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I play a set of D. Naill bagpipes with a medium

Shepherd bag and the V3 Dryer System

 

 

I've been asked numerous times throughout the years how a set of bagpipe works... This page will give you a brief summary of the history, design and inner-workings of the instrument as well as some rudimentary facts about its unique music.

 

 


 

 

To make of a piper go seven years of his own learning and seven generations before... At the end of his seven years one born to it will stand at the start of knowledge, and leaning a fond ear to the drone, he may have parley with old folks of old affairs.

                                                                                                                     

                                                                                                                                        The Lost Pibroch

                                                                                                                                        by Neil Munro

 


 

 

 

HISTORY 

 

 

Nothing defines the sound of Scotland quite like the great Highland bagpipe! How the pipes actually arrived in Scotland however, 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 Scot 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.

 

 

Whilst historians can only speculate on the actual origins of the piob mhor, or great Highland bagpipe, it was the Highlanders themselves who 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 1500s. The third, or bass drone, came into use sometime in the early 1700s.

 

 

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.

 

 

A MacCrimmon playing the bagpipe

 

 

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 and at the head of each regiment would be the unarmed solitary piper leading the troops into and beyond the "jaws of death." In World War I alone hundreds of pipers were lost playing their comrades in futile charges across no man's land. From Waterloo to the Indian, Crimean, and South African Campaigns, from World War I to World War II, from Korea to the Falklands, from Desert Storm to the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pipers have always answered the call of duty...

 
 

 
Design of the Instrument
 
 
The bagpipe gets its name from its bag and its pipes. The three big pipes are called drones: the largest is the bass drone and the smaller two are the tenor drones. The pipe with the holes is the chanter and the shortest pipe is the blowpipe. All of the pipes are attached to a bag, which is enclosed within a decorative bag cover.
 
 
How does the instrument work? The bag is filled through the blowpipe, which has a one-way valve to prevent leakage. Air from the bag flows through the chanter and the drones, creating sound as it passes through the reeds. Every few seconds the piper refills the bag through the blowpipe.
 
 
The melody is produced entirely by the chanter, which has a powerful double reed. The chanter can play nine notes ranging from low G to high A. It plays in the mixolydian mode, a fancy term meaning that its scale is the same as a normal major scale with the seventh note flattened by a half step. The tonic (base note of the scale) is A. Be aware that A is just the name of the note. The instrument has grown sharper over the years so that the A on most modern chanters is in the area of a concert B-flat. Even more confusingly, the C-sharp and F-sharp are always called C and F respectively.
 
 
The three drones use single reeds to play constant notes, with the tenor drones both playing one octave above the bass drone. The tenor drone plays the low A of the chanter and the bass drone is an A an octave lower. The drone notes harmonize with the melody notes played on the chanter in a similar manner to pedal tones in organ music. Since the chanter uses just intonation, every note on the chanter is guaranteed to sound good against a properly-tuned set of drones. Incidentally, this is the reason that the bagpipe uses a scale with the seventh note of the scale flattened by a half step. If it were to use a standard A-major scale, the G would be a half step away from the drones, which would create dissonance.
 
 
Listening to Grace Notes
 
 
The volume of the bagpipe is steady, and the instrument plays constantly, so musical expression in bagpipe music does not involve dynamics (changes in volume) or pauses between notes. Instead, bagpipers show expression with grace notes and timing.
 
 
A grace note is a short note which isn't part of the melody and doesn't officially take up any time. On the bagpipe, grace notes are most frequently used to emphasize important notes. They are also used to separate a single note played two or more times in a row (much like tonguing with most wind instruments). When more emphasis is desired, the bagpiper plays a movement, or series of gracenotes. Most movements are three or four grace notes, but some are seven or more.
 
 

 
The Music of the Great Highland Bagpipe
 
 
Broadly speaking bagpipe music can fall into three categories:
 
 
         Ceol Mor -- the Great Music: a repertoire consisting of salutes, gathering tunes,
                                      marches, laments and brosnachadh.
 
 
         Ceol Meadhonach -- the Middle Music: slow airs and jigs.
 
 
         Ceol Beag -- the Little Music: strathspeys, marches, hornpipes and reels.
 
 
CEOL MOR
 
 
Piobaireachd (pronounced "peebrock") is a very ancient art form and its origins are rather obscure. It is thought that by the time the MacCrimmons brought the art form to prominence during the 16th century that Ceol Mor was already, by then, very highly evolved and complex as a classical music form (thus making piobaireachd much older by several centuries).
 
 
The main categories of Piobaireachd are salutes (tunes that acknowledge a person, event or location), laments (mourning tunes written for people of note), gatherings (tunes that were written specifically for a clan), rowing (rhythmic tunes used to encourage rowers rowing a boat), marches (so called, but in reality not marches as usually known in light music), and brosnachadh (call to battle or commemoration).
 
 
The musical structure of piobaireachd focuses on a central theme and its variations. The theme is called urlar, meaning ground. This is the starting point of a tune and is normally played slowly and is usually accentuated with grace and connecting notes. In most cases the variations following the ground involve the use of a number of different musical embellishments, usually starting very simply and progressing through successively more complex movements before returning again to the ground.
 
 

Music for one of the most beautiful piobaireachds ever

composed: Lament for the Children (Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor)

 
 
CEOL MEADHONACH & CEOL BEAG (commonly known as "light music")
 
 
The other style of music for the Great Highland Bagpipe is "light music." This is the music that most listeners are accustomed to hearing. Strathspeys, reels, and jigs are all forms of dance music. Marches, obviously, are typically used for marching. Hornpipes are tunes that are very complex and difficult, and allow a piper to really show his/her skills. Airs are typically slow, melancholic pieces. Unlike piobaireachd, all light music has a beat. There are a variety of time signatures that appear in light music (2/4, 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, etc.), but no form of light music is non-mensural.
 
 

Music for one of the most popular pieces of

"light music": Scotland the Brave (Scots Guards, Vol. I)

 
 

 
The information contained in this page was extracted word for word from four online articles: