Bagpipes - What you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask

Hi, everyone, Today our kilt-wearing friend Shawn is back to talk about playing bagpipes. If you remember from last week, playing bagpipes was why he started wearing a kilt to begin with. Personally, I love listening to bagpipes. That is the quintessential Scottish sound.

Welcome back, Shawn! What can you tell us about playing bagpipes? Is it difficult to learn? Take a huge lung capacity? Are they loud in your ear? :)

The Great Highland Bagpipes are another Scottish invention that hasn't changed much over the years. It's a very... organic instrument. You need to blow them up pretty much every day to keep them playable. The joints are sealed with hemp string that will shrink and leak air if left to dry out. The hide bag needs to be sealed and conditioned to stay air tight. There are synthetic bags now, but hide bags are still more popular. The traditional sealer is a mixture of lanolin and sheep fat that you have to heat up, pour into the bag, knead and then hang up to let it drip out. Fortunately, I have a bag that doesn't require that. I use a synthetic sealer and conditioner.

The pipes that rest on your shoulder are called drones. Each one plays a single 'A' note. The two shorter drones play the same 'A' note and the longer drone, closest to the piper's head, plays an 'A' note one octave below that. The pipe that you hold in your hands is called a chanter. The lowest 'A' on the chanter is an octave above the tenor drones.

When I first started I thought 'How hard can this be? There's only nine notes!' There's always a catch. :)

The bagpipes are a difficult instrument to learn. As a beginner, you start off with a practice chanter which allows you to learn the fingering without the bag or drones. It looks a little like a recorder. Bagpipes never stop playing so there are no rests. To make up for this, grace notes are used. Grace notes are written as 32nd notes. Some grace notes are a single note and others are a combination of up to about six 32nd notes in a row. This is the first hurdle as even the beginner tunes have at least a few of these lighting fast combinations in them.

After a few months on the practice chanter, you can move on to the full set of pipes. Playing tunes on a full set of pipes is a little like patting your head and rubbing your belly. The tune has a rhythm, of course, but so does the bag itself. You have to alternate blowing into the bag and squeezing it with your arm at regular intervals or the pressure in the bag will drop and the pipes will go out of tune or worse, stop sounding. A piper spends about 90% of the time blowing and 10% squeezing the bag while breathing in.

Tuning a bagpipe is another trick you need to learn. Bagpipes pre-date German notation and standardized note values. The standard frequency of A above middle-C is 440 Hz (cycles per second). The frequency that pipers tune low A is between 470 and 480 Hz which means that the pipes don't play well with other instruments in general. You first have to tune the chanter to itself so that the low A and the high A are an octave apart. Whatever frequency that is, that's what your pipes 'think' A is, even though it's almost certainly not a real A. That frequency is a product of what material the chanter is made out of, who made the chanter, the chanter reed as well as the temperature and humidity of the air. Members of a pipe band will all use the same type of chanter made by the same maker and will all use the same reeds so that they can all be in tune. After the chanter is tuned, you need to tune the drones to match the chanter by sliding the joint in the middle of the drone up or down.

As a side note, the Queen's Piper has to play outside the Queen's bedroom window every morning starting at 9:00 AM. He (it's always been a man and I think it might be a requirement since the Queen's Piper is also required to be Her Majesty's escort when other member's of the Royal Family are not able to be present.) plays one seven minute set of tunes, pauses for a minute and then plays a second seven minute set. If it begins to rain or snow during the first set, he must be able to get his pipes back in tune during the one minute break in silence, which takes a lot of skill.

Huge lung capacity helps but what's more important is a strong diaphragm. Your diaphragm has to match the pressure inside the bag (which takes strength) as well as keep that pressure steady (which requires accuracy). After practicing, I usually feel like I've been doing sit-ups or crunches... it's a workout.

Highland bagpipes are loud. A chainsaw is 105db, a set of pipes is 110db and 120db is considered painfully loud. Today most pipers wear earplugs if they are playing for more than a few minutes. When pipers get older and start losing their hearing, they just play without the earplugs. In the past, infantry commanders took advantage of how loud bagpipes are to give orders to their soldiers. There would be a set of tunes and each one would mean something different... advance forward... advance rearward... flank... retreat... etc. This lead to the bagpipes being the only musical instrument that was banned as a weapon of war. The Scots Guards standard set of pipe tunes still specify tunes that require action.

In case you're interested, my pipes are made by David Naill, model DN4a.

Fantastic info, Shawn! Thanks for being our guest again today and sharing your knowledge! Does anyone have any additional questions?


Nancy said...

