Query about bagpipes

I can post this here as I know I will get an answer.

Do bagpipes have a native key? If I write a piece of music for bagpipes and accordion, say, should I write it in concert pitch, or in Bb, or can bagpipes play in a multitude of keys, just like a real instrument?

How about the drone? Is it a set pitch? Can you choose a note? Is it even a note at all?

Can you tune bagpipes?*

I reserve the right to ask follow up questions!

* the man who plays them outside the Eagle Centre can’t.


6 thoughts on “Query about bagpipes

  1. Sometimes, I think the bagpipes are a law unto themselves! Since the band never plays with other instruments, and since I’m strictly an amateur, I don’t really know what key we play in – Googling “bagpipes key” and following the first suitable-looking link would seem to suggest the majority of tunes are in E Flat Major or B Flat Major. However, the site does say that the musicians must tune the instruments together carefully, or the whole thing will sound horrible (and this much should be obvious!).

    As for tuning the pipes, it is indeed possible. There are four points of adjustment.

    The main one is the chanter, which is held in the hands while playing, and which makes all the notes. This can be adjusted by moving the reed up or down in its socket. If finer control is needed, tape can be applied to the individual holes to sharpen or flatten a particular note – by the end of the competition season, most of the holes on most of the chanters in the band have tape on them!

    For competition, we’re currently tuning our “low A” to 468 MHz (if I recall correctly), which is actually quite a low setting for competition.

    The three drones are then each tuned to an individual note. There’s a sliding point in each of the drones (two on the bass), which allows them to be shortened or lengthened and so change the note. I believe these should be set to the first and second harmonics of the “low A” – I think the two outside drones have the same pitch, duplicated for volume, but I might well be wrong about that. As I said, I’m not a professional!

    Anyway, I hope that helps somewhat.

  2. Long answer warning!

    I’ve written music for bagpipes and other instruments before, back in the mists of time.

    There is a specific key that you need to write the music in. Can’t remember off the top of my head what it is, but I’ll let you know when I remember to look.
    Furthermore, if you’re actually writing music for the bagpipes, you need to take into account the limitations of the bagpipes for playing different notes. There are a set of notes that it can play, and no others (no sharps or flats). Once again, I’ll let you know once I’ve had chance to have a look.
    Stevo’s right about the drones. They are set and don’t then change.
    Bagpipes are definitely a real instrument. In fact, studies have shown that professional bagpipers have faster fingers than professional concert pianists. How cool is that?!
    Two other things to take into account:
    There isn’t really an option of stopping playing the pipes mid-tune (not for a short time anyway). If you’re having the pipes stop, you would want the period of rest to be an extended one, and the period of play to be an extended one.
    As (I’m sure) you know, bagpipe music only really differs from other music in the bagpipe embellishments (the grace-notes and other fiddly bits that are part of the tune). These are really accents to the melody and unless you’re really interested they’re too complex to go into the detail of here. But suffice to say that a piece of bagpipe music isn’t really complete without them and that your friendly family bagpiper (if you have such a thing) may be happy to help with this kind of detail.

  3. Many thankses to the two serious answers. Walesy, marks deducted for upsetting the foreigners.

    … Much to think on for Chris’s concerto for bagpipe and accordion (fictional).

    Richard – do you play the pipes left-handed?

  4. No, the same way as everyone else.
    If you think about it, a band would look kinda silly if a tenth of the pipers had the drones over the right shoulder, while the rest had them over the left.

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