Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Instrument Biography: The Bagpipe

Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Some of you are going to get all squirmy because you think you don’t like the this instrument. But give this ancient instrument a chance—maybe you’ll change your mind. The bagpipe is the universal folk instrument, appearing on nearly every continent. The bagpipe is an aerophone, which means that it’s a wind instrument. Unlike most aerophones, it’s fueled by air from a bag rather than directly by the player’s breath. The bag is filled by the player’s breath or by a bellows, and the melodies are played when the player squeezes the air out of the bag and through drone pipes and chanter (melody) pipes. The bagpipe, like the clarinet or the oboe, uses enclosed reeds that create a buzzing and cause the tube of the chanter to resonate when the air passes through it. The most famous pipes are the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe and Irish Uilleann pipes, but bagpipes are nearly everywhere, from Northern Africa, to the Persian Gulf, throughout the Caucasus, and in most of Europe. Australia doesn’t seem to have invented this instrument on its own, and I attribute this to the dominance of another drone instrument, the didgeridoo. In the story of instrumental descendants, if you think of the panpipes as the ancestor of the organ, you can also think of the panpipe as the ancestor of the bagpipe. It’s important to note that both the organ and the bagpipe came about as a result of mechanical improvements and that included adding some sort of chest or bellows to existing instruments. But where the organ has enjoyed a lush literature, the bagpipe has not. In part, this is because the organ became the instrument of churches and kings and the bagpipe stayed with its humble origins and remained a folk instrument, which means that much of the literature was never documented.

A History of Bagpipes

The bagpipe might have, like the lute, come to the Middle East and then on to Europe via the traveling song girls sent by the conquered rulers of India in about the 15 th century BCE. It’s also possible that people in the Middle East invented it for themselves. Images of bagpipes have been identified on a Hittite slab at Eyuk dated to 1000 BCE. Hellenistic writings left by Aristophanes in the 1 st century BCE tell of an instrument whose squeezed bladders provided a reservoir of breath with a controlled exit through a pipe. In Rome, Latin writers also described the bagpipe in the 1 st century. In Roman times, the bagpipe’s place was in the tavern, not the palace, although there are stories from Suetonius (c69-c122 CE) that Nero fancied himself to be an utricularius player (bagpiper). Despite Nero’s preference, the bagpipe was never accepted into sophisticated musical circles. There is an obvious connection between the development of the bagpipe and the development of the pipe organ well into the 2 nd century (referred to by Julius Pollux), and when I write about pipe organs, I’ll cover that. The bagpipe was widely used at all social levels during the Middle Ages across Europe, although it had mostly rustic associations. The church’s insistence on anonymity in the Middle Ages gave rise to the popularity of the bagpipe as far back as the 9 th century because the very nature of the chanter prevented much in the way of articulation and accents, smoothing things out and eliminating the possibility of distinctive personal expression. Bagpipes were seen in England around 1100, but didn’t appear in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland until considerably later. The instrument wasn’t fully developed in Europe until the 13 th century. In the early Middle Ages, it was chiefly used by herdsmen, and because of that, was introduced into Christmas music. You see, as Christianity spread northward, the Catholic church integrated pagan and pastoral music and traditions into their own as in an effort to make Christianity appealing to older cultures. Christmas and Easter are particularly full of these older traditions. But I digress. Jewish music used a bagpipe with one chanter and two drones in the 13 th century. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, compiled in Castile in the 13 th century, depicts several styles of bagpipes. Bagpipes are mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late 14 th century and around the same time in France, Guillaume Machaut mentions four types of bagpipes in his Prise d’Alexandrie and Reméde de Fortune. Jewish scholar Abraham da Portaleone (c1540-1612) wrote a strange and inaccurate treatise on things biblical, called “Shilte ha- Gibbonrim” (“The Shields of the Mighty” in Hebrew), documenting history and archaeology, including musical instruments. It’s not a very scientific tome, and one of his many errors is to describe a nablon (the Greek form of the word nebel) as a combination of the harp and the bagpipe. In another spot, he compares the nebel with a lute, describing a fingerboard, a sounding box, the string arrangement, and otherwise describes something that is probably a chitarrone. He also describes a sumponyah (an instrument listed in the Bible) as a bagpipe, which it might have been. It also might have been a dulcimer. By the 16 th century, the bagpipe’s popularity had nearly completely waned among the aristocracy and at court, and it became the instrument of shepherds, soldiers, and dancing peasants rather than princes. Despite this, it underwent development into as many as five different sizes. Some styles had as many as three drones and sometimes two chanters. At the turn of the 17 th century, the biggest change came with the Irish invention of the Uilleann pipes (elbow pipes) that are now called Union pipes. These used a bellows rather than a simple bladder, so the opening and closing of the player’s elbow provided the source of wind (like an accordion) rather than a mouth pipe. Interest in the oboe in France during the early 17 th century, for some reason, led to interest in the bagpipe, and they invented a new type, called the musette, with a bellows like the Uilleann pipe. Its chanter was narrower than the oboe, but cylindrical, like the flute. They also invented a racket (a double-reeded instrument like the oboe), with a dozen or more bores. The racket was about 6.5 inches in height, and it provided a drone that had an alterable pitch. A flute maker called Hotteterre (see my blog on the history of the flute for a bit more about him) added a second small chanter for the highest notes, giving the instrument about two octaves. The racket also used the bellows method of sound production. It was at this point that there was a new immigration of bagpipes from the east—a Slavonic instrument showed up in Germany with cylindrical drones and chanters and a single reed (like that of a clarinet). In 17 th century France, composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and other composers who were fond of the pastoral tendencies of the instrument brought the bagpipe back to the attention of the aristocracy. Because they couldn’t bring obviously rustic things into the court, during this period, bagpipes were decorated with true rococo fabulousness. The 18 th century fostered a kind of faux pastoral movement, and both the hurdy-gurdy (biography to come) and the bagpipe had a resurgence in popularity. It was the bass drone that made the rococo composers deem these instruments appropriate, the opposite of what Renaissance musicians had felt. Few bagpipes have survived from earlier than the 18 th century, but there are loads of paintings, carvings, engravings, and manuscript illuminations. Folk bagpipes can be found in continental European paintings of Brueghel, Teniers, Jordaens, and Dūrer. In the 1730s, William Dixon wrote music for the Border pipe, and for a nine-note bellows-blown bagpipe with a chanter similar to that of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Dixon’s music was mostly dance tunes, and some have been absorbed into a 19 th century collection of songs for the smallpipes written (or perhaps collected) by John Peacock. In 1760, Joseph MacDonald made the first serious study of the Scottish Highland Pipes. Large numbers of pipers were trained in the British Empire for service in WWI and WWII. In Canada and New Zealand, it’s still used in the military, especially for formal ceremonies. Other countries’ militaries have taken it on, including Uganda, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Oman. Police and fire services in Scotland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong King, and the United States have also adopted the bagpipe into marching bands. In recent years, bagpipes have participated in rock, heavy metal, jazz, hip-hop, punk, and classical music.

