A pipe band is a form of musical orchestration but we need to train our ears to the factors required in achieving an overall 'sound'.
A pipe band is a form of musical orchestration but we need to train our ears to the factors required in achieving an overall ‘sound’.

With most of us in some form of ‘lockdown’, many members of pipe bands are using technology to try to maintain some form of practice. In reproducing this excellent two-part article written by the late Bob Shepherd and published over two editions of The International Piper (November and December 1978), we hope that its contents will be read and absorbed by those who are involved with setting up their bands, principally Pipe Majors, Leading Drummers, drone tuners and any other personnel called upon by their respective bands.

It is true that most pipe band people don’t really understand what is meant by the concept of ‘tone’. Bob Shepherd certainly did. He was a highly intelligent individual and one who could eloquently explain the concepts of pipe band ‘pitch’, ‘sound’ and ‘ensemble’ and how to achieve these.

This article should be read by all who aspire to achieve a great sound for their bands, whatever the grade.

Tone in the pipe band – part 1
By Pipe Major Robert T. Shepherd

In writing this short account of the tonal aspects of a pipe band my basic aim is to provide a basis on which one could begin to listen, or even practice the setting up of a pipe band to a certain degree of competency, which would be expected in other forms of musical orchestral situations.

I have not attempted to describe the finer points in the tuning programme as regards the various instruments of the band, but hope that what follows would provide a basic knowledge and a starting point in training one’s ear to listen not to pipes alone, or drums as the case may be, but to listen objectively to the overall balance of the various instruments as an ensemble performance.

Three constituents of sound (Pitch, Volume, Quality)
Every sound has these characteristic properties. We can for example determine the ‘loudness’ or ‘softness’ of a sound, and we can determine the ‘high’ sound of a child’s voice from the ‘low’ sound of a man’s, and we know when a tune is being played on a trumpet or a violin. In doing this we are unconsciously selecting the three constituents of sound (Pitch, Volume and Quality, or, in French, Timbre) and it is the relationship of these three characteristics which determines the ensemble tonal aspect of the pipe band.

Before studying the use of the three constituents in the pipe band perhaps we should first of all fully define them.

simply means the ‘highness’ or ‘lowness’ of a musical sound and depends on the frequency (vibrations/sec) or a vibrating body e.g. the chanter reed (which is a double vibrator) and the drone reed (a single vibrator) and of course the skins and snares of a drum. A word associated with pitch is Intonation, which means pitching the instrument accurately.

means the degree of loudness or softness of a sound and depends upon the amplitude of the vibration causing it, in fact the amount of energy expended in producing the sound e.g. beating the drum more heavily, blowing strong reeds known as the proverbial ‘Table Tops’’.

In pipe band circles volume is a word often misinterpreted. It is so often associated with the chanter sound rather than the true source, the drum accompaniment. The pipes cannot increase their degree of amplitude. A piper’s only means of accentuating notes or pulses in music is with embellishments.

For this reason, it is essentially a limited instrument, dependent on the drums for dynamics (volume). Any crescendo or decrescendo at the start of a bar or phrase etc. or other means of accenting pulses must come from the drums, a fact too often ignored by many pipers in bands. Therefore, when one hears the normal comment, “good  chanter volume”, probably what is meant is that the chanter sound has good quality, a description of which follows.

(sometimes referred to as timbre). As already pointed out most people are able to distinguish between the sound made by a viola or a guitar and say a flute or piano. Each of these instruments produces its own individual property called ‘texture’ or timbre. If you played a not on the piano then played the very same pitched note on the guitar they would still be different. The reason is that the piano and guitar produce other ‘tones at the same time as the original note, called overtones.

The overtones are not distinctly audible as their intensity is less than that of the original note (this note is referred to as the fundamental Fig. 2). But nevertheless they are important because they determine the quality of the note an: also give the brilliance to the tone.

As a point of interest it is reckoned that the first three or four overtones can sometimes be heard by a good ear, these are the octave, fifth, the following octave and the following third ranging vertically over the fundamental note (An octave being an interval of eight notes, the fifth being an interval of five notes and so on).

The phenomenon is known as ‘nature’s harmony’ and is the basis of our harmonic system (Fig. 3) e.g. in the bagpipe (Fig. 4).

Thus, when the pipers talk about playing a harmony often referred to as ‘seconds’, in fact what they in fact produce is a melody line where the notes are three above or below that of the basic melody, e.g.:

Now that the three constituents of seems have been studied i.e. Pitch, Scheme and Quality let us identify them with the instrument of the pipe band.

From the table, the pipe chanter is associated with both Pitch and Quality. Here we listen for a good bright, resonant sound with clearly defined “pitch intervals” (meaning the difference in pitch between notes) or in other words an intonation with no obvious notes out of tune. The notes which often tell the tale are ‘F’ and ‘D’ although in recent times there appears to be a lack of attention given to ‘B’ and low ‘G’ and of course, not omitting the constant source of trouble and argument, the high ‘A’. The drones come next, and here we have to listen for the harmonic relation between them plus the quality of sound emitted. Very often too coarse a sound from one or more drones can upset the intricate balance. It should be obvious for optimum quality of sound the specified bore length should be used at all times, therefore a drone tuning well down the slide or too far up the slide displaying a good length of hemp should be avoided.

Resonant bass
The bass and tenor drums fall into the same category as the drones of the bagpipe. Here again we listen for the quality of sound and tonal interest created. Volume is also associated with bass and tenor drums as one could beat too heavily thus causing a dominance of these particular drums. Conversely, the result could be that the sound produced is inadequate for a good balance. Personal taste, of course, must be a dominant factor. I think there is nothing better than a good deep resonant bass offering a sequence of pulses suited to the rhythm being played, accompanied by the Tenor supporting the melodic line, adding tonal colour with an occasional contrapuntal voice trade.

One could also compare the bass drum pulses to that of the bass fiddle in the normal Scottish country dance band. It is interesting to witness the dampening of these particular drums in recent years. This must mean, of course, that there is an awareness of the sound being produced and definite change in attitude to the use of the Bass drum, once used to beat time whilst on the march, to a more sophisticated instrument supporting rhythmic motifs through pitched application as well as emphasising accent pattern.

The snare drum as with the pipe chanter associates with pitch but differs in as much that volume is another reckonable factor. A combination of tightening the skins along with adjusting the snare tension could result in a sharp or flat pitch.

Volume is controlled by the performers which should depend on the acoustics of the situation or the interpretation of the use of dynamics. Just as with the bass and tenor drums, beating too heavily could cause unwanted dominance especially if played indoors, but it is necessary to say that controlling volume is one of the arts in performing on a drum, as this control is a contributing factor in some of the exciting interpretation one hears from today’s performers where dynamical drumming enables the piper to express his melodies with a greater degree of success.

Now that a simple study of the three constituents of sound has been made along with their association with the instruments of the pipe band, it now allows us to study and reach a conclusion on the balance between the instruments and this combined tonal effect.

* Part 2.