Instruments | Bagpipes | Woodwind

The bagpipe principle is simple: instead of the player blowing directly on a reed pipe, the air is supplied from a reservoir, usually made of animal skin, which is inflated either by mouth or by bellows. The result is the ability to produce a continuous tone, and the possibility of adding extra reed-pipes to enable a single player to make homophonic music.


The early history of bagpipes is unclear. Because they were made of perishable organic materials, no early examples survive, and as they have been regarded in recent years as something of a peasant instrument they have not been much documented (except for the Scottish Great Highland bagpipe, which is just one of the wide range and by no means the earliest).

However, playing a melody against a drone, and achieving a continuous tone by circular breathing, have been common among reed-pipe players for millennia; plugging the reed-pipes into a bag is a logical development. Bagpipes can be seen in the art of the Middle Ages, and there is evidence that they were in use at least 1,000 years before that.


The basic components of a bagpipe are:
1 The bag, usually made of a whole or partial animal skin.
2 A blow-pipe, with a non-return valve, to inflate the bag. Some bagpipes are inflated by a bellows tucked under the player’s arm.
3 The chanter – the melody pipe, equipped with finger holes. It may have a single bore, with a single or double-bladed reed, or have additional bores with or without finger holes, each with a reed. The chanter is normally fitted into the bag via a tied-in wooden tube known as a ‘stock’.
4 Most bagpipes have one or more drone pipes, usually with single-blade reeds, plugged into the bag via one or more extra stocks. Each usually gives a continuous single note that accompanies the melody.

Great Highland Bagpipe

The world’s best-known bagpipe – largely because of its use in the British army and the former Empire – is Scotland’s Great Highland Bagpipe. In fact, this is just about the only bagpipe to have had substantial military use. Quite similar to the gaitas of Spain’s Galicia and Asturias and northern Portugal, it is mouth-blown with a single nine-holed, conical-bored chanter. Today’s standardized version has three separate drone pipes: two tenors an octave below the chanter’s keynote, and a bass an octave below them.


The exact pitch of that keynote varies; while called A, it is generally between Bb and B. Until recently, Highland pipes were not played with other instruments with a defined scale, so, as with many bagpipes, their overall pitching and the tempering of the notes within the scale depended on the ear and satisfaction of the maker and player. Nowadays pipes made for playing alone or in pipe bands still use the exciting non-equal-temperament intervals, but there now exist pipes with their pitch and scale modified to...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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