Why bagpipes sound as they do

I wrote this somewhat technical article because Bagpipe players nowadays use an electronic instrument to tune their pipes, so that all the instruments in a band sound similar to each other on each note of the scale. The instrument requires the operator to take a reading from each note and then apply an “offset” correction to decide if it is properly in tune. This is a bit mathematical and tends to confuse people who are not technically or mathematically inclined. This article tries to make clear what it is all about.

Preliminary Note: Musicians speak of the ‘pitch’ of a musical note, and engineers prefer to talk of ‘frequency’. ‘Pitch’ and ‘Timbre’ are words that describe what our ears perceive when various musical notes are played singly or at the same time as one another. They are words that describe the subjective experience people have when  they listen to music. Frequency on the other hand is what we measure using scientific instruments. If a string on a violin or guitar etc. vibrates at a certain rate, say 440 vibrations per second, a classical musician will say they are hearing “A440” or “concert pitch”. It is the note called ‘A’ above the middle A note on the piano. In the middle of last century we techies used to say that the frequency of that vibration was 440 cycles per second. But in non-english speaking countries, other units were given to this vibrational speed (frequency). The Germans were always world leaders in this type of engineering, and they gave the name of a famous German scientist (Hertz) to the unit of frequency. Other countries had other names and there was a battle to arrive at standardised terminology. Somewhere around 1970, the Germans won the fight, and the whole world agreed to use the name ‘Hertz” (Hz) to describe the unit of vibrational rate, or frequency. For the record then, the number of vibrations per second (frequency) of a vibrating body or air-pressure wave is defined as the number of Hertz. 1 Hertz (Hz) is exactly equal to one cycle per second. There is no difference. It is just terminology.

Ever since early Egyptian times, or maybe earlier still, it was understood that if a number of musical notes were played, either together as a chord or rapidly after one another, they sounded better if the various notes had frequencies that were simple fractional numbers of each other. The simplest possible case is when the frequency of a particular note is exactly double that of another (a 2:1 ratio). Musicians will say they are one octave apart and they harmonise perfectly.  The result is very pleasing to the ear. A frequency ratio between the two notes of 3:1 is called a perfect fifth by musicians and is also very pleasing to the ear. It’s not surprising because some of the peaks of the two sound waves impinge on the listening ear at the same instant, and at moments when they do coincide, their powers are added together. Notes in harmony boost each other.

Most modern instruments have diatonic scales. That means there are 12 steps in the octave from the lowest to the highest pitched note (Including tones and semi-tones). If we look at how the scale is put together we see that the ratio between the frequencies of each pair of adjacent notes is the same as between any other adjacent pair. This is actually not exactly the ratio that pleases the human ear most, but it is close enough to still be pleasing.  Because all the intervals are the same, different instruments playing in different keys can play together and it will sound good. A scale with these intervals between notes is called an even-tempered scale and it is a good compromise which allows compatibility of different instruments playing in different keys. The average human ear accepts the slight inaccuracies in the case of most instruments

But the bagpipes are a different thing. The notes of the bagpipe chanter do not follow and even-tempered scale. The various notes are altered from the standard diatonic scale so that they will harmonize better with the drones. (For those who don’t know, the drones are the long pipes that rest on the pipers shoulder and create a deep ‘droning’ sound like a vacuum cleaner). Many pipers think the drones are fairly unimportant in the total sound produced by the pipes, but actually, I am coming to the realization that the entire scale system of the bagpipes is surely based on the characteristics of the bass drone reed. So, we should start with that reed and work up to the chanter. (The chanter is the tube with note-holes in it that the piper holds out in front of him and plays fingerings on to achieve a tune).

The sound we hear from a reed depends on three main things. (Reeds are what make the sound in the bagpipes. They consist in essence of thin wafers of reed or synthetic material that vibrate when air flows over and through them).

  • The material the reed is made from
  • The dimensions of the reed
  • the acoustical enclosure that the reed is played in (i.e. the drone pipe itself in this case)

There is a fourth factor with reeds such as clarinet reeds where the musicians lips are directly on the reed and he/she can influence the sound the reed makes by blowing it differently. This is not relevant in the bagpipes because the reeds are enclosed within pre-tuned cavities.

