OT: 25 December 1915 – Calum MacPharlain “The Bagpipe Scale”

The Oban Times, 25 December, 1915

The Bagpipe Scale

Elderslie, 18 December, 1915

Sir,–I stated in a former letter on this subject that I declined to discuss it in terms of the staff notation; and of course must decline to use the unscientific terminology with which J. P. M. meets my efforts to reveal the scales as they work out in theory.
I know perfectly well that I did argue from the theory in the conclusion and not “the other way about.” If I had started by marshalling the facts as they have been found by scientific men who have tested chanter notes as to their values in vibrations, I would have found confusion such as would give no basis for theory of any kind. To find what the aim of the defective chanter scale was I would have to start speculating–in other words provide myself with a test, theory or theories. And if I gave names such as those used for keys, as A, B, and C, to the several notes, it could only be for test purposes: for no note stands the test perfectly. I would have found that the notes came near to what J. P.M. himself finds them in pitch. But I would have been theorising all the time. But somebody was before me who did all this and I found it reasonable, and, sensibly I adopted this theory set forth until I could find a better. This J. P. M. has not given me as yet. Has J. P. M. himself argued “the other way about”? I trow not. He has not at any time presented the facts to us; but only his theoretical scale. And what is it?

Chanter Scale

G; A; B; C#; D; F#; G; A

It seems pipers and others recognise the second lowest note as the fundamental one of the scale and that it comes near on pitch to the 440 vibrations which Mr. Fingland has termed the scientific value of that note. That is all I take to do with the absolute pitch of that or any other note. Absolute pitch is of no further use to me. It is tune we have next to do with, and it is entirely dependent on relative pitch. I want the nearest series of scientifically related notes in the series which J. P. M. produces for me. I am helped out at once by the position of the semi-tones, and here is the result

Chanter scale, according to J. P. M. and Calum MacPharlain and John MacNeill–

F; S; L; T; D; R; M, F; S

The semi-tones, are in both lists, between the fourth and fifth and the seventh and eighth notes. Is not that conclusive as between the three parties named above? Surely this means that Soh is the fundamental note of the chanter scale in J. P. M.’s view of it.

Then J. P. M. follows up his scale by a series of pentatonic scales. They are got by shunning Fa and Ti of the above diatonic scale. What other possible way is there to get a pentatonic scale out of a diatonic? The same can be done with the scale of any instrument. But who alleges that those other scales arose out of a series of pentatonic scales? I have said in the paper which set this discussion agoing that probably the bagpipe came into a sphere where pentatonic music was rife–Scotland was given over to much pentatonic music up to comparatively late times; much past the historical advance of the bagpipe to Scotland, indeed. Gaelic piobaireachd, as recorded, is not old, and if, on examination, it’s be found pentatonic to the extent J. P. M. alleges what of that? Older bagpipe music of the general order–much of the greater in volume–is assuredly not pentatonic, but to a certain extent.

If there are no bagpipe pibrochs on the Soh mode–which I have not tested–what of that? The Soh mode is not such a favourite of the Gaelic people that it should be wonderful to find pibroch players without it. In fact, some musicians–I myself indeed also–suspect at once a Soh mode tune picked up in a Gaelic sphere in Scotland as an outsider, or, possibly, due to bagpipe influence. All the same I like the Soh mode as well as the pentatonic scale, and have made tunes of both kinds; and, indeed, some are of both classes combined.

As to the sharp seventh and the Soh mode, J.P.M.’s words are to me not explicit. The seventh of a Soh mode tune is the note Fa, and it does not belong to the pentatonic scale. It is natural. If a Soh mode tune is transposed into a Doh mode one the seventh is made flat. But that is away from the Soh mode altogether onto a makeshift scale. Ti, which is the seventh of the Doh mode, has a place in the Soh mode of which it is the third note. These makeshifts are due to the defectiveness of instruments with fixed notes, as a rule.

In fact, instrumental music dominates vocal music far too much. The voice was the instrument on which music evolved naturally, and it is the perfect type. Let us get rid of the idea that instrumental fixed scales are music proper. They are merely makeshift imitations of the vocal scale. No doubt there very defects have been the cause of the evolution of mannerisms and minor characteristics, which are taken up and applied to vocal music. But when we found musical theory on instrumental fixed notes, and use terms applicable only to those notes, we go far astray and lower, instead of elevate, the art and practice of music. More especially it is our duty, as we have a notation which fits the higher class music exactly, to our hand, to clarify our views by making use of those terms which it gives us.

If J.P.M. has faith in his own theory of pentatonic scales being the foundation of the bagpipe scale, as set forth in his last letter, and has any wish to impress me with it, he must produce facts as determined by those who tested the vibrations of the chanter notes, and show that there is method in their apparent madness. General Thomason’s analysis will do. And let him use Sol-fa names which have a definite value. –I am, etc.,

Calum MacPharlain