OT: 18 May 1907 – H.S. [Simpson] “The Bagpipe Chanter Scale”

The Oban Times, 18 May, 1907


Huntly, N.B., 13 May, 1907

Sir,–In your issue of May 4th I read with more than interest the doings of the meeting held in the Royal Gymnasium Hall, Edinburgh, on April 17th by pipers, pipe-makers, and experts regarding the standard pitch problem.

Those interested must feel highly indebted to General Thomason for his able exposition of the existing state of matters regarding not only the difference in pitch, but also that of scale, which is a source of annoyance not only to pipers, but to reed makers, in making reeds suitable to all tastes.

The evidence adduced from the experts at the meeting only shows how matters have been drifting from bad to worse, and I was not a little surprised to note that so little practical opinion of a definite character was forthcoming from the able gentleman present.

In determining the vibrations with his voice or, I did not observe General Thomason giving the temperature at which they were taken, nor that he had the use of an anenometer in testing the pressure used in his machine, which, of course, from a scientific point of view, I think would be necessary. The vibration numbers of any wind musical instrument increase correspondingly with the temperature, and more especially those blown from the mouth. For instance A, equaling 435 vibrations per second at 59 degrees Fahrenheit would be A equal to 439 at 68 degrees Fahrenheit, hence the alteration of reeds, which is governed by the same law. It is quite evident that until a pitch be determined, and the scale fixed in accordance with some rule, reed makers will still remain in the same dilemma.

It appears that the whole are pretty much agreed, except upon the high G, which pipers complain so much about as the refractory note. So far as I can judge, the high G was originally intended for the flat seventh of the scale, and tuned to a dead octave with the lower G. Now there seems to be a tendency to keep it sharp from its octave, which neither makes it the flat seventh nor the leading tone, which naturally would almost determine the scale as A major. This error would also appear to try to satisfy the ear in a sort of compromise, but from a reed-maker’s point of view no reed could be made to suit that scale, as it disturbs the harmonic series or partials, which, technically speaking, form the timbre of the reed, known in piping language as the “cron.”

From my own calculations, roughly, I find, taking the “Zarlino” scale (not the tempered scale) that C sharp is slightly flat, while D again is slightly sharp, B is also slightly flat, and D also is at flat beating distance with A, instead of being consonant. F sharp from the same standpoint is slightly flat.

It is, of course, useless to talk of bringing the bagpipe scale even near to the Zarlino scale, as then the drones would not correspond. The Zarlino scale distinctly provides for perfect consonance with thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, and octaves, but for the scale in dispute this is also out of the question, but there is little doubt that if science were brought to bear upon the subject certain intervals could be depressed, even upon the adopted scale of bagpipe makers, which in theory is almost the most dissonant that could be arrived at, for the only consonant chord, G B D G, as every note dissonant with the drones, and only the A and E in consonance with them.

The scale as determined by two eminent authorities for a gentleman who interested himself in the scale of the bagpipes, and himself a player, would, I think, come nearest to what is aimed at, and which, as no great authority on the subject myself, I append below in vibrations per second:–

395 441 494 537 587 662 722 790 882

These are only given as the nearest whole number. Here we have the G and A severally tuned an octave dead, which does not admit the G sharpened, as there is a tendency to do at the present juncture.

The ratios also work out as follows:–A 9/8ths, B 12-11ths, C 11-10ths, D 10-9ths, E 12-11ths, F 11-10ths, G 10-9ths, A. Here we find D and E, also G and A a minor tone each apart.

No chanter is correct, or ever will be, unless more in line with the Zarlino scale, which is futile unless the drones be disposed of, which, as a matter of fact, would not be consistent with that peculiarity for which the bagpipes alone stand unique.

There can be no dubiety about the matter that a standard is required, and when such is resolved upon, there would being but one correct method, as in all other instruments, and a school formed for the teaching of it. At present, what one’s ear likes would be distracting for another, and where are judges to found upon? Oboes, bassoons, etc., are all tuned to come in accord with each other, although the scale (being chromatic) is tempered so as to play in every key the same tone colour, but the chanter, being more of a melodic instrument, the process of perfection should be simplified if musicians would agree, and bring science to their aid in bringing the bagpipes as a whole to the best perfection as possible.

As to the reed, there is more here than is allowed by even classical pipers. What is a reed? and what is a chanter? The former, a vibrator; the latter, a resonator, but both must agree.

Pipe-Major McDougall Gillies is reported to have said “until they get a perfect reed, they could not get a perfect chanter.” I would say vice-versa–that until we have a perfect chanter, no man who knows his business need try to produce a perfect reed. Violin makers, in technical language, call the table of the violin a reed. How do they arrive at good results? Simply by reducing the reed, or vibrator, till the mass of air it contains comes to a required note, which has also to be determined by pitch, if for concert pitch or otherwise, which when as a whole and strung, have to be in sympathy with each other.

Given that a reed was made from the best cane pro-curable, and to a certain fundamental pitch, and the desired timbre arrived at, it is inserted in the chanter and fits the fundamental note of it, when you come up to high G and find it out of tune, as all scientific men would expect, what would be wrong? The high G would be incorrect on account of its sharpness, but if a dead octave with the lower it is bound to come right, as the second overtone in the reed is there to sympathize with it. It is to the partials, or overtones, all piano makers look for quality of tone, and in some cases the hammers of high-class pianos are even set so as to strike the string at a given place to suppress the dissonant partials to bring the quality of tone to perfection. Reeds are, I am afraid, very much made upon lines like the bagpipe chanters–by rule of thumb, and not scientifically, as they should be.

No one who knows the acoustic properties of reed making would ever expect a perfect reed from the ordinary method of making. The staple plays a very important part in the reed, and is but a continuation of the conical bore of the chanter, which must run in regular form from tip of staple to end of chanter. This so far. But could any piper expect a chanter if it were split? The Staples of all reeds require homogeneity, and to bring about this some work of art is required which, needless to say, involves some more outlay. To require this homogeneity one must first be satisfied that the metal from which the staple is made is sonorous and taken to its proper proportion, and must be so constructed as not to interfere or break the sound waves set up within its little area when communicating to the chanter. For the splay of the reed that is immaterial so long as you construct the wood to vibrate a certain mass of air. I myself make reeds of different shapes and splays to suit customers, but am always careful to calculate that the requisite column of air is reserved.

I hope someday soon to see the difficulties removed from which the profession and others are suffering, and a scale which can be taught and appreciated by everybody set up and struck to; and, furthermore, a healthy competition or a class opened in the first musical instrument exhibition for the encouragement of the reed makers, many of whom I know have spent years in bringing reeds to perfection, and have been but little, if any, taken notice of at all, wherefrom the profession at large might be the benefactors.–I am, etc.,

H. S. (H. Simpson)