OT: 20 November 1915 – Calum MacPharlain “The Bagpipe Scale”

The Oban Times, 20 November, 1915

The Bagpipe Scale

Elderslie, 12 November, 1915

Sir,–This controversy among pipers, pipe lovers and others might be aptly described by the Miltonian phrase “darkness visible.” The pipers differ among themselves in regard to the scale at which they play and they are getting no “forrarder,” and I cannot see what advantages they possess as pipers over me, who am none. Mr. Grant would disqualify me, on that head, from having a share in the controversy. I presume he would disqualify a medical officer from diagnosing a lunacy case because he was not himself a “loonie.” His other weapon, which is no argument, is a misreading of his opponent’s statements. He says I accused him of using a bludgeon. The thought never entered my mind. His weapons have not in any one letter of his had the weight of gossamer in their blows. There was nothing of new fact that any of his letters. His heart was to be labour a thing that was not there with a lash fashioned from vacancy.

It is not surprising that my opponents should prefer the obscurity of the involved staff notation terminology and avoid the use of figures. But as I am out in search of the truth, with no prejudices whatever for or against the bagpipe in its own place, I naturally prefer the scientific in easily grasped sol-fa terminology backed by figures the error of which, can be pointed out and clinched once for all.

I therefore crave your intelligence to put J. P. M.’s theory of parallel pentatonic scales being at the root of the bagpipe scale, to the test of figures–this time more fully. The following table gives–errors excepted–a clear view of what a series of four parallel pentatonic scales, with correct intonation in the first of them, would bring out. The figures reveal the relative values of the vibrations of the notes by numerators having the lowest common denominator. The capitals signify the notes of the pentatonic scales; the others make up the diatonic scale which includes them:–

f1 S1 L1 t1 D R M f S
32 36 40 45 48 54 60 64 72
D R M f S L t D1 R1
32 36 40 42 48.6 53.3 60 64 72
t1 D R M f S L t D1
33.75 36 40.5 45 48 54 60 67.5 72
S1 L1 t1 D R M f S L
32 .4 36 40.5 43.2 48.4 54 57.6 64.8 72

It will be noticed that scale 2 gives 5 true notes, one of which does not belong to the pentatonic scale, and one false note which belongs to the p scale. Scale 3 gives 5 true notes, one of which does not belong to the p. scale, and one false note which does. Scale 4 gives only 2 true notes, and 4 which pipers think passable.

In view of this table, why should anyone assume that it was pentatonic scales the inventor of the bagpipe scale had in his mind at all, when the result gives us rather hexatonic scales fully as good as the pentatonic ones. But, after all, where is the bagpipe which gives us a reasonably correct scale? There seems to be none among those pipers which have been submitted to the test of scientific apparatus. The tendency, founding on averages, seems to be towards flattening the fourth note, possibly to meet the needs of scales 2 and 4; to flatten the seventh note to meet the needs of scale 4, and to sharpen the eighth note to fit the needs of scale 3. But, really, who can tell?

Taking “mental effect” to which J. P. M. referred, into the count, how is it that scale 1 when used in song affects musicians to remark that it is the bagpipe scale, of which the basic note–that which is in accord with the great drone–is soh. This scale is usually written as if that note were doh, to suit instrumental and other harmony evidently. But for melodic use alone the effect brought out in the soh mode is the truer one. It is a very suitable mode for the doleful ballad, such as “The Flowers o’ the Forest”; and just the other evening the knowledge that it is prompted me to use it in a composition which I was about to make. A phrase from the same will show the error in the doh mode representation of it as against the soh mode. Small as it is, it detracts from the fact:–

| s : f. m. | r : t1 r | s1 : l1 | s1 : — | d : ta. l | s : m. s | d : r     | d : —
   72  64 60    54 45 54    36  40    36              72  64  60 54   45 54    36 40 1/2 36

This is not the first time I have taken part in a newspaper controversy of this kind. My opponent on a former occasion with Dr. Chas. Bannatyne, who made a big fight for his own views; and, as we have full liberty of the press, the fight was very exhilarating. Strange to say, it began away from the scale, just like this one, and drifted into the scale, just like this one. I am in hopes this one will have results just like the other. Then, as now, I wisely stuck to the sol-fa terminology and figures. A few months later my opponent wrote these words, which apply with equal force in the present circumstances:–

“It is time pipers were sinking their prejudices and tackling the subject with common sense. These same prejudices hid the truth from me for years. [“] And then he proceeds to justify scale 1 above, backing it by the statement that the late Colin Brown, a Gael, and Ewing Lecturer in Music in Glasgow Athenaeum School, tested innumerable chanters and from those tests he stated that the erue [true] chanter scale was the above. If the same intelligence is opposed to me now that was then–which I much doubt in one case at least–the result will be the same. Let us wait and see.–I am, etc.,

Calum MacPharlain