OT: 18 December 1915 – J.P.M. “The Chanter Scale”

The Oban Times, 18 December, 1915

The Chanter Scale.

Tain, 10 December, 1915

Sir,–The slow progress of this discussion seems to be due to my intrusion with the “five note” theory, and if, instead of shedding light upon a dark subject, the advent of such an “unknown” quantity has only deepened the gloom, I fear I am not to be congratulated. However, with a little patience, I hope to show your readers exactly how the old musicians of the Scottish race looked upon the scale, as evidenced by the “known” residuum of the “craft” of piping which we inherit in Piobaireachd.

I have to thank Mr. MacPharlain for so carefully comparing my scales with the absolute vibrations of theoretical notes, and although his selection of method naturally leans in his own favour, he is not far wrong. But in his deductions from the theoretical value of such notes he goes seriously astray, as I shall point out. His attitude is just another instance of the mistakes that can arise from arguing from the theory to the conclusion instead of the other way about. I pass over meantime the fact that he uses four “diatonic scales” in his diagram instead of two “pentatonic” ones as I anticipated, and I also made no comment on the fact that he postulates his D major scale as the original one and corrects the others from it, thereby over correcting the fourth (C) scale from which his D scale numbers presumably originate. I think I shall be able to show that the chanter was originally tuned from the G scale.

My argument is much simpler and easily “understanded” as Mr. Cameron remarks. In short, the “five note” theory depends on the remarkable uniformity shown by the classification of the pibrochs as I pointed out in my first letter. So that I did not first form a theory and then try to obtain results to prove it. On the contrary, each tune slid into its own place, and the finished classification led me quite naturally to the theory. The tunes are still extant for everybody to look at, examine, admire and play. For nearly a hundred years they have been printed with key signatures just as I find them to-day, so that the players and collectors of last century must have believed the evidence of their own ears. Another point is that I excluded most modern tunes beyond the 1715-45. From my account with the exception of some of Angus Mackay’s, Donald Mackay’s, and John Bain Mackenzie’s. That these composers used the old modes freely and naturally is quite certain, and that some of their tunes exhibit the fragile beauty of a much to be regretted decadence is also evident.

Opposed to these views we have Mr. MacPharlain, who actually proves that their pipe had only one modern scale, and presumably a repertoire of one keyed tunes. Admitting for a moment that this is true, what do we find in reality? Simply this–that there does not exist a single pibroch composed either on the diatonic scale of D major or its relative key of B minor. The older composers had no knowledge of the existence of this key on the pipe. If Mr. MacPharlain thinks they had then all I have to do is to ask him to produce one single pibroch on the key of D with sharp seventh as a mode note, and if he finds that one tune I am quite willing to subscribe to his theory.

Until this little point is settled I need not take up your space by further excursions into the “unknown.” When that is clear, then perhaps you will permit a further discussion on the modes. Mr. MacPharlain has touched on the fringe of the subject in his little study of a “soh” mode effect. He will pardon me remarking that the “soh” mode cannot be “mentalised” while there is a sharp seventh in its neighbourhood, no more than a painter can “visualise” a sunset by imagining or painting “green” suns. There is one way, and one way only, and that is the “five note” way. It was the way of our forefathers and their fathers’ fathers and there is no improving on it as far as the pipe, or even the voice, is concerned.

As I have not yet given your readers a proper view of the old chanter, perhaps you will be good enough to print the following:


Chanter scale G A B C# D E F# G A
Key G, 1st mode, G A B   D E      
Key G, 2nd mode,   A B   D E   G  
Key G, 3rd mode,     B   D E   G A
Key A, 1st mode,   A B C#   E F#    
Key A, 2nd mode,     B C#   E F#   A
Key D, 4th mode,   A B   D E F#    
Key D, 5th mode,     B   D E F#   A

The player is directed to read the scales downwards when he will recognise homely phrases every time, with the possible exception of the third mode, as there is only a difference (on the chanter) of one note between it and the fourth mode in D. This explanation may be helpful when there is uncertainty regarding tunes in keys G and D, as there are a certain number of pibrochs which show traces of modulating from one of these keys to the other.

To those who think I am destroying the old music I would say, look at Angus Mackay’s “Cheud port sa piobaireachd” which begins with a unique and bold statement of Key G, both octave notes in tune. This may or may not be a “Borerraig” exercise, but we may know shortly something about it, as I understand the MacCrimmon casket is expected to re-visit the shores once more.–I am, etc.,

J. P. M.