OT: 1 December 1906 – Charles Bannatyne “The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter”



The Oban Times, 1 December, 1906

The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter

Salsburgh, by Holytown,

26 November, 1906

Sir,–Major-General Thomason’s articles on this much-debated subject are most interesting, but the investigations are weakened by the influence of a preconceived idea that the chanter scale is an ancient one, having no modern equivalent. They are further nullified by the fact that the reeds in the chanters tested were wrongly set and so were not tested by normal, but my trick fingering. Trick fingering is used by Ceol Mor players in producing two notes, namely, C and high G. The C is too flat and is sharpened by keeping on the low G finger, while the high G is too sharp, and is flattened by keeping on the F finger. It never seems to occur to investigators that this fingering gives a broad hint as to the true chanter scale. The flat sevenths and the sharpened third can only occur in the mode of the fifth of the diatonic scale, and this gives the key as C and the gamut F to G ¹, but the number of vibrations make the key in the chanter D. A scale can be started on a note of as many vibrations as fancy dictates, and fancy seems to have dictated to the chanter makers. They, in most instances, work from a section of what they consider a good chanter, and each maker probably has his own pattern.

The main question is–” What is the true chanter scale?” This can be determined by examining the music, and is writ large in Major-General Thomason’s tables. Apply to these tables the ratio table of vibrations of the modern diatonic scale and the secret will out. Below I give the Drummond chanter scale and dissolves also corrected, together with Major-General Thomason’s tables, for comparison, and I also give sol-fa syllables to enable students of that notation to follow and understand the reasoning and conclusions drawn:–

  G A B C# D E F# G A
Drummond
corrected.
369
          9
          8
416
       10
         9
462
          9
          8
520
        16
        15
555
         9
         8
621
       10
         9
693
       16
       15
739
         9
         8
832
  f s l t doh r m f ¹ g ¹
Thomason 372 411 452 504 555 620 684 718 824
          doh        
Zalzal
corrected.
402 452 502 561 602 677 754 801 904
          doh        
Thomason 402 452 509 554 602 678 740 803 904
          doh        

It is impossible to mistake the scales. Their actual differences are very slight. In building a scale from a keynote you can begin with as many vibrations as you like. Bearing this in mind, you will at once see that the Drummond and Zalzal scales are in the mode of the fifth, and if the key is wanted is to be found in D. In plain words, the chanter scale is in the key of D, but the fifth is forced on the ear persistently by the dominant influence of the drones.

It is time pipers were sinking their prejudices and tackling the subject with common sense. These same prejudices hid the truth from me for years. The late Colin Brown, a Gael, and Evening Lecturer in Music in the Glasgow Athenaeum School, tested innumerable chanters, and from this and his incomparable knowledge of Highland music he unhesitatingly stated that the true chanter scale was F to G ¹ in the key of C, which is exactly what I am demonstrating. Such a scale is the only one by which the difficulties of Ceòl Mòr can be overcome. The tunes composing Ceòl Mòr are modal, and have no features not common to the older Scottish music. These features lose their peculiarities when viewed from the standpoint of a modal use of the diatonic scale.

I cannot quite follow the assertions of one of Major-General Thomason’s lady helpers, namely, that heat raises the pitch of all orchestral instruments, and that the average vocalist in singing a scale tends to sharpen in ascending and descending. I always understood that heat lowered the pitch of string and some reed instruments, and from a lifelong knowledge of singers in singing, both as choirs and as individuals, I unhesitatingly assert that the average tendency and singing is to lower the pitch, not to raise it, and I am sure all singing teachers and conductors will corroborate this.

The pitch of the chanter appears to have been at the mercy of individual makers. The number of vibrations in the A of the Culloden chanter is 447, while the diapason normal of 1859 was 435 and the Philharmonic of 1897 was 439 vibrations. Pitch gradually rose in this country for many years till C ¹ in 1890 had 538 vibrations, but the Culloden chanter C had 543. The Drummond chanter C ¹ has 520, and the diapason normal of 1859 in the tonic sol-fa standards are 517.3. The Drummond chanter, then, may be taken as a standard when corrected as I give it. It would form a first-rate scale to which no exception can be taken, and would sing out our fine old pipe tunes as they were meant to sound. High pitch gives brilliancy, but true intonation is preferable to brilliancy.

I venture in concluding to state that the standardisation of the chanter scale presents no difficulty if the modal nature of the music it is meant to render be resolutely kept in the foreground.–I am, etc.,

Charles Bannatyne, M.B., C.M.

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