It has been said that pipers can be a cantankerous lot. If you can find a group who are happy to be in the same room together, that’s a start. Then there remains the challenge of getting them to agree on pipe setup, type of bag, make of reeds, etc and then to play the same setting at the same tempo and all together in tune. Nae bother…
Matching bagpipes to concert instruments like a violin, guitar or piano is, to be blunt, a whole other barrel of golf balls. Combining highland bagpipes with concert instruments is nothing new. Many musicians have made good careers out of doing so, the latest and probably most notable being the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Using electronic bagpipes is a useful short cut as instruments like the Redpipe can be tuned chromatically and by key. But what happens when you need to make your analogue pipe play nicely with others?
Well, where to start? A pipe has only nine notes (with no chromatic scale), the music is written in A but played in an approximation of B flat and it relies on a “just” scale that is quite different from the “equal temperament” scale preferred by most Western (as in hemisphere, not as in country and) music. More so than most other instruments, bagpipes are frequently played out in the elements, rain driving the instrument flat and sun driving it equally sharp. Just playing them adds heat which makes the natural cane reeds sharpen over time. Worst of all, pipers have never given two hoots for concert instruments and so tune their pipe at a pitch that sounds good to them.
If you’re up for some history, maths, physics and philosophy, there is a really good summary of the technical aspects of scales and bagpipe tuning by Ewan Macpherson: “The Pitch and Scale of the Great Highland Bagpipe” (reprinted from the Winter 1998 issue of the magazine New Zealand Pipeband). It is an interesting side note that setting A below middle C on a piano to 440Hz only happened by international agreement as recently as 1939. Until then, everyone was at liberty to do what they wanted.
In 2016, FMM played their Worlds medley at about 480Hz (as read off the BBC recording) and concert B flat is 466. The difference between A and Bb is a semitone or about 26Hz. So FMM would be 14Hz sharp of concert or about half a semitone. The gradual sharpening of pipe chanters (along with all other instruments) has occurred over the last century or more. It’s part of the reason why music is written in A and played in Bb – the instrument was originally in A but personal taste and the physical setup of pipes has driven the tuning sharper and sharper over time. We seem to be having a lull in that progress at the moment. Most bands pitch Bb somewhere in the low 480s. Solo pipers I am sure still chase their own ideal pitch to match the instrument, conditions and tunes. I am currently playing around 481 – 483 at band and 478 – 480 for my solo pipe. The Australian climate swings from heatwaves to floods which makes it all that much harder of course…
So, what’s to be done? Trying to make a normal chanter pitch at 466 is hard and generally involves a lot of hemp, tape and swearing. Most common reeds don’t pitch well when raised dramatically out of the reed seat. The drones can be made to go flat fairly easily but issues with top sections popping off the tuning pins are common.
Helpfully, a number of pipe makers and suppliers are trying to address the problem. The solution comes in two parts: how to make the chanter flatter and what to do with the drones. In both cases there have generally been two approaches: either change the instrument or change the reed.
Many makers now produce Bb (and even A440) chanters including Boderiou, McCallum, Shepherd and MacLellan, some in both pipe and concert scales. Reeding these chanters is much more straightforward as the reed can be situated at a “normal” depth into the reed seat. I play a McCallum band chanter and have a Bb chanter from the same maker. There is little to no difference in the process and difficulty of fitting these chanters with G1 Platinum reeds. Shepherd also produces a Bb chanter reed designed for their Bb chanter. Not sure how this would go in a regular chanter?
Some reed makers including Highland Reeds are also now producing Bb drone reed sets. Another solution to make drones tune more naturally is to use drone extenders – little pieces of plastic that reproduce the reed seat at a distance from the drone end.
So what do you need to carry in your pipe case to allow you to play nicely with others? All it can take is to pop an additional chanter pitched to Bb into your case and a set of drone extenders. Need to play in? Simply swap your chanter and install the drone extenders, tune and you’re ready to go.
A couple of last points about playing with other instruments:
- Always check what the other instruments are tuning at. Guitars and pianos are always likely to be A440 but others may not. Playing recently with a brass band, they’re preference for tuning Bb was around 468 or 470, slightly sharp of concert. If you’ve rigged up right, this shouldn’t be a problem but just check their value going in and you’ll nail it.
- Volume can be an issue. Most non-piping musicians will eventually break down and ask where the volume knob is and in a most polite voice ask you to turn it down. But surprisingly, pipes can often be not loud enough, particularly when playing against amplified instruments. Again, in this case Redpipes are your friend.
And for those who may be interested, there are some really cool people doing some great stuff with concert instruments and just scales. Have a listen to Michael H Dixon playing french horn to a just scale. Pipers will find some of the intervals strangely familiar…