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Getting to know: The Highland Bagpipe

The Wonderful, Lovable, Quite Good, Very Loud … Highland Bagpipe

Now there are tons of different bagpipes out there—but there can be only ONE … Highland bagpipe. =)
Image: welovemoviesmorethanyou.com

Ok, so when most people talk about bagpipes, at least 99 times out of 100, it’s the Scottish Highland bagpipe they’re thinking about. Quite simply, many folks just assume these are the only bagpipe around.

Well, this is certainly not the case. In fact, there are well more than a hundred different kinds of bagpipes one might find out there (get a look at this Wikipedia page for an extensive list).

One thing’s for sure though, Highland pipes are pretty much as loud as bagpipes will get.

Few are aware of how effective the Highland Bagpipe can be in a game of peek-a-boo with youngsters. =)
Photo by Skyler Hart

So as far as bagpipes go, Highland pipes are the “big man on campus.” They became so popular when the British saw fit to incorporate the instrument into their military. This saw the instrument becoming highly standardized and structured, and it led to their becoming fairly widespread, while the many other sorts of bagpipes suffered a severe decline, and in some cases, near extinction.

It’s quite ironic that things happened this way. Things got really bad for Highland culture following the famous Battle of Culloden in 1776. But by the end of that same century, the British military began to organize Highland Regiments, and the Highland pipes went along for the ride. By the early 19th century, the pipes were frequently played on battlefields.

Gettin’ conical

I think it’s fair to say that all Highland pipers are “cone heads” in their own way.
Image: channel4.com

So what makes them so darned loud? Similar to the Irish uilleann pipes and borderpipes, the Highland bagpipe chanter has a conical design. This means that if you were to slice the chanter in half, the long way, you’ll see that the bore gets wider toward the bottom—in a cone shape.

Quieter types of bagpipes don’t have this conical bore in the chanter. Instead, the bore is more like that of a straight cylinder. That handy-dandy practice chanter that’s so much more friendly toward your neighbors’ nerves? … Yes, that has a cylindrical bore, as does the chanter from a smallpipe.

Still, the Highland pipes are significantly louder than other conical pipes, such as uilleann pipes. Why? I’m not entire sure … maybe to herd the goats?

Anyway, the conical bore is a big part of what makes a Highland pipe’s chanter so loud. But it also allows you to do more “stuff” with your fingers. Altering your fingerwork on a conical-bore chanter can yield some extra notes, such as a minor third (c-natural) and a minor sixth (f-natural). To achieve the same thing on a smallpipe chanter, extra notes need to be drilled (which often means also installing keys).

The two tenors

Oh wait … that’s one tenor too many. =)
Image: liveabout.com

The Highland pipes are also among the very few to feature two tenors along with a bass. One tenor and one bass together is quite common as bagpipes go, but having a second tenor seems to be relatively unique to the Highland pipe.

It didn’t used to be that way though. Some of the oldest examples of Highland pipes in museums feature only one tenor with the bass. I’ve heard plenty of speculation as to why/how Highland pipes ended up with a redundant tenor. To me, the most reasonable explanation is it was eventually decided that the additional tenor adds the needed volume to avoid the tenor sound being drowned out … or droned out??? {{ slapping knee }}

Here you can see my two tenor drones quite clearly, with the single bass drone going behind my head, and out of the frame.
Photo: David Fimbres

The music

Alright, that’s enough on the physical characteristics of the Highland pipes. Now let’s talk about the music they produce.


First up, the tunes. And notice, I say “tunes” and not “songs.” True, pipers are essentially singing through their instrument as they play, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are not singing (well, not usually). So when there’s an absence of singing, the pieces being played are referred to as “tunes.”

Much of the Highland repertoire today lends itself to the British regimental tradition. Tune types most often played include:

  • Marches
    Just what it sounds like, tunes that folks can easily march along to. There are several different types, mainly distinguished by time signature.
  • Slow airs / slow marches
    Slower, more drawn out tunes, often played for more somber affairs, such as funerals/memorials.
  • Strathspeys / Reels / Hornpipes / Jigs
    Quicker, lively tunes often played for dances and happy occasions.
  • Piobaireachd
    Long and complex tunes, and is essentially a whole genre of music unto itself. Many compare piobaireachd to classical music, in that the tunes are often an initial theme/ground melody with several variations.