Let’s get back to the bass drone reed on the bagpipes. this reed within its drone pipe and driven by a constant stream of air from the bag, vibrates at a fundamental frequency of around 115 Hz (vibrations per second). But apart from that fundamental frequency, the reed and enclosure all produce many harmonics which are multiples of the fundamental frequency, and actually, other overtones which are not exact multiples of the fundamental frequency are also produced. But ignore the stray overtones and stick to the exact harmonics for now.

The tenor drone has a fundamental (basic frequency) of exactly twice the base drone fundamental and therefore vibrates at approximately 230 Hz. It too produces harmonics and overtones and because the fundamentals of the base and tenor drones are exact multiples of each other, the harmonics and overtones will be very similar. These harmonics and overtones will therefore harmonize and produce many pleasing pressure peaks in the sound wave.

Moving up then to the chanter, the Tonic note of the scale is called low-A and that is tuned to be an exact multiple of the base and tenor drones, one octave up from the tenor drones. In other words, the low-A on the chanter is tuned to about 460 Hz. This is arbitrary and not laid down as a strict rule, and the modern trend is to increase the frequency of all the pipes to make them sound sharper and more lively.

In normal classical instruments played in orchestras, that A note is traditionally tuned to 440 Hz and that is known as concert pitch. It is however true that the trend, even in conventional instruments, is to make concert pitch a little sharper than 440 Hz.

But now, here is where the pipes are dissimilar to all the other orchestral instruments. The notes produced by the bagpipe chanter are selected to harmonise with all the rich harmonics produced by the drones and the scale notes are therefore not the same as the normal diotonic scale of classical instruments. The scale is not an even-tempered scale as explained earlier. It is instead called a just-tempered scale which is actually a more accurate division of the octave, and the notes on the chanter scale harmonize more beautifully with the harmonics of the drones to produce the full sound that bagpipe enthusiasts love so much.  But here’s the rub.

Most of the electronic tuning devices we can buy, except for the very expensive ones, are all set to tune an instrument to an even-tempered scale. Because the notes of the chanter vary from those of an even-tempered scale, we need to understand that the readings of each note on a standard tuning device will be in error by the amount that the chanter note differs from the even-tempered scale. This means that we have to apply a mathematical correction to the readings we get on the electronic tester in order to tune the chanter correctly to match the drone’s harmonics. This correction is known as an offset and is given in a unit called ‘cents’ in the table issued with the instrument. The unit ‘cent’ or 1/100 th of an octave was invented more than 2 000 years ago by Pythagoras, and is simply a way of way of specifying a note far more acurately that just talking about tones and semi-tones. So for instance, the offset to be applied to the F note on the chanter is -16 cents. The F note on the chanter is close to an F# on other instruments and by applying this offset of -16 cents we will end up tuning the F to a bagpipe F and not a piano F.

Just a complication on all the above. Even with choosing chanter notes that better match the drone characteristics, it is not possible to find chanter notes that harmonize with all the available drone harmonics. This means that bagpipe manufacturers have to choose which harmonics to match their chanters to and it leaves the field open to choice. There is not total agreement between the experts which exact notes the chanter should play because it is possible to select different drone harmonics to match to, and that changes the chanter scale quite a lot. That’s why not all pipes sound the same. Some experts believe for instance that High G should be at 819 Hz and others would pitch it at 842.4 Hz. Quite a difference. Piobaireachd players apparently prefer an even lower pitch of around 770 Hz. (Piobaireach is a Gaelic word for the original classsical type of bagpipe music).

The early life of a late-start bag-piper

I was always a lazy bugger, and learning to play an instrument entails a lot of practice. So after learning a few chords on the guitar as a teenager, I decided and declared that I would never be a musician and gave it up as a bad job.

