OT: 23 October 1915 – Calum MacPharlain “The Chanter Scale”



The Oban Times, 23 October, 1915

The Chanter Scale

Elderslie, 9 October, 1915

Sir,–this correspondence has drifted away from the subject on which it started. Perhaps it is as well–and I am not objecting. Let me say at once that “J. P. M.” Raises its level why along degree, and there is now no place in it for the method of Mr. Grant, if it is to be kept at that high level. For one must now watch his P’s and his Q’s, and be specific and precise in his use of terms in dealing with the scale of the bagpipe as “J. P. M.” approaches it. In Mr. Grants case the legend was good enough weapon; in “J. P. M.’s” case, no coarser instrument than the dissecting knife is of any use.

At the outset, let me say that I refuse absolutely to discuss the scale of the bagpipe in terms of the staff notation. It is unscientific and confusing–nay, muddling. I know that the folk-song brethren nearly all deal in those terms. That is their misfortune, and I am wary enough not to let it be mine. A tune is a tune, not because of the absolute pitch of any note in it. It is in no way dependent on absolute pitch, and a terminology which is based on absolute pitch is quite unsuitable when it is the relations of notes to one another which are the subject of discussion. Any fortuitous relations of notes won’t make music. Nature has fixed the matter for us; and although nature never is found perfect, it is generally so nearly so that man can frame theoretical schemes of the perfection aimed at–so to speak–for his own practical purposes. Music is not music unless it, at least, aims at a correct rendering of the theoretical scheme of notes which go to the making of tunes. If it comes reasonably near the mark, the ordinary ear accepts sent, only in the absence of the better standard. In the presence of a high-class standard, it will generally rejected. A spoiled ear may accept the lower class rendering under any circumstances.

The relations of musical notes are simple, and appear in the following table. They are given in the order in which the pitch arises from any selected notes to its duplicate. The notes to which the value “1” is given is called in the sol-fa notation “doh.” Ray is a note having 9 vibrations for every 8 of doh. Me is a note having 5 vibrations for every 4 of doh. And so on. I give the relative values in the form of fractions in the first line. In the second line, I reveal the gradation of the increment. In the third I put the relations of the notes to one another in figures having a common denominator, for easier comparison. The range or compass of the scale here set forth is that which ordinary voices can produce without strain. The three lower notes are not in the bagpipe scale. The others are.

d r m f s l t d1 r1 m1 f1 s1
1 9

8

5

4

4

3

3

2

5

3

15

8

2 18

8

10

1

8

3

8

2

0 1

8

1

4

1

3

1

2

2

3

7

8

1 10

8

6

4

5

3

4

2

24 27 30 32 36 40 45 48 54 60 64 72

If the composer wants to make a pentatonic tune, he has only to leave out f and t, thus, using the bagpipe compass only:–

f s l t d1 r1 m1 f1 s1
+ 36 40 + 48 54 60 + 72

The diatonic scale contains the pentatonic; and, for our purpose, it does not matter whether the diatonic given out of the pentatonic by addition, or the pentatonic out of the diatonic by reduction.

Here I would like to point out, parenthetically, how error can readily come into a discussion through the use of staff notation terms. “J.P.M.” calls the lowest note of the bagpipe G, and he mentions other notes by the alphabetical names, which enables me to conclude that his scale, in his own terminology is as follows:–

G A B C# D E F# G A
s l t de1 r1 m1 fe1 s1 l1

Under those letters of his, I have put sol-fa letters, expressing the relations between these notes quite exactly. He asks me to sound on the chanter the notes G, A, B, D, E. He calls the resultant sol-fa: d, r, m, s, l–or a five-note pentatonic scale in the key of G. I find it s, l, t, d’, r’, a scale which is not the true pentatonic one, as may be seen from a comparison of his finding and mine in figures derived from the theoretical scale above.

J.P.M.— d r m s l
  36 40 ½ 45 54 60
C.M.P.— S l t r m
  36 40 45 54 60

Here we have an error where r and l mutually represent one another. The same thing can occur on the piano. It is not peculiar to the bagpipe. And by the same process we can get–indeed, are forced to accept from instruments or fixed notes–those erroneous scales. But that is not theoretically correct music. Lots of it ordinary ears will accept, and some of it will be rejected by good ears. Piano-tuners do not attempt to tune in perfection. The only correct notes on a piano are those called C. The others are compromised. How far the bagpipe’s notes are compromised ones, I don’t exactly know. But experiments seem to reveal few cases where there is regularity in the gradation of the increments.

Let us pursue our analysis further, without regard to the pentatonic scale, for it is not the end and aim of bagpipe playing, as can be seen from the mass of bagpipe tunes which were composed in past and present times. Suppose a composer has a tune on his mind which requires d to be put upon f of the bagpipe, the result is as follows:–

f s l t d r m f s
32 36 40 45 48 54 60 64 72
d r m f s l t d r
32 36 40 42 2/3 48 53 1/2 60 64 72

The composer must shun f, because the t of the upper line would render it too sharp for every ear. The error at l under r might pass muster. But it is plain that the larger error is shunned by the use of the pentatonic series.

In another case, a composer may not require to go solo for his note for carrying doh. Say that he puts it on the second note of the chanter, thus:–

f s l t d r m f s
32 36 40 45 48 54 60 64 72
t d r m f s l t d
33 3/4 36 40 1/2 45 48 54 60 67 1/2 72

here the composer must shun t, because the f of the upper line misrepresents in rather badly. Again, we have the minor error between l and r; and the pentatonic shunning the major error.

This analysis can be carried farther; but I have sufficiently shown that error there must be when doh is placed on a note which is not related to the others as doh is–no matter whether the scale includes the whole diatonic or is confined to the pentatonic. And error there must be even in a scale built to give a series of parallel pentatonic ones. But there is no reason to believe that that was the process by which the bagpipe or any other fixed scale was evolved. The tunes which best suit the bagpipe are those which record with the scale going from low f to high s, and these give out the same feeling as sung as soh mode tunes do.

The question of motives I will not touch at present. It belongs to “tune,” not to “scale.” This much can be said about them, I think, that they are not due to fashions which own their derivation to defective instrumentality (as some of the scales as”J.P.M.” calls them) of the clarsach and the pipe seem to do.–I am, etc.,

Calum MacPharlain

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