The Drone and the Wail

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but I am a pianist. Not a fantastic one it’s true, but enough to be able to read, appreciate and talk with a degree of authority about music, and I’m certainly able to appreciate (and to an extent exploit) the instrument’s unparalleled versatility and the simple beauty of its sound. However, the piano is a lonely, solitary instrument and I, like many other pianists before me, have often longed to dabble in another instruments. Most would lean towards the guitar or somesuch, in order to further expand the horizons of the music they are able to contribute to. However, the instrument that I have always wanted to learn might be considered slightly unconventional by many standards; the bagpipes.

This is in part a reflection of a slightly plaintive desire to reconnect with my somewhat loose Scottish roots, and indeed a country I have always liked (although in actuality the bagpipes originate from the middle east), but also for the simple reason that the pipes are inherently bizarre instruments. Here is the only instrument I know of played with the elbow, the only one where the majority of the instrument is made from thick cloth rather than something rigid and the only wind instrument where the bit with which the pitch is controlled is completely separate from where the sound itself is produced. Part of my reason for writing this post was purely to find out how the hell the thing worked.

That much my research has alluded to. To go back a step, in most woodwind instruments such as the oboe or clarinet, sound is produced by moving air over a stiff reed made of cane, which then vibrates and produces a clear note. The air within the tube attached to said tube then resonates, amplifying the sound. The holes in the tube control this resonance; the vibrating air will only form a standing wave and resonate up to the point at which the air escapes, so up to the furthest uncovered hole (it’s actually more complicated than that, but I lack the ability to explain this properly). Thus, which holes are covered and uncovered determines which standing waves are formed in the tube, and thus which frequencies are amplified by the tube and what note is played.

A bagpipe consists of four different parts; the blowpipe (the tube into which air is blown), the bag, the chanter (the bit at the bottom that the hands play in order to produce a note) and the drones (those three whacking great tubes that are to be found slung over a piper’s shoulder). Unlike most woodwind instruments, which locate the reed at the same place the air is blown in (the mouthpiece), the multiple reeds of a bagpipe are built into the base of the drones and the chanter; one reed in each. Air is blown from the mouthpiece into the airtight bag, and from there steady pressure is applied to the bag by the elbow in order to force air through the drones and chanter, creating the sound.

The bagpipe’s distinctive sound comes from the way these various components are set up and used; the drones are used to create the constant note running in the background of all bagpipe music, and it is their great length that causes long-wavelength, low-frequency, low-pitched notes to be produced. Most highland bagpipes have three drones; one long bass drone and two shorter tenor drones, producing a nice harmony. However, because most drone designs are just a single straight tube without the ability to adjust their pitch beforehand, this necessarily means that most bagpipes are effectively tuned to one key for their entire lives. This, combined with the fact that bagpipes are usually played in bands with multiple instruments all set to the same pitch in order to produce a coherent sound, presumably leading to the mass-production of only a few pitches, might account for why quite a lot of bagpipe music sounds somewhat samey. A partial solution to this may be the electric bagpipes, which presumably can be tuned to an infinitely more varied degree if you know how.

The shorter chanter underneath the bag, complete with finger-holes to allow its note to be controlled by the piper, is what produces the distinctive, high-pitched, almost nasal melodic sound of the bagpipes. Unfortunately, getting a note out of the instrument is significantly more than just blowing, squeezing and messing around with the notes; once you have experimented with a practice chanter (in essence a high-pitched recorder) to learn your notes, you then have to get an inordinate amount of practice in just to get the thing to produce any noise. Filling a set of pipes’ bag with air from empty can take several minutes just to start with, by which time you’re surely puffing and blowing having not managed to produce any sound other than a barely audible wheeze. After a while, the bag will reach capacity and the drones will start to sound out of sheer air pressure, but even then getting them to sound off properly takes an adroit little manoeuvre; the bag must be struck sharply at a specific point whilst blowing hard in order to get the drones to ‘tap in’ (or ‘strike in’). Striking in cleanly is apparently the single biggest challenge for the inexperienced piper. Once the drones are playing smoothly, engaging the chanter is apparently a relatively simple affair of going at the bag with a bit more vigour (which of course requires even more aggressive blowing into the thing), but even once you’ve started correctly, a careful cycle of squeeze-blow-take a desperate breath-squeeze again must be so well-practiced as to be automatic in order to keep the bag inflated and the sound flowing. In some ways, playing the bagpipes is like flying an aircraft; the middle section is a relatively simple job of just keeping on going and ensuring you don’t screw up or try anything dumb, whilst the beginning and end (which requires very careful timing in order to ensure the end of the song is crisp) are both rather technical procedures that have to be performed to perfection to prevent you making an unwanted, messy whining sound/crashing and killing hundreds of people. The comparison breaks down a little at that point, I’ll grant you.

For a final word on the subject of bagpipes, I turn to the words of some Englishman from days gone by who I now misquote: “If a neighbour has annoyed you, buy all his children a set of bagpipes”.

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