OT: 9 October 1915 – J.P.M. “The Bagpipe Scale”



The Oban Times, 9 October, 1915

The Bagpipe Scale

Tain, 1 October, 1915

Sir,–Your correspondent, Mr. MacPharlain, in giving his impression of the Bagpipe scale as being the modern scale of D major, beginning on the fourth note (fah) and proceeding nine notes upwards, ending on the fifth (soh) of the modern scale, errs in good company. He is perfectly right in saying that this impression is derived from books published by pipers, as I have seen a collection of pipe music in which most of the tunes were written under the signature of D major.

This point of view cannot be the correct one. Would Mr. MacPharlain admit for a moment that a complete modern scale existed on the barbarous pipe chanter centuries before the actual scale itself arose out of the chaos of ancient scales and modes? If so, he simply gives the argument away to the pipers, who might in a measure be acclaimed as the pioneers of modern music. This we know is not his intention, and we also know that the chanter scale is something quite different to his “D major” conception of it. Let him take at the chanter again and sound the following notes–G (low), A, B, D, E, or in sol-fa: doh, ray, me, soh, lah. This is a five note pentatonic scale in the key of G. Then let him sound A (low), B, C sharp, E, F sharp, or again in the sol-fa: doh, ray, me, soh, lah. It is the same five note scale of the first mode, but in the key of A this time. Again let him sound A, B, D, E, F sharp, or in sol-fa: soh, lah, doh’, ray’, me’. That is another five note scale, but this time in the key of D, and it is the pentatonic scale of the fourth (Scottish) mode.

If Mr. MacPharlain at this stage would take the trouble of examining real bagpipe music–I mean piobaireachd–and search for tunes composed on these scales, most of his difficulty in understanding bagpipe music would vanish. There are about 40 good Pibrochs belonging to the first scale of G; there are another 40 or thereabouts strictly pentatonic tunes of the first mode in the key of A, and there are at least sixteen five note tunes in the key of D. Added to these I may include ten tunes strictly pentatonic and their character, in the key of G, in which F sharp occurs of a passing note (not a mode note), giving a total of 106 purely five note tunes out of 238 Pibrochs examined in Thomason’s “Ceol Mor.” The analysis shows that at least forty percent of the music handed down to us by the old pipers was strictly and sternly pentatonic. It should be remembered that “Ceol Mor” is a collection of traditional and written music, so that the percentage of five note music actually passed along from master to pupil at the present day stands at a higher rate than the figure mentioned. It will be observed that the figures given are somewhat mathematical in their quantities, and it is this circumstance that brought home to me the conclusion that the chanter as we have it is an everlasting monument to a very interesting phase of our national music.

The Chanter

The chanter, in fact, simply consists of two pentatonic scales of the first mode, lying side-by-side in an interval of one hold tone from each other, this partial super-position giving rise to a third pentatonic scale.

It will thus be seen that while the strings of the Highland clarsach and of the Scottish harp could be altered to suit new methods of tuning, the inventor of the chanter built on a far surer foundation. His scale was fixed and could not be altered, and still remains with us, puzzling the few, I have no doubt, but delighting the many lovers of old modes of music.

These three scales occur within a conference of seven chanter notes. The remaining notes are high G and high A, and these, for want of a better name, can be called octave notes. Their presence on the chanter gives rise to other scales of a more complex character, which still are influenced by the old five note scales.

I find thirty-three tunes in the key of A possessing the flat seventh, but the fourth (fah) omitted. Read insole father scale runs–ta, doh, ray, me, soh, lah (ta doh’). These pibrochs all modulate according to the pentatonic scale. The presence of the flat seventh is looked upon as a crime in some quarters, but harp music enthusiasts are reminded that Rory Dall O’Caghan himself turns this very scale to account in his famous “port,” “Give me your hand,” and a very rare and beautiful use he makes of it.

