OT: 1 June 1907 – Charles Bannatyne “The Bagpipe Chanter Scale”



The Oban Times, 1 June, 1907

The Bagpipe Chanter Scale

Salsburgh-by- Holytown,

27 May, 1907

Sir,–From a long study of Highland music of all kinds, vocal, bagpipe, etc., I was inclined to have a great respect for the musical abilities of the Gael of olden times. Why so many barbarous and foreign scales should in these days be attributed to them I cannot understand. So far as study of their old vocal music teaches us, the Highlanders used the natural scale in a modal manner, altering the intervals hardly any.

It is but natural to think that a people, in manufacturing for themselves a musical instrument, such as the chanter, would make the scale as nearly as possible just to that in which they sang. That they did this there is no doubt. Every pibroch I know is a modal tune, and in one of three modes, namely, first, fourth, or fifth. What is a mode? It is a use of the scale in such a way as to make the note on which it is built the tonic. Here are the modes I have specified:–

First: d r m f s l tay d        
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1        
Fifth:         s l tay d r m f s
          5 6 7 1 2 3 4 5
Fourth:       f s l tay d r m f (s)
        4 5 6 7 1 2 3 4 (5)

That diagram makes the subject of the chanter modes clearer than a bushel of words could. To the fourth I have added in brackets the note soh, to complete the chanter scale, using the syllable “Tay” to express the fractional difference between te and ta–the major and minor sevenths. Had I started studying the chanter scale with the premise that the ancient Gaelic ear was so very barbarous that it demanded the high G to be nearly half a tone out of tune compared with the low G, I have no doubt I could have deduced proof to satisfy myself that such a previso was correct. I never heard any piper of consequence advance such a theory. Every piper I have ever spoken to on the subject admits that there is great difficulty in getting the high G to keep in tune, but none had any doubt as to what the note should be.

It has been said that Donald MacDonald, compiler of “The Ancient Martial Music of Caledonia,” tuned his high G half a tone or so sharper than his low G. Did he? According to his music, and to the scale he gives in his book as the true and natural bagpipe scale, he did nothing of the kind. The fact is, MacDonald made his chanters with the G tetrad consonant, and then tempered most of the other notes to play as correctly as he could make them, in the keys of D and A also. This I am prepared to prove by mathematical calculations. In his book, here is what he gives as the only true and natural scale, and below the notes I give the vibration numbers given by General Thomason:–

G A B C D E F G A      
405 452 506 550 602 679 741 810 904      
10
10
12
11 
12
11 
9
12
11 
12
11 
10
       
d r m f s l tay d r Key as G
tay d r m f s l tay d Key as A
f s l tay d r m f s Key as D

In absolute pitch the notes denoted by the capital letters in the above table should all be marked sharp, except F, which, in point of fact, in absolute pitch, is rather a flat or grave G. The factions give the relationship of the notes.

Now, in order to find out what MacDonald considered the scale to be, the first thing to do is to find where the sharpest intervals occur in his scale. These, in the diagram I have given, are the 12–11th intervals. On examining the notes in the different keys, it will be seen that the small intervals occur between m and f, l and t, t and d. It is, therefore, quite evident that this chanter is tempered to play equally well or equally badly and three keys. On the whole, it will play fairly well, because it is tempered so that most of its thirds have any quality comparable to the major and minor thirds of the modern scale, but deficient commatically. It possesses in the G, or soh, mode, a good fourth and fifth in the lower hand, and a good fifth in the upper hand, but is otherwise defective. While this is MacDonald’s chanter by one test, we hope when the “scale committee” hold their meetings, that more data will be forthcoming. Vibrations are only dead things when their mutual relationship is left out of consideration. I will now give tables of the Drummond and Culloden chanters respectively.

Again I will call your readers’ attention to the relative positions of the smallest intervals in each. Along with them I give the Zalzal scale. While these older scales may not be mathematically equal to the corresponding intervals of the modern diatonic scale, it must always be borne in mind that the exigencies of modern harmony and musical culture demand an accuracy not necessary in old days, and certainly beyond the rude appliances our forefathers used in the manufacture of their comparatively rude instrument. Here are the several scales:–

    G A B C D E F G A  
Drummond: 409 452 497 554 610 682 752 823 904
    10
9
11
10
10
9
11
10
9
8
10
9
35
32
11
10
 
Culloden: 402 452 495 548 603 678 774 818 909
    9
12
11 
9
11
10 
9
8
19
18 
10
 
Zalzal: 402 452 509 554 602 678 740 803  
    9
9
12
11 
13
12 
9
12
11 
13
12 
9
 
    f s l tay d r m f s  

In each instance the smallest interval is found between t–d, m–f, except the s–l of the Culloden chanter, which is smaller than the t–d in the same scale. These measurements give the differences in commas, which are probably due to a rude form of temperament. Again, read all the capital letters as sharps. In point of fact the 11:12 interval in the Culloden chanter is equivalent to F, slightly sharper than natural, opposed to G natural, the 18:19 interval is equivalent to a large chromatic semitone of 4 1-8th commas, while the ratios of the preceding two intervals undoubtedly favour the assumption that this chanter closely follows the old mode of soh with the extra sharp seventh of the Greek scale. It has a good fourth and fifth in its lower part. The Drummond chanter has evidently been tempered so as to make its fourths and fifths equally playable, though not correct to modern ears.

Next week I hope to give an analysis of the Dunvegan scale, together with a suggested standard derived from it.–I am, etc.,

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

© Copyright Pipe Major John Grant - Designed for Dr. Alan Armstrong