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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The Interesting Instrument

Music has been called the greatest thing that humans do; some are of the opinion that it, even if only in the form of songs sung around the campfire, it is the oldest example of human art. However, whilst a huge amount of music’s effect and impact can be put down to the way it is interpreted by our ears and brain (I once listened to a song comprised entirely of various elements of urban sound, each individually recorded by separate microphones and each made louder or softer in order to create a tune), to create new music and allow ourselves true creative freedom over the sounds we make requires us to make and play instruments of various kinds. And, of all the myriad of different musical instruments humankind has developed, honed and used to make prettyful noises down the years, perhaps none is as interesting to consider as the oldest and most conceptually abstract of the lot; the human voice.

To those of us not part of the musical fraternity, the idea of the voice being considered an instrument at all is a very odd one; it is used most of the time simply to communicate, and is thus perhaps unique among instruments in that its primary function is not musical. However, to consider a voice as merely an addition to a piece of music rather than being an instrumental part of it is to dismiss its importance to the sound of the piece, and as such it must be considered one by any composer or songwriter looking to produce something coherent. It is also an incredibly diverse tool at a musician’s disposal; capable of a large range of notes anyway in a competent singer, by combining the voices of different people one can produce a tonal range rivalled only by the piano, and making it the only instrument regularly used as the sole component of a musical entity (ie in a choir). Admittedly, not using it in conjunction with other instruments does rather limit what it can do without looking really stupid, but it is nonetheless a quite amazingly versatile musical tool.

The voice also has a huge advantage over every other instrument in that absolutely anyone can ‘play’ it; even people who self-confessedly ‘can’t sing’ may still find themselves mumbling their favourite tune in the shower or singing along with their iPod occasionally. Not only that, but it is the only instrument that does not require any tool in addition to the body in order to play, meaning it is carried with everyone absolutely everywhere, thus giving everybody listening to a piece of music a direct connection to it; they can sing, mumble, or even just hum along. Not only is this a wet dream from a marketer’s perspective, enabling word-of-mouth spread to increase its efficiency exponentially, but it also makes live music that other level more awesome (imagine a music festival without thousands of screaming fans belting out the lyrics) and just makes music that much more compelling and, indeed, human to listen to.

However, the main artistic reason for the fundamental musical importance of the voice has more to do with what it can convey- but to adequately explain this, I’m going to need to go off on a quite staggeringly over-optimistic detour as I try to explain, in under 500 words, the artistic point of music. Right, here we go…:

Music is, fundamentally, an art form, and thus (to a purist at least) can be said to exist for no purpose other than its own existence, and for making the world a better place for those of us lucky enough to be in it. However, art in all its forms is now an incredibly large field with literally millions of practitioners across the world, so just making something people find pretty doesn’t really cut it any more. This is why some extraordinarily gifted painters can draw something next to perfectly photo-realistic and make a couple of grand from it, whilst Damien Hirst can put a shark in some formaldehyde and sell it for a few million. What people are really interested in buying, especially when it comes to ‘modern’ art, is not the quality of brushwork or prettifulness of the final result (which are fairly common nowadays), but its meaning, its significance, what it is trying to convey; the story, theatre and uniqueness behind it all (far rarer commodities that, thanks to the simple economic law of supply and demand, are thus much more expensive).

(NB: This is not to say that I don’t think the kind of people who buy Tracy Emin pieces are rather gullible and easily led, and apparently have far more money than they do tangible grip on reality- but that’s a discussion for another time, and this is certainly how they would justify their purchases)

Thus, the real challenge to any artist worth his salt is to try and create a piece that has meaning, symbolism, and some form of emotion; and this applies to every artistic field, be it film, literature, paintings, videogames (yes, I am on that side of the argument) or, to try and wrench this post back on-topic, music. The true beauty and artistic skill of music, the key to what makes those songs that transcend mere music alone so special, lies in giving a song emotion and meaning, and in this function the voice is the perfect instrument. Other instruments can produce sweet, tortured strains capable of playing the heart strings like a violin, but virtue of being able to produce those tones in the form of language, capable of delivering an explicit message to redouble the effect of the emotional one, a song can take on another level of depth, meaning and artistry. A voice may not be the only way to make your song explicitly mean something, and quite often it’s not used in such an artistic capacity at all; but when it is used properly, it can be mighty, mighty effective.