OT: 27 November 1915 – J.P.M. [“The Bagpipe Chanter Scale”]

The Oban Times, 27 November, 1915

[The Bagpipe Chanter Scale]

Tain, 15 November, 1915

Sir,–I expected some criticism on the subject matter of my first letter (October 9th), but not from the “airt” the breeze presently blows. The answer to Mr. Sinclair’s question as to the difference between his chanter and mine, may be set down as follows:–

Chanter, Gamut
G A B C# D E F# G1 A1
Key A – “C.S” ta1 d r m f s l t d1
Key A – “J.P.M.” ta1 d r m f s l t d1

The notes in question is upper G, which he supposes to be G sharp on his practice chanter. He finds it to be slightly flatter on the complete instrument (as per his letter of 23rd October, in which he says G sharp had almost reached G natural). He is quite certain, apparently, that the lower G is G natural. Without examining Mr. Sinclair’s chanter, and watching his fingering closely, I am quite unable to say how he produces G sharp on either chanter. I have tried dozens of chanters in my day, but never had any doubt that upper G on every one was G natural. Further, I have never met a musician interested in piper’s music who did not instantly recognise the same fact. It is one of the “peculiarities” of the chanter and its music to the modern “diatonic” ear. So that, in my opinion, Messrs. Sinclair and Grant stand alone when they say the upper G is G sharp.

Let us try a little experiment and sound the major triad on the key of A, viz. A, C sharp, E. The cord will be found correct on adding octave upper A. The major triad of the key of G is correct also, viz., G, B, D. The octave upper G is quite correct, and is part of the chord. The same thing occurs on the piano and violin, but according to Mr. Sinclair, the results on being tabulated should read:–

Key G read as A–”C.S.”– ta1, r, f, ta.
Key G read as A–”J.P.M.”– ta1, r, f, ta.
Key G read as G–”C.S.”– d.m.s.de1
Key G read as G– “J.P.M.”– d, m s, d1.

Looked at in this light, which is the bizarre scale, his or mine? I will be glad to go further into the matter on hearing what Mr. Sinclair has to say on these points. But at the same time I would like to ask him how he is to write out in sol-fa a tune like “The Alma,” which is the subject of the query by “Crispin” in last Saturday’s “Oban Times.” “Crispin’s” setting is diatonic, and reminds one forcibly of Apollo imitating Marsyas through the medium of a tin whistle. How would Mr. Sinclair, or any other, propose to write the second measure of the pipe set which is as follows (in common time for convenience):–

                                    |               : |    : m. f     |
| s : d1      | m : d1     | s. l : s. m | d : r. m     |
| f : ta      | r : ta        |f. s : f. r    | ta1 : m .f. |
| s : d1      | m : d1     | s. l : s. m | d :    r. m |
| f. s : f. r | s. l : s. m| d : d1        | d1 :          |

This is not a pentatonic tune, but if the underlined notes are compared with the corresponding notes in “Crispin’s” setting, the difference between a diatonic and pentatonic chanter will be seen at a glance.

Again, in a tune like the old air to “O fhuair mi nead a ghurra gùg,” and inquired for recently by “Catriona,” Edinburgh, in your correspondence columns, how would a believer in the sharp G write it in sol-fa? The Benbecula pipe setting is pentatonic, and is practically the same as the old violin set printed as early as 1755 by Angus Cumming and named in his book “Ballendalloch’s Reell.” Here is the old Benbecula set in G, the repeats and coda not being given to save space (Cumming also writes his set in G):–

Key G, – “O fhuair mi nead a ghurra gùg.”
| m, r.- : m, s.- | m, l. – : d1       | m. d.-: m., r | r, d.- : d, d. s |
| m, r.- : m, s.- | m, l. – : r1      | d1., l : d1., m | m,r,-: r, r, m :||:
| d1., r1 : d1., l   |d1., l     : s., r1 | l., s   : m., r   |r, d.- : d, d. m |
| d1., r1 : d1., l   |d1., l     : s., r1 | l., s   : m, s.   |r       : r, r. m ||

If the sharp G’s are used, all the upper “dohs” must be read a semi-tone higher–high de–in fact. Your readers can judge the effect of such a novelty. This tune appeared in your columns fourteen years ago written in key D (pipe) and the excellent collection of Puirt-a-Beul edited by the late Dr. K. N. MacDonald.

Mr. Grant asks my authority for saying that the ancient pipers knew about pentatonic scales. I find I wrote:-” That the MacCrimmons knew and studied the scales and modes, is apparent on looking closely at the work they have left behind.” This means that I have the same warrant for believing what I say, as I have for thinking or believing that the MacCrimmons ever existed, or even played pipes.

Mr. Grant pays me a compliment by suspecting me of using supernatural means to obtain my results. He can rest assured that nothing but the wizardry of common sense was used in the process which was applied by me many years ago in going over the large existing collections of Lowland Scottish instrumental and vocal music in my research for pibroch phrase resemblances. To me the process is very natural and very simple, and is based on the principle of separating the pentatonic tunes from those that contain the “sharp seventh” and “fourth.” The combinations of the “fourth” and “flat seventh” are exactly shown in my first letter, and I need not take up space by describing them again. That is the whole secret, and it embraces the secret of the drones being in tune on the various keys. The five-note modes and their use, governing the tuning; the modes seeking the drones, and the drones seeking the modes–what could be simpler or more beautiful?– and in that arrangement there can be no place for a sharp G removed the distance of only a semi-tone from the harmony!

I find I made a slip in my first letter. I should have written “Hector MacLean’s Warning,” not “Lament,” as an example of a mixed mode tune.–I am, etc.,


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