Aspects of tuning – pitch, scale and drones

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The desperate battle …
The desperate battle …

By Roger Gould-King

Today, there is a phenomenal increase in the number of pipers. Whether this is because of the increasing popularity of the instrument or whether it is a natural incremental function of the population explosion is not clear. What is clear is that along with the global expansion in piping, pipers in general are learning more and more about less and less. In other words pipers are becoming or have become generalists in the art rather than specialists.

On a windswept ridge of moorland in the county of Inverness, on April 16, 1746, the tragedy of Culloden was enacted. In 40 minutes of fighting, the outnumbered and starving Highlanders were slaughtered; in 40 minutes not only the fate of the Highlands was sealed, but the beginning of the annihilation of over 900 years of proud tradition and piping had begun.

Before that date, pipers were specialists. They played ceòl mòr or what was commonly called piobaireachd then, which meant literally ‘to play the pipe’. That implied specialisation in our greatest musical heritage. Culloden drove this all underground, and if the pipers were not being hunted like animals for the ‘crime’ of playing the pipes, they were busy preserving as best they could the traditions and music of better times.

A curious outgrowth of the competition system was, and is, the tendency to understate the importance of tuning and emphasise manual dexterity or fingering technique. Examination of score sheets at most competitions will confirm this. The end result is the sight of countless youths having someone else tune their instruments for them, while in the majority of cases the instrument if tuned at all is only approximately so.

Electronic frequency generators
Recently pipers are even trying to tune their instruments using electronic frequency generators. Their good intentions are understood but on the other hand it only serves to emphasise the appalling lack of understanding of the instrument in the first place. The Great Highland bagpipe is the result of the genius of our Celtic ancestors and is one of the few instruments which in fact caters for complete self-tuning without any outside aid or reference scale being necessary.

Generally, pipers as a music fraternity seem to be the only musicians content to play partly-tuned instruments — something unheard of in other cultured musical disciplines. It is worth remembering perhaps, that the instrument vehicle or means of conveying or expressing our music; a paraplegic transport) system conveys little while an ill-tuned bagpipe cannot and will not produce the music written for it. The purpose of this essay is therefore to attempt to explain, in non-mathematical terms and as simply as possible, how and why the bagpipe produces its uniquely beautiful sound and how that sound can best be attained and maintained.

The evolution of the Great Highland Bagpipe is a part of Highland history in the mists of time. However, our knowledge of woodwind instruments in general, and particularly primitive instruments still being played or available for examination, will allow us to at least put forward a theory regarding its evolution.

To do this it will be necessary imagine early primitive man, shaggy and wild, as he was some thousands of years ago. Man has always been driven or ruled by his thirst for knowledge, and so with our primitive savage one can imagine him slaking his thirst at a nearby stream, lying on his stomach in a clump of tall reeds in order to remain hidden from potential enemies.

Later, while sitting in contemplation, he idly picks up a length of reed nearby and being curious, peers up the one open end and discovers that the nodes are rotted away and that he can see right through the length of cane. He then places one end in the water and is entranced with the bubbly sounds he makes when blowing through the other end. Still experimenting, he removes the cane from the water and tries all manner of ways blow air through the tube until, quite by accident, he eventually blows the tube a way known to most boys: compresses his lips and placing the tube end over them vibrates them in such a way as to make the most interesting sounds indeed.

Much later, he, or his descendants, discovered a that a tube of two feet or more in length gave out a sonorous, musical droning sound, and even later the lips were replaced with the ancient free reed which is simply a length of cane split to form a tongue (as in our drone reeds), placed in the mouth and blown.

Magical tubes
And so, over the centuries man experimented and noted interesting things such as the fact that short pipes or tubes had higher pitched ‘voices’ than long tubes. Thus, the earliest ‘instruments’ of the woodwind family were simply lengths of tube which came to assume magical properties because they could be made to speak either singly, and if one could get the lengths right, in pairs or in groups.

This is not so strange when one considers that not so long ago a Russian band consisted of musicians who only played one note on an instrument which could only play one note. What happened if the man playing middle C became ill, can best be left to the imagination!

… "Eventually, these waves reach the end of the drone (the open end) and become reflected back up the bore or air column."
… “Eventually, these waves reach the end of the drone (the open end) and become reflected back up the bore or air column.”

Continuing with our hypothesis, the process of evolution progressed to the making of holes in a tube and discovering that an open hole produced a pitch higher than the fundamental pitch of the tube when that hole was closed. And so the eventual outcome were the parallel, unequal and divergent double pipes, for example the zampogna or Italian bagpipe or the Sardinian launeddas, the latter being of the divergent species with single reeds in a triple pipe with a long drone attached with struts.

Fundamental frequency
In order to tune the bagpipe, it is essential to know a little about harmonics, so we will try to explain in words what this is all about. An interesting experiment is to sound only the bass drone of the instrument and to listen very carefully to the sound produced. Providing one’s hearing apparatus is in good condition, one will after a while hear overtones to the fundamental note itself sounding, say, an octave above the note, that is to say double the fundamental frequency of the note.