Bagpipe Structure

A bagpipe consists of an air supply (either a bellows or a person’s breath), a bag, a chanter, and at least one drone (a single note that is sustained during the melody—and beyond). Most have more than one drone, and some have more than one chanter. The pieces are held together by means of sockets that fasten the pipes and the chanter to the bag that holds the air supply. The usual method of air delivery is by blowing into a blowpipe to fill the bag. In some cases, the end of the blowpipe needs to be covered by the tip of the tongue during inhalation, but most have a valve that prevents air from escaping. In the 16 th or 17 th century, a bellows was attached to supply air. Such pipes are occasionally called “cauld wind pipes” (cold wind pipes), as the air is not heated by the player’s breath, so they can use more delicate reeds. In Britain, the Uilleann pipe, Border pipes, and Northumbrian smallpipes are among this type, and in France, the musette de cour. The bag that holds the air is airtight. The player keeps the bag inflated by blowing into the blowpipe or pumping air through the bellows. Materials for the bags can include animal skins (goats, dogs, sheep, and cows, most commonly), and recently, man-made materials are used, such as Gore-Tex. Skin bags are saddle-stitched with an extra strip folded over the seam and stitched down. In synthetic bags, glue is used to make the seal. Holes are cut to accommodate the sockets into which the pipes and chanter fit. In bags that are cut from larger skins, the sockets are tied into the points where the animal’s limbs and the head joined the torso. The chanter is the pipe on which the melody is played. Some bagpipes have more than one chanter, particularly those in North Africa, Southeastern Europe, and Southwest Asia. The inside bore of the chanter can be either parallel or conical (like the head of a flute). The chanter is usually open-ended, making it hard for the player to stop the chanter from sounding as long as there is air flowing from the bag. This affects the music in that there are no “rests” or silences as part of the music. Because of this, grace notes (squiggly squirmy notes that drop down or spring up to the intended note) are used to break up long notes and to create a sense of articulation or accent. These embellishments are highly prescribed and are specific to each type of bagpipe. They are difficult to play and take many years to conquer. Closed-ended chanters, or those that close the open end of the chanter against the player’s leg, include the Uilleann pipes, the Northumbrian smallpipe, and the left chanter of the surdulina, a type of Calabrian zampogna. This closed end, when all the finger holes of the chanter are also covered, causes the pipe to be silent. (The drone continues. Only the chanter is silenced this way.) The chanter has a reed, either single (like a clarinet) or double (like an oboe). Double reeds are most common, and are in both parallel and conically bored chanters. Single reeds are found only in parallel bores. Double reeds are found in western Europe and single reeds are nearly everywhere else. In bladder pipes, the chanter and the blow pipe always lie in a straight line and might even be rigidly connected inside the bladder. The chanter is sometimes straight and sometimes bent. The drone is a pipe that isn’t fingered but produces a constant sound against which the melody is played in a kind of harmony. The drone pipe is usually cylindrically bored with a single reed, and the ability to have the pitch slightly adjusted (tuning, not note changing) by sliding its two parts snugly together or slightly apart along a sliding joint. In most pipes, a single drone is pitched two octaves below the lowest note of the chanter. Additional drones might be an octave below that or matching the fifth (the fifth note up from the lowest—it’s a musical interval of key significance in many forms of music) of the chanter. Drone pipes might lie on the player’s shoulder, across the arm opposite the bag, or dangle parallel to the chanter. Some drones have a tuning screw, which alters the length of the pipe by opening or closing a hole. Such a screw allows the player to choose one of two pitches (open and half-open) or turn the drone entirely off. Bagpipes vary enormously in size and appearance, but all have: A bag or reservoir for air A mouthpipe used to fill the bag. Some have a one-directional valve to keep the air in. A chanter or melody-pipe with a double or single reed and usually eight finger holes (which gives it a nine-note range) At least one fixed-pitch drone pipe The notes are obtained by fingering a chanter that has an unbroken stream of air passing through it, caused by squeezing the full bag of air between the player’s torso and elbow. This same air also passes through one or more drone pipes that are sounded by reeds.

