OT: 6 November 1915 – J.P.M.



The Oban Times, 6 November, 1915

Tain, 28 October, 1915

Sir,–I have no objection to the use of the sol-fa in “dissecting” the chanter scale. Mr. MacPharlain evidently considers my neutral attitude on the subject as an interesting “case” requiring the use of the dissecting knife. I think his own “case” is somewhat similar.

Stated briefly it is as follows. He converts my first mode pentatonic scale of G on the chanter, into a series of notes which appeared to him to be s, l, t, r’, m’, in the key of C. He proves, that considered as a G scale, the interval between d and r is too sharp by half a degree and he therefore pronounces the G scale to mean something other than a true pentatonic one. Mr. MacPharlain in my opinion has overreached himself. The blemish he has found is inseparable from, and natural to, the combination of two pentatonic scale such as we have under discussion. It occurs, of course, with varying emphasis, on every tempered stringed and keyed instruments in these blessed islands. But it can also be seen in full working order in the next key of A on the chanter, which Mr. MacPharlain is so determined to read in the key of D. His “case” is now as “parlous” as my own, and your readers can easily see that he has arrived at the same conclusion as myself, namely, that the two lower notes of the chanter each give rise to a series of notes having the same intervals. “J.P.M.” considers them to be true pentatonic scales, which can be sung or played to the sol-fa notes d, r, m, s, l, while “C.M.P” pronounces them to be untrue, but agrees, nay affirms that they are best expressed in sol-fa by the notes s, l, t, r’, m’.

Mr. MacPharlain can tell us of course that his interpretation of the G scale was only meant to show off the superior qualities of sol-fa on when pitted against the staff notation, but your readers may want a decision on this weighty question–the difference between “tweedledum” and “tweedledee,”–so I may be excused if I again go over the points that to me appear to indicate the true pentatonic nature of the scales.

In the first place there is no natural C in the chanter gamut, only C sharp, so that the series of notes cannot belong to a C major scale. Neither can they belong to a scale of A minor although many of the tunes in G can be read correctly in this key (the drones pitched on A emphasising the minor lah). But the C is still absent, and so the scale, in those far-off days, had not acquired as yet, its modern character.

Secondly, the doctrine of “mental effects” (a strong sol-fa subject) is decidedly against considering any of these tunes to be in any other key save G; the steady calm strength of Me as the note B is to be found in all these tunes. Sombre and majestic the key is undoubtedly, and the words of one of our later poets “a drumming on the notes where the sorrows live,” describe it vividly.

Thirdly, I was forced to believe in the pentatonic theory by the internal evidence of the tunes themselves, and by the firm mastery of the modes shown by the old pipers. I am grateful to Mr. Donald MacRae of Aberdeen for pointing out that the author of “Harp and Claymore” recognised the five note origin of the pipe. My first count of pentatonic tune was G = 39, A = 39, D = 18, which suggested in the flash, two parallel scales of the same value or mode, and a middle transverse one.

I think, however, that anyone knowing a little about our national music would come to the conclusion that the inventor of the chanter meant the scales to be pentatonic for the simple reason that he knew no other scales, and after all, I dare say, that is the weightiest evidence that can be produced.

Mr. MacRae has, in my opinion, correctly classified the pibrochs named in their various keys, and when he has worked through the big pile of material in front of him, he will find the key of C unrepresented, a fact that Mr. James Cameron of Edinburgh, as well as Mr. MacPharlain, should take note of.

In conclusion I think I may safely state that pipers do not trouble themselves about the old scales of the chanter, but they teach the rhythm of the pibroch to their pupils, and a most difficult thing it is to impart to the modern ear. That this is so, is a good thing for piping. The scales and modes are indestructible, but rhythm is a thing that can only be handed down from master to pupil. From my own experience it is a difficult thing to acquire, but once acquired the imparting of it becomes imperative–and so we play and impart, and the knowledge of the pibroch rolls down the ages.–I am, etc.

J. P. M.

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