OT: 29 December 1906 – Charles Bannatyne “The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter”

The Oban Times, 29 December, 1906

The Scale of the Highland Bagpipe Chanter

Salsburgh, by Holytown

24 December, 1906

Sir,–In your issue of 22nd inst., a correspondent signing himself “F” makes an attempt to traverse my letter of Nov. 26th by misquoting it and misapplying the arguments it contains.

Let me state that I do not cavil at Major-General Thomason’s interesting investigations. I am as anxious to assert to the truth as he is, and I have the greatest admiration for the services he has rendered to the cause of Ceòl Mòr. I still think it a pity that Major-General Thomason did not fit each chanter with a suitable reed before testing, and that he did not test each by normal instead of trick fingering. Further, he should have tested each scale as a scale, and not with a preconceived notion that the basis of “A” (x-vibrations) was correct.

Regarding the modern diatonic scale, let me state that it consists of eight tones. These are reared on a foundation called the key or tonic. The distance from one note to another is called an interval. These intervals bear a fixed relationship to the key at each other. This is admirably expressed tonally by the sol-fa syllables d, r, m, f, s, l, t, d ¹. It can also be expressed in vibrations which have a relationship to the key and to each other, regulated by the fractional ratio -table I herewith give. Let us build a scale with a doh or key of 264 vibrations, and let us call the doh C.

Key C
C ¹ Octave
  264 297 330 352 396 440 495 528
  doh, r, m, f, s, l, t, doh ¹

This scale formation can be extended on the same ratios upwards and downwards from the key. A scale can be built on any of these notes, which then becomes the key or doh.

I did not say that the Drummond chanter scale as given by Major-General Thomason was in the key of D. I corrected it on the basis of D ¹ 555 vibrations per second, leaving out decimals to economize space. I was careful to state that G to A ¹ in the key of D was equivalent to F to G ¹ in the key of C, and that both are equivalent to the old soh mode. I say so still, and I think that the scale of the old Drummond chanter is F to G ¹ in the key of C. The truth escaped Major-General Thomason and “F owing to their thinking in vibrations symbols instead of in tones. I did not want to leave Major-General Thomason’s “A” basis, because all his tables are founded on it. I now give the old Drummond scale as F to G ¹ in the key of C, and corrected also according to modern scale intervals. A comparison and close study of this table is interesting, and shows the old Drummond scale to be a tempered scale. While its intervals relative to the key are not so perfect as modern musicians would like, yet they are not so imperfect as to be discordant to the ear:–

Drummond G A B C D D F G ¹ A ¹
(Thomason) 372 411 452 504 555 620 684 748 824
  F G A B C D D F G
(Corrected) 269 415 461 519 555 624 692 738 820
C ¹ = 555(just intonation) f s l t doh r m f s

The old Drummond scale would have had greater value had care been taken in setting the reed to have the octaves perfect. Your correspondent, “F,” seems to have a contempt for the modern natural scale, but surely it is the best norm by which to test any scale, so as to find out the resemblances and differences. Let “F” test the intervals of the old Drummond chanter in relation to the tonic C only, and he will find that they are not discordant. The differences from the intervals of a modern chanter are practically those the pitch alone.

Your correspondent makes me say that Major-General Thomason’s investigations are weakened by a preconceived notion that the Drummond chanter is an ancient one. I did not say so. I said that the investigations were weakened by a preconceived notion that the chanter scale was an ancient one having no equivalent in modern music–a very different statement. I do not deny that the soh mode is an old scale. Does “F” mean to make your readers believe that the intervals in the mode of soh are not to be found in the modern diatonic scale and in the same regularly recurring order?

I did not mention the “piano” scale, nor am I so ignorant of scientific scales as to designate the modern diatonic scale the “piano” scale. The modern diatonic scale is tuned in “just intonation,” while the “piano” scale is tuned in “equal temperament.” In the latter the thirds, fourths, sixths, and sevenths are sharper, and the seconds and fifths flatter than those of the diatonic scale.

I did not say that scales can be arranged as fancy dictates, nor do I think so, notwithstanding “F’s” assertion to that effect. I said a scale could be founded on any note of as many vibrations as fancy dictated, and I took pains to show the scientific basis governing scale-making. I broke no natural law on which music is founded. I trust that a re-reading of my letter of twenty-sixth ult. in conjunction with this one, together with a closer study of Stone’s “Scientific Basis of Music,” will convince your correspondent of the soundness of my arguments.

Finally let me state the chanter scale in different terms from those already given. It is composed of superimposed major tetrads of the keys of F and G or G and A respectively:–

  doh   m   s (la)   doh
Chanter Scale
& or &        
F G doh   m   s     doh  

Your correspondent can think this out, and note where it agrees and differs from F to G ¹ in key of C or G to A ¹ in key of D.

In closing, let me point out that the tone C of the old Drummond scale, as given by Major-General Thompson, is, relative to D or doh, much sharper than ta, and a fraction of a comma flatter than te. The tone E, relatively to D or doh, is sharper than rah and a fraction of a comma flatter than ray. The relations of the other tones to doh are only fractions of a comma different from the corresponding intervals of a modern diatonic scale of G to A ¹ in key D (555). The interval F–G ¹ is, as it ought to be, a true minor third. In practice where Melanie alone is concerned, slight fractional commatic differences in the intervals of a scale are almost negligible. It seems to me that the Drummond chanter, if fitted accurately with a suitable reed, with sound F to G ¹ in key C, a gamut equivalent to that of the Zalzal, which from the meaning of its Arabic name–even vibration–is undoubtedly a scale tuned in just intonation. In my letter of the 26th ult. I think it was proved by testing the Zalzal with the vibration ratio table of the modern diatonic scale that it was identical with the scale of G to A ¹ in key D (602).–I am, etc.,

Charles Bannatyne