I find fifty-four pibrochs in the key of A with flat seventh and fourth (fah) present. None of them contain the complete scale, however, and many of them might be separated to form a distinct class, with a short scale running–ta (low) doh, ray, me, fah, soh. These are all clan gatherings and battle tunes, and their scale reads best downwards: soh, fah, me, ray, doh, ta (low). In fact, all these scales should be read and played downwards, when their true character will appear. There are only nine pibrochs in the key of A which contain all the nine notes on the chanter, and I have reason to believe they were all composed and later piping times. I need only mention “The Comely Tune” and “The Unjust Incarceration.”

There are ten tunes in the key of G in which F sharp occurs as a mode note. Their scale agrees with the scale of old clarsach tunes, and reeds in sol-fa: doh, ray, me, soh, lah, te (doh’, ray’). “The Earl of Seaforth’s Salute,” “The Pretty Dirk,” “Lament for the Union,” “The Battle of Glensheil,” “The Pipers Warning,” “Lament for MacDonald of Morar,” and several nameless tunes are examples. As Mr. MacPharlain believes that “the pibroch apes the clarsach, and borrowed its terminology,” I recommend these tunes to him for inspection, and I may here state that twenty years ago I went forth on the same quest, looking for similarities between harp and pipe tunes, but with the single exception of “The Battle of Glensheil.” Which somewhat resembles “Jean Lindsay’s Port” (a clarsach tune), I have failed to find traces of actual borrowing on the part of the pipe.

There is only one pibroch in the key of G which uses all the notes on the chanter, and as its scale can also be read in D and A, it comes closest of any to the complete scale of D major mention at the beginning of my letter. “Hector Roy MacLean’s Lament” also uses C sharp in the scale of G, a note in this key that was always avoided by the old makers of pibrochs. The other tune is the “Extirpation of the Tinkers,” but both tunes can be classified with a long list of fifty-four pibrochs in the key of A. They are a regular tunes, and I recommend them to the tender mercies of the critics.

The remaining tunes are in the key of D, and twenty-two of them possess a six note scale, G, A, B, D, E, F sharp. I have purposely placed them in this class, but they can be quite easily transferred to the scale of G with sharp seventh (clarsach scale). They all possess F sharp, but the high G does not appear in any of them. “The Sister’s lament,” “the Carles wi’ Breeks,” “MacCrimmon’s Lament,” “Sheriffmuir,” “MacDonald of Laggan,” “Menzies’ Salute,” and “Catherine’s Lament” are examples of this class of pibroch. Finally, there are six pibrochs which in the key of D have a scale reading A, B, D, E, F sharp, G, A, or in sol-fa: soh, lah, doh’, ray’, me’, fah’, (soh’), or in key G as: ray, me, soh, lah, te’, doh’ (ray’), and as these tunes do not possess the lower G or C sharp, Mr. MacPharlain can now see that a search amongst the pibrochs has not revealed his scale of D major beginning on fah and ending on the soh above.

For the benefit of your piping readers, I give the complete Scottish pentatonic scale in sol-fa:–

Doh, ray, me, soh, lah.
Ray me, soh, lay, doh’.
Me, soh, lah, doh’, ray’.
Soh, lah, doh, ray’, me’.
Lah, doh’, ray’, me’, soh’.

It consists of five notes of five notes. The first and second scales generally appear together, the second as a modulating scale. The fourth and fifth also appear together (“Donald Ban MacCrimmon’s Lament” ). But by old authorities the first and fourth were thought to be the original scales. The third scale, or part of it, was used by the old composers of pibrochs as a modulating scale. Old Asiatic music seems to have been largely composed on this mode, which may be due to the use of the third mode. That the MacCrimmons new and studied the pentatonic scale and all its modes is apparent on looking closely at the work they have left behind, and they adhere so faithfully to it that it would seem that the special province of the pibroch is to preserve this old-world music intact.

In conclusion, let me say that Mr. MacPharlain and his brethren in folk-song lore can do a great service to their own branch of national music by sorting out their collections of folk-song music into scales, pentatonic and clarsach (six note). They will probably find that the six note scale has only five modes like the pentatonic. The question of modes is a difficult one, but a beginning might be made on the line shown above. I am sure both pipers and harpers would benefit if their respective anthologies were put in order.–I am, etc.,

J.P.M.

© Copyright Pipe Major John Grant - Designed for Dr. Alan Armstrong