Bagpipes are the kind of instruments you either like or you hate. Their distinctive sound can attract some people, and drive others off. But why do they sound that way. And what is the big bag for? Obviously it gives the instrument its name, but what’s the use?
When you think of bagpipes, you probably think of what is called The Great Highland Bagpipe. This bagpipe has gained worldwide recognition because of their use by 0f the British military and in pipe bands. Because these bagpipes have their origins in Scotland, bagpipes in general have been associated as being Scottish. This is not the case. There are dozens of different types of bagpipes from many different countries, but almost all of these have been overshadowed since “bagpipe” has practically become synonymous with “Great Highland Bagpipe.” Most types of bagpipes are similar, but they are different enough that I will be covering only the Great Highland Bagpipe in this post. However, because of the similarities seen between different types, I believe it will help you learn about all the different varieties.
Bagpipes have two essential components, the pipes and the bag (wow, that was a hard one). However, there are several different pipes, and each has its own purpose.
Air is supplied to the instrument by means of a blow tube. Unlike other wind instruments, this tube that is not the tube that produces the sound. The tube supplies air to the bag itself, which in turn powers all of the tubes. Most blow tubes are equipped with a no-return valve so that the player does not suck air out of the bag when breathing in.
The chanter can be imagined liked a clarinet or oboe attached to the rest of the instrument. Generally found on the bottom, this pipe is what plays the melody that the piper wishes to play. The piper covers or uncovers holes to change the pitch, much like in many other wind instruments. The chanter has a double reed that requires careful positioning in order for the chanter to be in tune. Because of this, bagpipes may require frequent retuning over the first 15 minutes or so of playing as the chanter “settles in.”
This is considered by some to be the heart and soul of bagpipes. Part of the distinctive sound is the ever-present note that stays constant behind the melody. This is produced by the drone pipes. A Great Highland Bagpipe consists of three drones. Two of them are called tenor drones and sound one octave below the fundamental (lowest, also known as the tonic) note played by the chanter. One, called the bass drone, plays one octave below that of the tenor pipes. These drones, coupled with the distinctive timbre of the chanter, give the bagpipe its well known sound.
The best known part of bagpipes is the bag itself. When a piper blows into the blow tube, it enters the bag and from there is sent through the pipes. Some air is stored in the bag and, when a piper needs to take a breath, he presses harder on the bag forcing the extra air out. This allows a bagpipe to continue to play even when the piper is not actively inputting air. Traditionally pipes were made of animal skin, but this has been largely abandoned in favor of synthetic materials.
Playing The Bagpipes
Playing bagpipes is no easy thing. Bagpipes require much stamina to play for any extended period of time, and most beginners can only play for a few minutes before having to take a break. When playing bagpipes, the piper must be careful to keep the amount of air coming out of the pipes constant, or the sound will waver and change pitch. Good self taught pipers are few and far between. A well played set of bagpipes is a wonderful thing to hear, but a poorly played set can turn you off forever.
What about you? Do you play the bagpipes? Did I get something wrong? Do you not play the bagpipes, but wish to tell me your opinion on them? I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or shoot me an email.