From Young Composers
Jump to: navigation, search

'Bagpipes' is a generic term referring to a number of similar instruments which are played by forcing air from a reservoir through reeds and one or more keyed pipes. These include the Scottish Great Highland pipes, the Northumbrian smallpipes, Irish uilleann pipes, French musette, Croatian and other east European types, and North African and Arabic instruments.

Construction and Playing Technique

Although there are many types of pipes, the basic playing technique is similar. The bag is the air chamber of the instrument and is made traditionally from an animal skin or organ to form an airtight reservoir. This is inflated either with a blowpipe into which the player breathes, or in the case of the Northumbrian pipes, uilleann, and musette, by a set of bellows. The air is directed by applying pressure ont he bag with the player's arm through several pipes attached to the bag. On most types of bagpipes at least one of these is a drone pipe, which constantly produces a single pitch. The actual melody pitches are produced by forcing the air through a pipe called a chanter, which has holes in it in the manner of a conventional wind instrument, allowing the player to play different pitches. The chanter has a single or, more commonly in Western Europe, a double reed enclosed in the chamber connecting it to the bag (known as the stocks) which is similar to that found on an oboe or bassoon. The differing bore of the chanter gives each type of bagpipes their different tone qualities. Some varieties posses a 'double chanter' (two independent chanters) which allow either the drone to be varied or for more than one melody pitch to be sounded at the same time. Because the air supply to both the chanter and the drone is constant, the chanter will produce a pitch even when no hole is being fingered.

Tuning and range

Tuning and range are dependant on the exact variety of pipes, although most kinds, including the Great Highland Pipes pipes, are able only to play pitches in a single mode due to the design of the chanter. In addition, the pitch of unkeyed drone pipes is not variable. However, some kinds of pipes, generally those with bellows, have keys to increase the range and allow simple modulations to other key areas. The chanters of unkeyed pipes tend to have a range only of eight or nine pitches in the particular mode to which they are tuned; this is adequate, however, for traditional melodies which make up the majority of bagpipe music.


The Scottish variety of pipes has seen the most widespread use; it is these which are played by military ensembles (pipe and drum corps) in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and other parts of the Commonwealth. It is a tradition that the Black Watch regiment of the British Army are led into battle by a lone piper. Because of their obvious national attributes, the Great Highland Pipes are often used in film and television music to evoke the culture of Scotland. Other varieties of pipes may be use in the same way to evoke a particular area, or even if a general 'folk' or 'peasant' idiom is desired. Bagpipes of all varieties have seen limited use in extended compositions and popular music; this may be because of the very specific cultures attached to them, or due to the limited range and textures available. However, imitation of bagpipe music is widespread from the eighteenth century onwards, particularly in the baroque musette and gigue.

Instruments and Voices
Woodwinds Flute (Piccolo/Alto/Bass)RecorderOboe (Cor Anglais/Oboe D'amore/Heckelphone)Clarinet (E♭/Bass/Contrabass)

Bassoon (Contrabassoon)SaxophoneBagpipes

Brass HornCornetTrumpetTromboneEuphoniumTubaSaxhorns
Keyboards PianoOrganHarmoniumHarpsichordClavichordCelestaAccordion
Percussion Tuned: TimpaniGlockenspielChimesVibraphoneXylophoneMarimbaCrotalesMusical sawHammered Dulcimer

Untuned: Snare drumBass drumTriangleCymbalsGongsTom-tomsShakersDrumset

Electronic ThereminOndes MartenotSynthesizerElectronic Wind Instrument
Stringed Bowed: ViolinViolaVioloncelloContrabass

Plucked: HarpGuitarMandolinBanjo

Voices Female: SopranoMezzo-soprano (often mistaken with Alto)Contralto (often mistaken with Alto)

Male: TrebleCountertenorTenorBaritoneBass-baritoneBass