Learn to Play Bagpipes

How do You Use Bagpipes with Other Instruments?

So…you want to use bagpipes in your band or musical arrangement? The uniqueness of the instrument makes it tricky to record. Here’s why:

  1. Bagpipes are not in a standard pitch. It is near the key of Bb or B.
  2. The pitch also changes as the piper plays the pipes (or stops playing it).
  3. The bagpipe does not have the same versatility to change keys as many other instruments.
  4. There are (for the most part) just 9 notes on the bagpipe, in a mixolydian scale.

Yes, you read that correct. Bagpipes are not in a specific pitch. A = 440 Hz? You can throw standard tuning out the window. In the earlier days bagpipes would be tuned near a pitch of Bb (Bb is 466.16 hz). In this earlier recording of Pipe Major RU Brown, the bagpipes are a little above Bb.

Ah, the good ole’ days. There’s a certain mystique with a lower pitched bagpipe that stirs one to the call of battle with the rich harmonics of the drones. As time went on however the pitch began to raise. A large part of this phenomena took place in the pipe band competition scene where judges tended to award bands with higher pitches with prizes. In other words, there’s a tendency for the higher pitch band to win. This phenomena, led to what is known as the pitch war, and is somewhat controversial in the pipe band world. Many people despise the newly higher pitched bands, while others prefer it. Regardless, higher pitch is not going away. The highest pitched bands are falling short just of the B pitch (493.88 hz).

Again, compare this:

To this:

It is worth noting that part of the development towards higher pitched pipe bands also came with the ability to tune higher pitched drums. This was in due to technological advancements in drum head production. The old bands’ drums sounded something like this. Notice how the lower pitch bagpipes compliment that type of drum sound? This however is a very "dated" sound for a pipe band.

Now, that all being said, as a bagpiper plays their instrument during a session, the pitch that they started at will start to increase due to heat slightly (by a few hertz). If it’s a hot day, that extra heat will also cause the reed to pitch higher. (Woodwinds are fun; aren't they?!) But, if the piper takes a break, the pipes will then start to cool down and the pitch will actually start to lower slightly. The changing of the pitch therefore further complicates things.

Want to take a melody but play it in a different key? This will be unlikely since the pipes off to boot only has 9 notes. So take a melody like Happy Birthday on the bagpipes; you won't be able to alter the key of that melody. There are some limited exceptions. In this composition, a famous and prolific bagpipe composer Donald McLeod wrote a key change of the same melody in the middle of the tune The Ferryman (by the way this example is played on a different type of bagpipe than the Scottish bagpipes):

That all being said, tunes are written in different keys (within those 9 notes). Amazing Grace is written in “D”. And the Minstrel Boy is written in “A major”. But guess what? Those note names are actually just conventional names. What a bagpiper calls an A is actually again the note somewhere between Bb and B (as described earlier). It’s just easier to call it A rather than Bb — or whatever the mysterious pitch between Bb between B is.

In fact in bagpipe notation the scale is written without any flats or sharps USUALLY, even though “technically” the C should be C# and the F should be F# — and that’s if the bagpipe was indeed in the key of A. Here’s an example:

Bagpipe Music Notation Example

The bagpipes notes are a mixolydian scale. Basically that just means that if you played a major scale, the 7th note of the scale is a semi-tone down. An example of this would be if you were to play all the white keys on a piano, like in a C major scale, but started on the G key instead of C. Although this may sound confusing if you are not familiar with modes, we see another example of this in the key of A minor; all the notes of the scale are the same as C major but it starts on the A note instead of C.

There are a few exceptions to the 9 note rule of thumb. You can bend the rules a bit by playing certain notes, which are like “blue” notes, which can give melodies an eastern-esque sort of feel. (However I’ve noticed that sometimes, depending on the reed, those atypical scale notes don’t sound accurately.) Below are 3 examples. This, of course, will veer away from the defining mixolydian scale that is very characteristic of the bagpipes, so you may not want to get too adventurous if you want to retain a Gaelic melody in your writing and composition. And you won’t be able to ever play more complex melodies like The Star Spangled Banner on the bagpipes unfortunately, regardless of these extra notes. In the 2nd example the talented piper Stuart Liddell actually uses tape to help produce the so called “dirty B” note giving it a middle eastern flair.

Moving forward. Here are some tips for arrangements and compositions. If you want to incorporate other instruments, build those instruments around the bagpipes’ limitations. Compose your tune first in the scale of Bb (guitarists, get your capos out). However this will not be precise and the bagpipe will be slightly off (but not terribly). However if your arrangement demands pitch accurate tuning, the bagpipes now have special chanters (the part of the instrument that produces the melodies) that tune to concert Bb pitch. From there you can build your composition and arrangement from the bagpipes' Bb pitch.

Have any questions? Shoot me an email.