Here, professional piper Alex Gandy performs a set of tunes at the 2017 Winter Storm competition. In it, he plays a 2/4 march (0:00), a strathspey (2:00), a reel (4:06), a hornpipe (4:52), and a jig (6:17).

And here’s Bruce Gandy, also a professional piper and father of the fellow above. Bruce is playing a gorgeous piobaireachd tune called Lament for the Laird of Annapool. The tune itself starts at 5:00. This is a recording from the 2018 Glenfiddich Competition, which has grown to be one of the most prestigious competing events for piping in the world.

This video from Boderiou Bagpipes is a great example of a slow air, followed by some jigs.

Modern pipe bands have slowly been pushing the boundaries of the instrument, so there are now many new sorts of tunes played which don’t strictly adhere to the classifications outlined above. Younger generations of players seem quite eager to shake things up a bit. As time goes on, more and more folks are becoming receptive to changes in the realm of Highland piping, which makes this a very exciting time in the history of the instrument. Medley sets of tunes are becoming much more varied, and there’ve also been contemporary suites (such as with the video below), which are seemingly more like a classical symphony piece than what you used to hear with traditional pipe corps.

Here’s the Toronto Police Pipe Band performing Variations on a Theme of Good Intentions, a modern suite-style medley by Micheal Grey. This is a prime example of the new direction things are going with pipe band music—though slowly and not without strife. It should be noted that the version played here has been changed from the original, intended presentation. The original start of the piece was meant to have the corps standing in place at the start, playing a slow introduction and without the starting two sets of rolls (called the “attack”). Upon the debut of this piece, competition rules were allegedly amended to force bands to start medleys in the traditional fashion. To see an example of Toronto playing this piece with its original start, head over to this video (embedding isn’t allowed, so I can’t show it here).

And here’s a video of me playing Highland pipes onstage with Cu Dubh at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. Cu Dubh plays lots of different music that you wouldn’t normally hear on bagpipes. A wide variety of inventive percussion, and some very nice collaborations, such hear with the lovely ladies of Sirena. As you can see, I like to be very active onstage with acts such as these, and I definitely enjoy working and interacting with the crowd.

Pitch? What pitch?

Another point of interest with Highland pipes in comparison to other instruments, it generally does not have a standard, set pitch.

Many of today’s instruments tend to agree that if they were to play an “A” into an automatic tuner, the reading stated by the device would say that note is equal to 440 hz. Such is not the case with today’s highland bagpipe.

Pitches vary greatly from one piper or pipe band to another, with practically all of them set with their “A” being far sharper than the standard 440 hz. Most pipers I run across today tend to have their “A” pitch set anywhere between 471 and 485 hz. Long ago, the pitch was most likely around concert Bb (which is ~466 hz). Over time, the trend has gotten higher and higher. Today, if it’s really hot out, many modern pipe bands’ pitch can reach as high as about 489 hz. Concert B is only a tad sharper than that (~494 hz).

Here’s a comparison of two pipe bands … one from 1980 (Dysart & Dundonald Pipe Band), and one from June 2019 (St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band). Dysart’s pitch in 1980 was right around concert Bb, whereas St. Laurence O’Toole’s is right around A=484. Incredible how different the sound is between the two.

Here’s a recording of the Dysart & Dundonald Pipe Band playing at the World Pipe Band Championships in 1980. To my hear, the pitch is right around A=471 … which isn’t much higher than concert Bb.
Here’s St. Laurence O’Toole Pipe Band performing their winning medley from the 2019 United Kingdom Pipe Band Championships. This sounds to be a pitch of about A=486, which is becoming more typical for high grade bands today. DRAMATIC difference in sound from Dysart in 1980.

To make things even weirder (but more simple for us), pipers will generally refer to their tonic note as ‘A.’ Regardless of the pitch that note actually appears to be on a standard tuner (most likely a very sharp Bb), we still call it ‘A.’

