effect on the sound of the pipes.  That is under the control of the musician, which leads to the next topic...


How do the bagpipes, GHB, work?


     Scottish pipes have three drones, two tenors which play exactly the same note and the bass which plays an octave below.   They are powered by drone reeds, which is  a cylinder of wood split into two pieces for tuning purposes. The piper  moves the reed when playing to adjust the tuning.

     Traditionally, the drone reed would have been  made from a piece of cane. However, synthetic drone reeds made of a  plastic, or carbon fiber compound are now common.  In the body of the reed, is the tongue which sits at the top and vibrates against the body of the reed when air passes over it.  On its own it doesn’t sound like much, but when placed inside the drone the distinctive sound of the pipes is awakened.


     Inside the chanter is a small reed which is made of cane or  increasingly a synthetic plastic material. The smaller the reed the  louder the sound it creates by vibrating then projecting a sound.  This is also why you need a bag to push enough air through to get the stiff reed vibrating.   The finger holes share a familiarity with a recorder. The chanter makes  nine notes from low G, low A, B, C, D, E, F, high G, and high A. These  notes don't exactly correspond to modern tuning, the A most pipers play  to is closer to a B flat. 

What makes a good piper?

There are several things to look for, but to make it simple,  the pipes must work together and be in tune.  A poor piper that is in tune sounds better than a good piper who is out of tune.  The drones  reeds must be adjusted for equal volume, and the playing on the chanter must be precise, with the correct fingerings and embellishments. 

What are the different types of pipe music?

The pipes can be used for many different occasions.  So there are several different types of pipe music.  Marches, can be 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/8  time signature.  Strathspeys, Jigs, Reels, Hornpipes, Lilts, Competition marches, Slow Airs, are some of the more popular.  These are all called Ceolbeg, or light music.  

What is Piobaireachd?

Playing Piobaireachd is my specialty, and one of the best explanations comes from P/M Donald Macleod, MBE...

     "Piobaireachd is the Gaelic word for "bagpiping". In the days before 1745, it is likely that most of the music played on the bagpipe was not of the march, strathspey, reel, hornpipe, or jig styles that we are familiar with today. Piobaireachd is an ancient style of theme and variation in which a thematic melody (called the "urlar" in Gaelic where it means "ground" as in most basic part) is played followed by variations of increasing difficulty. It is the classical music of the bagpipe.

     After composing the urlar, a simplified series of notes are selected to represent the musical theme. Structured variations are played upon these theme notes. The first variations may involve single gracenotes on the theme notes, but later variations can incorporate extremely ornate embellishments with more than ten gracenotes per theme note. Eventually the melody is repeated to complete the cycle. 

     The timing or pulse of the music is of the rubato form where a strict rhythm  is not kept.  A bit of a beat is added here and taken away there - much as  in jazz today.  To further complicate matters, there are cadence and  connecting notes that "don't count" in the timing and which are interpreted  differently by different masters of the form. 

     The timing aspects are sometimes known as "scansion", which refers to the "shape" of the piece. The development of a piobaireachd player may be likened to the maturation process of a student reading the words of William Shakespeare aloud in high school and then bringing more to those words through timing,  phasing and emphasis as the student continues to grow and study with masters in live theatrical performances. 

     While sometimes considered an acquired taste, when well played, piobaireachd  will induce a rhythmic swaying in the attentive listener. It speaks to the  listener in a deeper and more contemplative manner than most light music. 

Piobaireachds were often written to commemorate an event (e.g., Laments for death are very common as are Salutes for various occasions) or had practical uses in Highland society (e.g., Gathering of the Clans). These tunes are generally 8 to 15 minutes in length and, when well played, are some of the most inspiring music of the bagpipe. The music may be described as insistent and persistent - demanding to be heard and creating a need to be heard in order to satisfy the listener. Like many classical music forms, it may not have instant appeal to the uneducated listener.

     The study of piobaireachd has two real advantages for the player who wishes to improve. 

  1. Mastery of the embellishments builds dexterity of the hands. 
  2. Placement of the pulses and development of phrasing and sub-phrases within the timing allows one to fully investigate and experiment with interpretation and finding the "music" within the written score. 

One of my favorite quotations is from an incredible piper, teacher and judge  who said, "If it wasn't for how I feel about piobaireachd, I would have given up  piping long ago."

Are the pipes hard to learn?

 A question  I'm often asked is, "How hard is it to learn to play bagpipes?"  It's a tough question - below is a list of things that set bagpipes  apart from other instruments and that will perhaps give those  considering the instrument some help.       

  • Wind - Some mouth-blown pipes require higher air  pressure and/or greater air volume than others. Most persons, contrary  to what might be expected, have less trouble with lung-power than with  the muscles around their lips.  Beginners find that many bagpipes are either  impossible to play for more than a few moments, or at all. The solution is to build up the necessary stamina slowly, either, in the case of some  bagpipes, by first playing a practice chanter or by playing with some  or all of the drones plugged off. There is also a beginners' version of  some sorts of bagpipes, called a goose, that is useful in this and other  early development.