Thus, if the fundamental frequency of  the bass drone is 115 cycles or vibrations per second, the second harmonic or overtone would be one octave above it in pitch or frequency and would have a frequency of 230 cycles per second (c.p.s. or hertz). Basically, what is happening is that the fundamental mode of the stationary wave has many harmonic vibrations occurring simultaneously in the drone bore producing new nodes and antinodes within the existing sound wave structure.

It is rather difficult to explain, without the aid of mathematics, in an elegant manner, the way sound is produced. However, it is hoped the following explanation will be acceptable. At the end of our bass drone we have a reed or ‘generator’ that sets up a steady beating when activated by the breath. The reed in turn sets the top or head of the air column in motion and the molecules of air in this region in turn impart this energy to molecules lower down the column, which results in waves of pressure being transmitted down the drone at the speed of sound.

Eventually, these waves reach the end of the drone (the open end) and become reflected back up the bore or air column. This important phenomenon results in the air particles moving down the bore becoming modified in such a way as to form nodes and antinodes at specific points along the bore.

A node is formed when the air molecules are stabilised or motionless because of the opposite and equal reaction set up by waves travelling in opposite directions at regular intervals setting up in effect a low and high pressure pulsation at the node.

The antinodes are, of course, characterised by the fact that the molecules of air in these regions are free to move with maximum displacement at constant pressure. Thus a stationary wave is created within the tube, made up of nodes and antinodes, and this is what produces the note.

Now that we have a drone emitting many frequencies or harmonics it will also be realised that the timbre or tone colour of the sound is a function of the many superimposed harmonics which naturally modify each other, and consequently the motion of the air molecules in the bore, resulting in a very complex sound pattern.

The characteristic of the drone is that it essentially operates as a stopped pipe, which implies that the tonal spectrum is made up chiefly of odd-numbered harmonics while even numbered harmonics are present because the stopped pipe condition is not perfect.

Turning to the question of the chanter scale, one can only marvel at the genius of our forebears who invented the conical or expanding bore characteristic of the bagpipe chanter as played in the Highlands. The main characteristic of the bagpipe chanter is that both sets of harmonics, that is to say, both odd and even, are present.

This is extremely important because it is the harmonics or overtones generated by a note on the chanter, coupled with the characteristic (and virtually constant) harmonics of the drones, which determine whether the note sounded is ‘in tune’ with the drones or not.

The drones are therefore used for a number of purposes — namely, to form an accompaniment to the melody played on the chanter, or, far more important, the drones are used as the test to determine whether the chanter notes are perfectly in tune or form chords with the fundamental or one or more harmonics generated by one or more drone.

Pitch and the voice
Before discussing in general terms how a chanter scale is derived, it is necessary to take a brief look at the fundamental pitch used on the bagpipe in particular and on instruments in general.

The most important feature of the Great Highland Bagpipe scale is that it was either devised for the purpose of producing ceòl mòr or ceòl mòr was a natural product of this unique scale. There being no written musical notation system in the Highlands, the canntaireachd system was used exclusively to memorise and to reproduce ceòl mòr by singing.

Jacques Martin Hotteterre (1674–1763). He and his family were reputed to have been fine woodwind players.
Jacques Martin Hotteterre (1674–1763). He and his family were reputed to have been fine woodwind players.

Because the piobaireachd was sung a natural step would be to pitch the scale to suit the human voice so that by singing, ceòl mòr would be accurately represented by the human voice imitating the scale and movements of the instrument itself. So, not surprisingly, what we call low A was pitched at about 440 c.p.s. or hertz. In other cultures pitch was set at different levels. Before 1500A.D. the written compass was the vocal music, particularly plainsong. So, during the Middle Ages the pitch was not too different from that of today. From 1500 to about 1670 a large number of wood wind instruments are still extant, and their pitch is close to a’=446 cps of one semitone about a‘=440.

In the 17th century the Hotteterres remodelled the entire woodwind family to the Paris organ pitch of a’=415 After 1760 the pitch rose to a’=440 by about 1820, while by the latter half of that century it reached ‘The Old Philharmonic Pitch’ of about a’=453.

This latter pitch soon became redundant because of the strain on singers’ voices and was lowered to a’=435 in 1858. In 1896 England adopted the ‘New Philharmonic Pitch’ of a’=439 and in 1939 adopted the U.S. standard pitch of a ‘440. Some European wood wind builders today use a pitch of a’=444, but in general the standard pitch remains at 440.

Today, the Highland Bagpipe has ‘low A’ pitched at about 459 cps, which is close to B flat which is 467 cps. There are probably many reasons why the pitch increased so dramatically, but it is interesting to note that this pitch is one of the main modes of the brass band trumpet and one can’t help wondering whether the pipe chanter pitch was raised to meet the demands of the Army and to enable brass and pipes to play together as is the case today when one is treated to the spectacle of massed bands playing Scotland the Brave and other tunes for the amusement of the public. If there had been no Culloden, the piper of today would no doubt still be playing only ceòl mòr and the pitch of his pipes would have remained at 440.