But when I retired 50 years later my world changed a bit. I am a South African by birth, but there was some Scottish blood in the ancestral line and we grew up in a household where a lot of Scottish music and poetry was heard. My dad played the bagpipes and so did my uncles, i.e. Dad’s brothers. We learned to love the Scottish culture and when I retired and finally had time to do these things, I joined the Caledonian society in Cape Town. They had a group of members who were being taught the chanter by the society’s honorary piper. I did not think I had a hope in hell of learning to play at 70 years old, but I joined the chanter group and have been attending lessons for 2 years now. One starts on the practice chanter, a small wind instrument that makes use of a plastic reed (two plastic blades vibrating against each other) to produce its characteristic but unusual sound. It has nine finger-holes on the pipe below the reed and when one blows air down the blowpipe end, it passes over and through the reed, sets it vibrating and produces musical notes. The distance from the reed to the open holes decided what pitch a note will have and it is possible to play musical scales up and down the chanter although the intervals between the notes are not the same as on modern instruments.

Chanter_1
Practice chanter

The practice chanter with its plastic reed can be played inside an apartment without disturbing the neighbours. That is why it is called a practice chanter. One problem with the practice chanter as a performing instrument though is that the musician cannot blow endlessly into the blow-stick without pausing for a quick breath. But the music does not usually allow for breathing stoppages so the effect on the listener is not very salutary. Another problem with the practice chanter is that it plays only single notes at any one time. Some notes are played very fast in quick sequences and this helps to make it more interesting but one cannot play chords on it. Both of these shortcomings are addressed to some degree by the addition to the chanter of a bag full of air and 3 other pipes that produce droning sounds at two different pitches. These harmonize with the chanter in different ways on different notes and make it sound much more colourful. So the whole ensemble resembles a sort of 5 armed octopus of quintopus if you prefer.

Neal playing the bagpipes
First lesson on the full set of pipes

Here is a picture of yours truly with his brand new set of bagpipes trying to learn the not-easy technique of keeping the bag full of air, squeezing it under the arm with a constant pressure and actually trying to play a tune all at the same time. The actual full set of pipes does not use a plastic chanter reed as with the practice chanter. It uses a reed made, would you believe it, of a special type of reed (or cane). It makes an extremely loud sound which cannot be produced in an apartment without raising a lynch-mob, and in addition, the three drones all have reeds in them as well. The sound produced has a primal quality to it that would scare off most enemies, but it is balm to the Celtic soul.

How am I doing with my learning? Well it is conventional wisdom that it takes a young man with a good ear and attitude 7 years to learn the basics and he then enters a second seven year period in which he strives to become a master. I quote from the ‘Highland Bagpipe Tutor Student Manual’. “Actually, there is an old quotation that starts ‘To the make of a piper go seven years… 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.’ (Neil Munro from The Lost Pibroch 1896) This quote reflect not only a much earlier practice of several years of apprenticeship and indenture to learn the art, but also a contemporary reality.” 

I started at 70 and had never previously shown any musical talent so let’s just say I am about where I probably should be. I have learned to read pipe sheet-music however and with a bit of practice each day, my teacher is happy with my progress. The main thing is that I really enjoy it and it adds meaning to the tapering down phase of a busy life.

One of my favourite pipe tunes goes by the name of “Black Bear”, so I have mischievously created the calling card below

Black bear calling card web

Bamboos and boxes

Provide the base support for the chanter

So when I started to learn to play the bagpipes, the first thing I had to purchase was a practice chanter. The full set of bagpipes uses a hide or synthetic bag to provide a steady flow of air through the chanter and the drones. The drones are the three pipes that rest on the pipers shoulder and they just make different bass notes to support the chanter. IMG_0505The chanter itself though is the pipe with finger holes in it that makes the notes of the tune. Here is a photo of yours truly taken by my bagpipe teacher when I went for a lesson with my new Chanter reedpipes. There is a reed in the chanter that vibrates when a stream of air from the bag passes over and through it. But here’s the thing. A bagpipe chanter makes a heck of a loud sound (so,me would say noise), and so do the drones. If you practiced playing them in your apartment, some neighbour would sooner or later shoot you. So in modern times, the practice chanter was developed. It is similar to the actual chanter, but the reed is made of plastic and is relatively un-noisy. There is no bag so the air to sound the practice chanter is provided directly by the player blowing down a blow stick which is connected directly to the practice chanter.