Fascinating description of how the pipes work. Thanks. Makes listening to Bag Pipe bands more enjoyable than ever.

Lisa M. Campbell said...

I just love the bagpipes--we were piped in to our niece's wedding at Notre Dame Cathedral this past summer, and the echo of the pipes through the quadrangle of campus bldgs was so beautiful. Now, my brother-in-law likens the bagpipes to a cat being strangled, but having never strangled a cat, I couldn't make the connection. ;)

Ari Thatcher said...

I knew they were difficult, but I never realized just how hard they are to learn. And you've explained why we see pipes and drums but rarely other instruments. I will listen with a new ear the next time I'm at the Scottish Games. Thanks!

Shawn said...

@Lisa The pipes don't sound anything like a cat being strangled! They have the rich, layered sound of a dying goose.

@Ari There are chanters tuned to concert A, but they are not as common. Even if a piper had one of these chanters, I don't think there would be many invitations from say... a string quartet. :)

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Thanks for the tutorial. My sweetheart has a yen to play the pipes, but I'm thinkin' he should stick with his guitar---neighbors and all that. *g*

Personally, I love the sound of the bagpipes. At the PA Ren Faire one year they imported a group called Clann an Drumm. You could hear them everywhere, and as they played, I noticed people began to march everywhere. Not intentionally, mind you, but the music demanded it.

Shawn said...

@Gwynlyn The practice chanter is actually pretty quiet. I also have a set of technopipes which are fairly good sounding set of electronic bagpipes that you can plug a set of headphones into. I use them to practice on the subway and late at night. I live the city (Boston), but I do have a garage with a really well insulated door where I practice on my actual bagpipes without too much complaining from the neighbors. My neighbor across the street is from England so a) he's prone to complaining and b) he's culturally required to hate the pipes. :) Other than that, my neighbors have said they only notice them when they walk by my house.

So tell your sweetheart to get an instructor and a practice chanter and don't worry about the sound.

Carly Carson said...

I love hearing the bagpipes. Though I'm not sure I'd want to live next door to you. I can't help wondering (maybe a duh moment) but who banned them as a weapon of war?

Nicole North said...

Thanks everyone for dropping by to learn about bagpipe playing!

A dying goose, Shawn? LOL!!!!!! Do you have any audio or video online of you playing? In the meantime, I thought it might be fun to listen to a couple of bands. Gwynlyn mentioned one:

Clann An Drumma.
Here they are playing at Culloden Battlefield.

And Albannach.

I haven't heard either of these in person. I have heard Seven Nations and Hunting MacLeod, both of which I love. But they are different in style because the last two use other insturments in addition to pipes and drums.

Terry Blain said...

Love the pipes! I read that they did a study and bagpipe music gets more adrenalin flowing faster than any other type of music. Probably goes along with the ‘weapons of war’.

Natasha said...

Great post! My hubby took lessons once, but couldn't graduate past the chanter. I think he got discouraged that all the young kids were picking it up so much quicker and easier than he was :-)

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

Thanks, Nicole. Sorry I dropped the 'a', but they are really quite rousing. I have two of their CDs (bought at the Faire) and pull them out when I have something I really need to attack--or tackle.

I shared Shawn's post with my beloved. Didn't dissuade him in the least. In fact, I'm thinkin' I may have lit a fire under him. Thank heaven Shawn says the chanter won't have the PD at the door!

icia said...
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icia said...

Wow, that was the coolest information on the bagpipes.

What I'd like to know is, What make you (Shawn) decide to play them?

Shawn said...

@Carly The English banned the Great Highland Bagpipes after the last Jacobite Rising ended in 1746. fiddle players and small pipe players kept the tunes alive during the ban. Anyone who had a set of Highland pipes had to hide them.

Shawn said...

@Nicole I don't have any recordings of my playing... I should work on that. :) I love Albannach. Their live recordings are much better than their studio sessions which sound too polished to me.

Shawn said...

@Natasha It is harder to pick up the pipes as an adult, partially because we have, you know, lives. :) It's also an unforgiving instrument.

@Gwynlyn That's great! I hope he follows through. there's just nothing like the feel of those drones on your shoulder.

@Icia I've always loved the bagpipes. A few years ago I decided to stop making excuses for not taking them up. I like pipe tunes, especially p├Čobaireachd (pronounced pee brock) which is classical bagpipe music. Other than that I think it's an instrument that compliments my personality. They're a challenge to learn. They are tough to play. They tend to polarize the audience who either love them or hate them. They're temperamental and require attention almost daily... but in the end are a bad ass instrument. :)