  • Steadiness - During ordinary playing, and with certain  exceptions, it is essential that the chanter and drone(s) receive air at  a steady and constant pressure. This requires that as air is blown into  the bag,  via the blowpipe and player's mouth,  that the amount of  pressure applied by the player's arm against the bag be proportionately  and smoothly diminished. Likewise, as the airflow through the blowpipe  ceases, arm pressure must be increased to keep air pressure constant.  Failure to maintain constant air pressure results in the pitch of the  various pipes changing, and worse yet changing relative to one another -  in other words, the bagpipe will sound out of tune.
        The same thing applies to bellows-blown bagpipes - the arm squeezing the  bag must be relaxed a bit as the other arm compresses the bellows, and  vice versa. There is a tendency to try to time all this arm movement to  the tempo of the music being played; this must be avoided from the  outset - the air supply, whether by mouth or bellows, must be steady and  automatic, and not occupy the piper consciously or be somehow linked to  the particular tune being played.

  •    Tuning - Once a piper has mastered providing steady air  pressure to the instrument without his or her mouth falling off after  thirty seconds, the tuning of the chanter and drones becomes the next  task. Mouth blown bagpipes in particular require frequent tuning,  because the temperature and especially the moisture content of the reeds  is always changing.  Chanter reeds are more or less sensitive,  depending, among many factors, on the individual reed and the type of  bagpipe. It is sometimes, but hopefully not too often, necessary to  either sharpen or flatten a chanter reed to bring the top and bottom  notes of the scale into proper relative tune. One way to accomplish this  is by setting the reed more or less deeply in its seat. Sometimes the  top and bottom of the scale will sound fine, but one or more notes in  the middle of the scale will be off; applying tape to the fingerholes,  effectively changing their pitch, is one time-honored method of  dealing deal with this. Much of this sort of trouble is due to the reed  not being under the direct control of the piper, that is, in the mouth  as are the reeds of most other woodwinds. Compounding the problem, a  piper cannot adjust the pitch of the chanter reed by varying air  pressure, because any change will also affect the pitch of the drone  reeds, thus again throwing the pipes out of tune. The upshot of all of  this is that considerable fussing with chanter reeds is a part of  playing bagpipes, and the skills involved take time to master.

         Drone reeds, with fewer demands on them, are usually easier to live with  although they can give their share of trouble. Once a bagpipe's chanter  and drone reeds are working properly, a remaining chore is to tune the  drones to the chanter. In the case of Scottish bagpipes,  this is accomplished by changing the length of the drone, via sliding  joints, while the chanter is sounding a single note. The player, unless  blessed with perfect pitch, uses the audible "beat" - a pulsing sound -  that occurs when two notes are close to, but not quite exactly, in tune.  Hearing this "beat" is easier for some than others, but most people can  learn to hear it. Meanwhile, it  may be necessary to silence the others drones that have not yet been tuned.  This can be accomplished on many pipes by briefly clapping a hand over a  drone outlet; the drone can be restarted by popping a finger out of the  outlet (this creates a momentary negative pressure in the drone bore).  All of this can be troublesome at times.

  • Fingerings - Superficially, most bagpipes might seem rather  simple in regard to fingerings and indeed many other wind instruments  require more contortions than most bagpipes when playing a simple scale.  However, with some exceptions, a bagpipe chanter is always producing  sound. Thus there are no silences available between notes. In order to  play the same note twice in a row, at least one other short note, called  a grace note, must be interjected between. Grace notes, singly or in  groups, as well as complex embellishments, are also used to add color and character to the music - there  being limited other options (for example, there is no control whatsoever  over the volume of a note). Also, because most bagpipes have no keys,  some available notes may require awkward finger positions. These moves may be tricky, there not being even a split  second of silence available during which to get situated.

  • Learning Tunes - the inability to stop and start a bagpipe  quickly can make learning a new tune more difficult than on other  instruments. It can be difficult to concentrate on remembering (or  reading) a tune while the pipe is blaring away, and it is easier to get  "lost" than with most other instruments.       

    Overall, bagpipes are far from easy instruments to  play, let alone master. However, the complex components of decent piping  can be more or less learned one by one, and there is no single  overwhelming demand made or genius required. Thus most bagpipes respond  well to diligence and patience, and if these are applied the rewards can  be great, regardless of  talent.  


     I do give lessons, in your home, almost any day of the week, depending on my, and your schedule.  Adults only.  Not to be picky, but my experience over many years is that children tend to want instant gratification, which does not happen, and practice is essential.  It wastes my time, your time, and your money if you do not practice at least 30 min every day.  

     Pipers do not start on the bagpipes.  Most learning is done on a practice chanter.  They are relatively inexpensive and is the method to learn all of the fingerings, embellishments, and tunes one needs to advance.  Pipers use the PC their entire piping career.  It normally takes 4-6 months to move up to a set of pipes, with all the issues they create.  I'm always  happy to discuss learning, and what is required. The bottom line is that, with practice, almost anyone can learn to play. The ability to read music is not a requirement to get started.

How much do bagpipes cost?

     How much do bagpipes cost?  That question has so many variables, but as a general rule, plan to spend at least $1,000 for a basic set new, and $500+ on a used set.   Some items to consider are the material the pipes are made of.  There is African Blackwood, Cocobolo Wood, and Delrin, also known as Polypenco.  The wood pipes are susceptible to weather conditions, and require regular maintenance to keep them in good condition.  Delrin is a very dense plastic that will work great under all kinds of weather, require little maintenance other than cleaning, and will last a lifetime.  Other things to consider are the "mounts & ferrules".  They can be wood, plastic, metal, engraved or plain.  There are also reeds to consider, but any teacher can recommend what would work best.  Avoid ebay ripoff's.  Pipes made of rosewood, crocuswood or ebony are some of the cheap ripoff pipes from Pakistan, and are not worth the wood they are made of.   If the price seems to good to be true, it is!  Feel free to contact me for advice.