So having set the scene, let’s get back to the title of this blog article, i.e. ‘Bamboos and boxes’.

Chanter quiver comp
Chanter quiver

Any musical instrument should be protected for transportation and since I had some bamboo lying around, I sawed off a length and used it to make a carrying case for my practice chanter. The cap and strap are made of leather. I thought it was quite arty looking and would be a convenient way of carrying the chanter around. Here is a picture of what I called ‘The Quiver’. It worked O.K. but it is quite a long and bulky object and I realised after a while that it was not very practical. So I made a container of a different design for the chanter. It is a little foam lined, hinged box with cutouts in the foam to cushion the chanter.

To transport the chanter in this box, one unplugs the blowstick from the lower part and stows them side by side. The reed has to be removed too because it would be too vulnerable if it was left protruding from the playing tube. The reed and also a couple of spare reeds get popped into a small plastic pill box with a desiccant to keep the reeds moisture free. Piper 2 nealPractice chanter reeds are made of plastic and don’t work well when wet. Real chanter reeds are made of special Indian reed and they have to be moist if they are to be coaxed into making any sounds at all.

Let’s make Celtic music

The exciting news for me is that I will be receiving my new (to me) set of bagpipes on Wednesday. But wait, that’s the end of the story, or of this installment of it anyhow. Let’s go back to the beginning.

I was born and grew up in South Africa but I had English and Scottish ancestors. Somehow I have always leaned more towards the Celtic culture. My parents used to bring home gramophone records like “Words and music of Scotland” by the likes of John Laurie & Kenneth McKellar. We played them a lot and as young people do, we learned all the words and the tunes and grew to love them. My father and his two brothers, (my uncles) all played the bagpipes and there was nothing we kids loved more than to sit on a moonlit beach and listen to the strains of the pipes carrying across the sea to us from where the brothers were playing. Later in life I visited Scotland many times. I would always just rent a car in Edinburgh and drive on over the Firth of Fourth bridge, up the East coast and then climb left into the highlands before following some other route back down past the lochs to Glasgow. I’ll talk about the West coast and the Hebrides om another occasion.

But despite this love of the pipes and Scottish culture, I never learned to play the instrument. I worked hard my whole life and I had a lot of interests, some of which may yet emerge on this blog. The years passed by and somehow I never found the time to actually start playing. I think I lived in awe of people who could actually play the pipes because I believed it to be a very difficult thing to do. Well, to cut a long story short, when I reached the tender age of 69 I was retired and I joined the Caledonian Society here in Cape Town. The honorary piper, Peter Odendal, was running a course for people who wanted to play the chanter and they asked if I would like to join the group. I told them that it would be impossible for a 70-year old with increasingly arthritic hands and a shrinking brain to even consider it but they insisted and I did join the group. It was such fun that I continued to go to the lessons every week. I never learned much in that group though because we were all beginners and everyone was squawking and battling along and collectively getting nowhere. After about a year though, the minister of the church we were practicing in, retired and the hall was no longer available. So our teacher who lives 60 km away from me in Somerset West made himself available for those who wanted to continue to come for individual lessons a couple of times each month. This worked very well for me and so now at age 72, I feel that I understand enough about the instrument to graduate to the next level of learning. I’m not getting younger so I have raised the money and bought a 30 year old set of Glasgow made, Hardie black-wood pipes through a contact. The pipes themselves are apparently in excellent nick although the bag and all the reeds need replacing. Well I swallowed hard, took out a loan and placed the order. Tonight I heard that my pipes have been fully refurbished and that they will b e handed to me when I attend a bagpipe recityal on Wednesday evening.

Watch this space because when I get my pipes I will surely post pictures of them here. I suspect it will be quite a while before I can actually blow the bag up and keep it blown up whist squeezing all that air out through the chanter and drones and then somehow still trying to remember the fingerings at the same time. But keep Chanter nealTaoraluath neallistening out, I may dump a sound recording onto this site at some time in the not too distant future.