Why? It’s just easier. =) It only causes confusion when we try to play with other instruments such as guitars, pianos, organs, etc. When we do, it’s usually easiest for the piper to use a chanter that’s specifically designed to play at a standard pitch, such as Bb (466) or A (440). I’ve done both, and with Highland pipes, Bb is by far the easiest to manage.

A nice discussion about what pipers will need to do if they’re trying to get their pipes set up to play at a concert pitch (in this case, Bb = 466hz). This comes into play when pipers are looking to play with other instruments, such as pianos and organs.

(Too many notes) > 9

And for us Highland bagpipers, anything in excess of NINE could be classified as “too many notes.”
Image: joannapantages

Another fact that surprises many people about Highland pipes in particular … with relatively few exceptions, there are only nine notes at our disposal. We have one octave (that’s eight notes, folks) going from ‘low A’ to ‘high A,’ and one ‘low G’ below that first ‘A.’

Also, our scale is set in what is called “mixolydian mode.” For you music-saavy folks out there, that means that it’s a major scale, except the seventh note (which for us, is ‘G’) is a half step lower than normal. Here’s a diagram showing what that looks like on a piano:

The highlighted notes are what constitutes each type of scale in ‘A’ … Major vs. mixolydian. So that means a bagpipe chanter keyed in ‘A’ will have sharps on C and F only—that also happens to be the same sharps for the keys of D Major and B minor … thus, the three most frequent keys for bagpipe tunes are A mixolydian, D Major and B minor.

For most intents and purposes, that’s it. Depending on the reed and chanter being used, sometimes a piper can alter their scale with tape or fingering. The two most common “alternate notes” that can be attained with fingering changes are C-natural and F-natural (natural, as opposed to a sharp or flat note, which are the white keys on the piano).

As mentioned earlier, fingering changes for C and F wouldn’t be possible if the chanter on Highland pipes wasn’t conical. For pipes with a cylindrical bore, like smallpipes, fingering alterations bring about nearly no change. Instead, smallpipe chanters need additional holes (and then usually keys) installed to achieve such alternate notes.

I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been asked to play tunes on the bagpipe that are completely unsuitable for it in terms of either key or scale range. Most other instruments can usually span a good two octaves or more, so I guess it’s easy to understand how many people will simply assume that Highland bagpipes are no different. Sadly, such faith is quite unfounded.

With some tunes, a thoughtful piper can attempt to transpose and reset a score to fit the pipe scale—success with this often depends on how severe the changes will need to be. A few notes here and there will probably go alright. Much more than that though, and chances are high that the tune will no longer be recognizable (or even musical).

Here’s a good example of an often-requested tune on pipes where transposition is quite doable—Auld Lang Syne. There’s only a note or two in the melody that goes outside of the bagpipe’s limited note range. If you listen closely to these two clips … one from a very talented violinist, and the other from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, you might notice that the pipe setting jumps up to F(#) and E on the top hand at a few points … in the violin version, the intended, lower F(#) and E notes are played, which the pipers can’t play because those notes are below our lowest note (low G).

A very nice (and fun) video of violinist Charles Yang, playing Auld Land Syne.
Auld Land Syne, as played by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
Very nice rendition, despite the fact that the original score for the tune is outside of the bagpipe’s scale range.

No rest for the wicked bagpipes

Things are stressful when you can’t rest.
Image: Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

So here’s another musical term: “rest.” A rest is pause in the melody line. It has many uses in the execution of a tune, not least of which is emphasis. By having some breaks in there, any time the instrument plays a note will automatically gain some auditory prominence.

Quite simply, a rest is silence—and Highland bagpipes can’t do it (not by design anyways).

That’s right … Highland pipes are permanently stuck in legato, which means a constant flowing melody with no breaks. The opposite of this is called staccato, where there’s a slight pause separating every note.

