OT: 4 December 1915 – James Cameron [“The Bagpipe Chanter Scale”]



The Oban Times, 4 December, 1915

                                                                       [the Bagpipe Chanter Scale]

Edinburgh, 27 November, 1915

Sir,–I had no intention of deserting the discussion of the chanter by quoting the “flageolette” as an example of shewing what might be done in the matter of “keys” on a very humble instrument which bears the same relation to the modern keyed flute as a chanter does to the oboe.

That “chanter notes” are “fixed” was never in dispute. The unfortunate thing is that Mr. Grant has got “fixed” with the idea that G is “sharp” on the chanter, whereas it is “natural.”

Let him try a G natural proved tuning fork or pipe along with his chanter G. Then let him try a G sharp tuning pipe in the same key. If he can’t distinguish which is in harmony then he has no “ear.”

In my first note I pointed out that at least 4 major scales were, more or less, perfectly playable on the chanter, and bagpipe tunes were found in all these keys.

I will now draw attention to minor scales and tunes more or less used there on.

By minor scale I mean “minor effect” in its widest acceptation where we have the minor third of three semitones without necessarily the artificial sharp in the sixth, or sixth and seventh of the artificial ascending minor scale of musical writers and composers.

One can quite well consider minor scales as fundamentally major with accidentals, and the whole matter is a debatable one. This by the way. The characteristic is the minor third (lah of vocalists) being used as keynote.

In 1884 or 1885 the brothers J. and R. Glen of Edinburgh one day pointed out to me that many bagpipe tunes were in E minor, the relative minor of G major, and that other minor keys were also represented in pipe music.

As the chanter is a pastoral instrument originally it is natural that its music should be “minor.”

The best “pastoral” Scottish air I know of is “Ca’ the Yowes tae the Knowes,” of which the music is very old and its composer unknown. It is generally written in D major and called B minor. On the chanter it goes on G major or E minor (lah), although the want of compass makes one re-duplicate the E and another note or two for want of octaves. The characteristic minor third is got from the chanter The natural, F sharp, and G natural. Were the G sharp the tune could not be played.

The key of D on the chanter yields more or less well the key of B minor, from B natural, C sharp, and D natural, part of “When the Kye comes hame” ending in B on the chanter will illustrate this. So the key of C in part gives the relative A minor, but as C is sharp on the pipes, C’s and F’s in this key are found absent. While the imperfect key of 3 sharps (two sharps and flat seventh) gives the imperfect minor key of F sharp from A natural, G natural, and F sharp.

If Mr. Grant goes to David Glen’s Ancient Piobaireachd you will find examples of most of these minor tunes, but of course signatured in the major modes.

“Diagnosing” (as Mr. MacFarlane calls it) the key may be troublesome, but Mr. J.P.M. in a private note to my attention to the use of observing the leading grace notes as a guide in certain doubtful cases.

So we have at least “seven” keys playable on the ninth note chanter, and perhaps Mr. Grant after conversion will be bringing out “O’huair mi port air gleusan nu’a” in the key of “B minor” as a “Salute” to the “Daoine Choire” in this controversy.

It would be extraordinary to believe that as a nine note instrument only was available all the human musical faculty of Alba would be tied down all through the last 300 years to “one key” as that is what Mr. Grant’s view amounts to.

The piper displaced the harp with bad musical results, but after all became relegated to special (military) and a few other uses. Many piobaireachd are simply “pastorals” such as “Is leam fein an gleann” and “Failt’ aut Siosalaich,” and it is a matter of indifference whether the indeterminate piobaireachd are labeled Failte, Cumha, piobaireachd, Caismeachd, etc., and they cannot be assigned distinctive characters in many cases, but the simple pastoral theme is all there is with the plaintiff unison effect. As regards tuning on G “letting out the slides” should be assumed.

Mr. Grant can keep a “stand of pipes” with the big drone tuned to G, not difficult, and shut off the smaller ones in the meantime. He will be surprised at the improvement with tunes in G and bless Angus MacDonald. For the smaller drones, if they won’t adapt, have a short middle joint inserted.

Anyway we pipers must get to know all about our pipes instead of living ostrich-like with our heads in the sand, even though certain pipers think it an impiety to analyze the music of the piob mhor. I am, etc.,

James Cameron

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