OT: 24 November 1906 – C.S. Thomason “The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter” (Part 2)

The Oban Times, 24 November, 1906

The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter

By Major-General C. S. Thomason


The first thing, I think, that will strike anybody, as it did me, is the extraordinary variety of sounds proceeding from all these chanters, and still, I suppose, each maker would be prepared to swear that his own chanter was the really correct one (all the rest being rubbish!). No doubt, also, each one could produce plenty of pipers to back him up in his opinion. I do not think we could have a better proof of the absolute necessity now of establishing some standard to which all makers can work, otherwise, in a very few years we shall be finding ourselves playing upon a novel instrument, with which it will be as perfectly impossible to render Ceol Mor as it is on a modern piano.

As an example (as one of the ladies of our committee suggested), “imagine an orchestra where organ, piano, harp, and wood and wind instruments were all tuned to different pitches.” As a further illustration of the evils resulting from this divergence of scale, let me here state what occurred to myself only the other day when walking down the streets of Elgin. In front of me, and a very short distance, six pipers crossed the street blowing their best, and still it was with the very greatest difficulty that I could recognize the tune, the real fact being that the only three notes that caught my ear were the low and high A’s and the E, which were of course attuned. The waves of sound from the remaining notes so crossed and recrossed that they virtually obliterated each other. Yet, still the pipes are considered a model martial instrument! I venture to say we shall be very much astonished at discovering how much farther the tune can be distinguished if pipe makers can only be induced to cooperate and establish a standard scale and pitch. We live in an age of standards and an age of combination.

The pitch is a matter that can easily be settled. The question has occupied the minds of musicians more than once in my own lifetime; and only within the last year it excited considerable notice in the papers how far superior was the pitch of a French band which was performing in London. Foreign pitch is lower than English. It is


and therefore much more pleasant and natural. I quote the following from a note by one of the ladies of our committee:–” a few years ago the pitch of the London Italian Opera was so high that foreign artistes absolutely refused to accept engagements in England. Not only were the instruments tuned high, but the heat of the opera house raised the tone of all the instruments, and the result by the end of the performance was a terrible strain on the poor artistes. It is easily understandable that thus, by degrees, the pitch became excessive. English pitch for pianos and orchestras has now been generally standardised, and the comfort and convenience has been much appreciated. We may hope, in time, that military and other brass bands will unite also. It is a most natural thing for a sung scale to sharpen in ascending. I mean by this, that nine out of ten musical people, when singing a chromatic scale of an octave, up and then down, will imperceptibly lessen the intervals in descending until the gap between the last two semi-tones will be sometimes nearly a tone to return to the original note. This all proves that the average–not the exceptional–here has a tendency to rise, and it is to correct this vague in an accurate pitch that it is necessary to standardise.”

We have here chosen A as determining the pitch, and if the eye should be run vertically down cols. A, tab. i., ii., & iii., it will be observed the vibrations run from 411 to 452. Evidently the pitch of the chanter was much lower in days gone by then it is now. Now the Kneller Hall pitch for A for all instruments is A–452. Government knows perfectly well that the pitch is too high, but to change it would involve considerable expense, and all military instruments are thus attuned, and it seems to me that Ceol Aotrum (like music) players


at present but to stick to this pitch, as they may be called upon to play in a band at any time.

With Ceol Mor players the case is different. They always play solo, and if they wish to do justice to the instrument and their music they should adopt a much lower pitch. I am not prepared to say that the philharmonic pitch is too low or not; it was fixed a good many years ago by much wiser heads than mine (A–439).

It only remains now for the makers to decide what shall be the standard pitch for Ceol Mor.

Now, as regards the scale. If tables iv., v., vi., and vii., be studied, it will be noticed that of all the notes which differ most on the different chanters, the most prominent is the high G which actually varies from 810 to 840. This fully bears out what has been stated in the quoted paragraph before. I think, myself, that this G is the first note which we have to settle. Would it not be better to make the low G 402, and tune the rest accordingly? This would bring it into close relation with the Zalzal 402, and the diatonic scale 401.8 (normal pitch). If we settle G, we settle D, which is a fifth higher, and we may also, perhaps, settle B and E. The remaining C, F, and G would have to be treated exceptionally, and it is just this matter which should be laid before all pipers, and thoroughly discussed and ventilated.

It is no use referring to D diatonic or any other scale, because the pipe scale is evidently different, and to maintain the characteristics of its ancient music it must remain unique.

It appears to me that the Zalzal was the original scale, and that from it, scientifically induced and defined, came the scale of Equal Temperament. From this again we have derived the Diatonic scale to suit ordinary instruments and modern music, and in the same way from the Equal Temperament must we deduce our chanter scale to suit our instrument and our music.