It is what it is, but it’s just one other thing that surprises folks from time to time. It can make things tricky on occasion because some melodies just don’t sound right unless they’re played with their intended rests. A great example is Itsy-Bitsy Spider. Try humming that without pausing at all after “It” or “sy” or “bit” or the other “sy”

weird, right? Well there you have it … that nursery rhyme is really meant to be sung or played with rests between the syllables.

As with the scale constraints, there can be ways for pipers to make things work. In fact, I play Itsy-Bitsy for kids all the time on pipes. The melody is still recognizable, I just have to throw in some fingerwork movements in order to simulate the emphasis that gets lost from the lack of rests. More on that in a moment.

Here’s one more example to illustrate the difference. Low Rider is a fun little tune to play on the pipes—but without a doubt, the main melody riff is absolutely one of those intended to be staccato …

Bum … bum … bum … bum … bum … bum … BUMM …………………..
bum … bum … bum … bum … bummmmmmmmm.

But with some inventive placement of finger movements, the tune can still come across in a convincing manner. Compare these clips, and see if you can hear the difference between the pipers in the video of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers and the original from War:

Low Rider, War
Low Rider, Red Hot Chilli Pipers

Gracenotes, embellishments, and dynamics

In truth, whenever I play a lively pipe tune, this is what I see in my head.
Image: Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

So without ability to have rests in their music, pipers need to do something that enables them to create emphasis in their melody. Also, bagpipe volume doesn’t change. Basically, it’s the same degree of loud … all the time.

So volume is an issue as well. Being able to play an instrument louder and softer on purpose helps to create dynamic quality in the music—the Highland pipes can’t do that.

That’s alright though, as pipers have their own ways of effectively creating emphasis and mimicking dynamism in their playing: gracenotes and/or embellishments.

I’ll be writing plenty more on this subject as time goes on here, so stay tuned. But in short, gracenotes” are quick notes that are thrown in to divide notes and to provide emphasis. Larger combinations of gracenotes are called “embellishments.”

When it comes to dynamics, there are a few things at play with Highland piping. First of all, pipers can hold notes in a strategic fashion to create the illusion of dynamics. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work, but the fact remains that pipers don’t have the ability to increase or decrease their volume at will.

However, there’s also the nature of the chanter’s design. Earlier in this article I mentioned that the bore of a Highland pipe’s chanter is conical, which makes it significantly louder, and allows for altering fingering for notes like C and F natural. Well, another characteristic of a conical bore is that the higher notes are softer than the lower ones. Low-G is the loudest note on the chanter, and high-A is the softest.

Much of Highland pipe music is composed with this dynamic in mind, and it’s also why many of the heavy embellishments involve lots of low-As and low-Gs … it dramatically increases the emphasis those movements are intended to create. Also, with high-A being the softest note in volume, quick jumps up to high-A between other notes will somewhat mimic the effect of having rests in the music.

Some point soon, I’d like to add in a video where I demonstrate most of the frequently used gracings and embellishments in Highland pipe music. In the meantime, here’s the nearest comparable video I could readily find, though it’s focused on piobaireachd movements. Still, get a gander at this video by Piper’s Dojo, it’ll give you an idea of some of the tools pipers have up their sleeves for adding emphasis and dynamics into their music.

A good rundown of the various movements one would find in piobaireachd music.

NB: The above video demonstrates these movements on the practice chanter, and not the full Highland pipes. The practice chanter has a cylindrical bore, like a smallpipe—so these movements don’t quite have the “crack” to them that they would on the Highland pipes.

Lots of stuff here, am I right?

It’s not as bad as it seems, but yes, there’s a lot.
Image: Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

So there’s lots of information here—I hope some of you have found it helpful. Believe it or not, I tried my best to be brief in trying to offer a glimpse of what’s going on with Highland bagpipes, but I also wanted to be thorough.

One thing should be clear though, there’s a lot to this—and there’s much, much more. In time, I’d like to elaborate on a few individual subjects, and publish separate pages devoted to them.

If you’d like to know more, please don’t hesitate to Get In Touch with me. And if your curiosity has been piqued, maybe you’d like to think about Taking Lessons to investigate things still further.

Either way, I’d be happy to hear from you.