Origins of the Name

The Greek word askaulos means bag-piper, but doesn’t appear in a Greek context until after the classical period. French has the word muse or cornamuse, although there’s another instrument, a relative of the crumhorn, by the same name. (The crumhorn is a reed-capped instrument with a beautiful bent-tube and a cylindrical bore that makes a buzzing nasal sound. There’s a biography to come on this one). The chanter of the cornamuse was called the chalumeau, and had eight or nine holes. Also from France, through the French court at Naples, the troubadours working with Adam de la Halle (c1230-c1288)—biography to come—used a form of bagpipe called a chevrette. In the British Isles, other names were the chorus or choron. The smallest bagpipe was called a forel. In Latin, the name is Tibia utricularis. In German, there are Sacphife, Dudelsack, Platerspiel and Bläterspiel. (I like Dudelsack best, don’t you?) In English, with its specific rules about making things plural, both bagpipe or bagpipes is correct for a single instrument, and pipers speak of “the pipes” or a “set of pipes.”

Famous Bagpipe Composers

Jean-Baptist Lully (1632-1687) used the musette in his operatic orchestras. In Germany, the instrument was popular with Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and Franz Schubert (1897-1828) In the British Isles, Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847-1935) wrote the “Pibroch Suite” to include bagpipes, and Granville Bantock (1868-1946) wrote his “Hebridean Symphony.” Erik Chisholm (1904-1965) used the pipes and Frederick Loewe (1901-1988) featured them in “Brigadoon” in 1947. People are still writing for bagpipes, including Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-2016) in his “Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise,” Shaun Davey (1948- ) has written “Relief of Derry Symphony,” “The Pilgrim,” and the “Special Olympics Suite,” and Lindsay Davidson (1973- ) has written the “Tulsa Opera” and others. Oh, you haven’t heard of any of these? How about Paddy Maloney (1938- ) writing for The Chieftans, Paul McCartney (1942- ) in his “Mull of Kintyre,” AC/DC in “It’s a long way to the Top,” Korn in their “Shoots and Ladders” and John Farnham’s (1949- ) “You’re the Voice.”

Famous Bagpipe Players

Relatively few people make their names as soloists on the bagpipe, so the following is a list of groups of pipers or groups that include pipes among other instruments. The Tannahill Weavers Rare Air Wolfstone Jerry O’Sullivan Scottish National Pipe and Drum Corps and Military Band Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Ian McGregor and Scottish Pipe Band The Highland Bagpipes Bagpipe Hero Massea Scottish Bands There. See? There’s nothing at all dry or dull about the history of the bagpipe. I, for one, can’t wait until the Bay Area’s annual Highland Games each year to get my fill.


“Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture,” by Bruce W. Holsinger. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001. “The Music of the Jews in the Diaspora,” by Alfred Sendrey. A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc, New York, 1970. “A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholfer, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010. “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1979. “Music in Ancient Greece and Rome,” by John G. Landels. Routledege, London, 1999. “A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981. “Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940. “Musical Instruments, Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen &Unwind, Ltd., London, 1949. “Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.
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