OT: 5 January 1907 – John MacPhedran “The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter”



5 January, 1907

The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter

66 Lambhill Street

Glasgow, 27 December, 1906

Sir,–From what has appeared in your valuable paper re the above it would seem that there is some mystery about the chanter scale which cannot be solved, I may say that I see no mystery about it anymore than other instruments of a fixed scale.

There are seven notes required to make a scale, the eighth note being a unison to the bottom note; and a step into the octave above, if the instrument is capable of going that far up. The bagpipe chanter has a range of nine notes–that is a complete octave from A to A with a G natural underneath the scale, or, I may say, a step into the octave below, if the instrument is capable of going down that far. The drones are tuned to the full chord of A, three sharps, which determines the key of the instrument at once. The large drone is at low A, and the two small ones and octave higher. A piper starts to tune by sounding E natural, that he sounds high A natural, then low A natural, and finally test with C sharp.

Any musician will tell you that what I have explained is the key of A, three sharps. However, if any piper is in doubt as to what I have stated, let him take his chanter to any musician and get the musician to accompany him on any of the following instruments, viz., violin,’ cello, double bass, organ, harmonium, or piano to the following tunes:

Marches–1, “Loch Katrine”; 2, “Inverness Gathering”; 3, “Stirlingshire Militia”; 4, “79’s Farewell to Gibraltar.”

Strathspeys–1, “Stumpie”; 2, “Maggie Cameron”; 3, “Lady Madeline Sinclair”; 4, “Islay Ball.”

Reels–1, “Speed the Plough”; 2, “Bridge of Perth”; 3, “Pretty Marion”; 4, “Foot it Neatly.”

These well-known tunes are on the fundamental key of the bagpipes, and his accompanist will tell him that he has been playing on the key of A three sharps in every case, with an occasional chord of the minor seventh, as ability required it–that is,–that is, the G natural chord.

The minor seventh is a characteristic of bagpipe music, and is a legitimate chord. We meet the same thing in every sort of music, but it is always termed an accidental, and marked to that effect, whereas on the pipe music it is stationary. It is the bold Highland national instinct that makes the diminished seventh so prominent, and also makes the pipe music stand out from all other music, giving such a grand and glorious power to the piobaireachd and such a commanding appearance and tone to our Highland regiments on the March.

There are other splendid bagpipe tunes that are not on the fundamental key of the bagpipes, such as “The Barren Rocks of Aden” in D two sharps, “The Burning of the Piper’s Hut” in B minor two sharps; also “The Campbells are Coming” in G one sharp, were in this last mentioned key of G one sharp we are forced to play C sharp, because there is no C natural on the chanter. These are all of the keys that the bagpipes are capable of playing on, viz.;–A three sharps, D two sharps, B minor to sharps, and G one sharp. In the key of A the drones are and accompaniment on that key, but on the key of D they become A accompanying D; at B minor they are A accompanying B, and at G they are A accompanying G. When in the key of A the drones are strictly on the key, but at D they become a legitimate drone, at B minor they become a legitimate discord, and at G they also become a legitimate discord.

The full-size bagpipe chanter is slightly under A concert pitch, if played in the open air, but in a hot room it sharpens a little; so do the drones and all wind instruments, but all stringed instruments flatten in a hot room.–I am, etc.,

John MacPhedran

Violinist, Flutist, and Piper.

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