Was the pipe chanter pitch  raised to meet the demands of the Army and to enable brass and pipes to play together?
Was the pipe chanter pitch raised to meet the demands of the Army and to enable brass and pipes to play together?

Irrespective of pitch, the important thing to note is that the intervals between the notes has remained more or less the same. The question one has to answer is how the intervals or scale were derived in the first place.

In the old days, bagpipes all over the world had basically one drone and the the chanter scale was derived from it. Thus a typical method was to pitch low G 3½ times higher than the fundamental of the drone, the next note, low A, was pitched four times the fundamental, the next 4½ times and so on.

Fascination of scales
The Western mind is more or less brainwashed into recognising only those scales characteristic of his music, while all other scales are ‘not musical’ if only because they don’t fit in with his rather narrow view of the subject. Musical scales are immensely fascinating and by studying them it will be found for instance, that many cultures have characteristic scales for the music performed by them. These scales do not necessarily conform to Western ideas on the subject; they don’t have to because they give pleasure to the people who created them in the first place.

Thus the scale of the Great Highland Bagpipe is a scale which gave and gives intense pleasure to the Celtic peoples and whether it conforms to any other system is beside the point because the instrument was always a solo instrument playing classical music within the requirements of the inhabitants of Scotland. It needed no approval of its scale from other peoples until musicians of other cultures came to criticise an instrument they couldn’t play and which was not designed to fit in with their scheme of musical activities. Nevertheless the bagpipe today continues to be the vehicle for the compositions of other cultures if only to entertain the public. Whether the music played is suitable for the scale of the bagpipe seems to be overlooked and in any case will not be discussed here.

Returning to the scale itself, figure 1, above, shows in tabular form various scales as published from time to time including scales derived by the writer using measurements taken from the playing of various master piobaireachd pipers who as a rule play superbly tuned instruments in such a way as to sound chords between the note being played and the drones.

It is important to note that it is virtually impossible to make a ‘perfect’ chanter because the final sounds produced by the chanter are functions of the piper’s blowing style and more importantly, the design and construction of the reed. All good players employ what could be called ‘sympathetic’ blowing or slightly modifying blowing pressure while playing so that the notes are ‘in tune’ with the drones.

This observation also applies to all top class woodwind players. The pitch used for the purposes of illustrating the table is 459 cps, which is the current pitch of the chanter fundamental. However, it is quite feasible to make a chanter to a pitch of 440 cps to the same intervals shown in the table.

The first table shows a scale for the bagpipe devised by a John MacNeill, Langholm, published some 70 years ago in The Highland Bagpipe by W. L . Manson. The second table I based on the scale proposed by Seumas MacNeill in his many excellent published researches on the instrument and its music.

The last two scales are based on the measurements made by the writer using a frequency analyser on a large number of recorded piobaireachd played by present and past masters in the art. The main points of interest are that John MacNeill’s scale is heavily oriented towards ‘proving’ its similarity to the Western scale, however his B will not tune to the harmonics generated by the drones (simply, the frequency of the B is not a multiple of the frequency of one or more harmonics of the drones).

In tune with the drones
Seumas MacNeill’s scale is very interesting and is also explained in terms of Western terminology. However the interesting points to note are that the high G does not form a perfect octave with the low G while the D doesn’t seem to be tunable to the drones.

It is suspected that the value for the high G was obtained for light music fingering, and this is important because the fingering for a piobaireachd high G is such that, if the G’ is in tune, then the corresponding fingering in ceòl beag style will result in a high G which is sharper.

This is, of course, academic; the object of the exercise here is to suggest that we need not relate our scale or its intervals to Western scales at all, our notes must merely be in tune with the drones while observing that a unique feature of the Highland Bagpipe scale is that it was devised so that the maximum number of possible pentatonic scales within the compass of the chanter can be played.

This characteristic of our scale is tremendously important and will be briefly discussed later.

To summarise then, each note on the scale is tunable to the drones, not necessarily to the fundamental, but to any one or more of the generated harmonics. But going back to an earlier statement that a chanter is made to give an approximate scale, how on earth can one get the chanter in tune at all?

The two criteria which determine the fundamental note on a chanter (and its overtones or harmonics) are the blowing pressure, the way the blowing or winding is done, and the generator itself — the chanter reed.

Happy is the piper who makes his own reeds for he can do as he pleases with regard to design and construction both of which are functions of the chanter design and the way he blows. As any reedmaker will tell you, making reeds is an art. It entails a lifetime of patient dedication to detail and a great knowledge of a large number of instruments. But, all too often, the piper blames the chanter reed for his sick-sounding instrument.

Sometimes this is true — not all reeds are good — but then how many pipers are in a position to pass judgment without knowing how a reed is made or why it works.

A good reed takes a long time to make and it is safe to assume that a good piper will take an equal amount of time to get it to operate to his requirements. A new reed will not operate or perform well because the cane is new, hard and requires certain modifications to it before it settles down to a year or two of good service. This means that a certain amount of cane must be removed from the blades if only to be able to play it in the first place. After a week or two of blowing the reed will be appreciably weaker or easier to blow because of the many millions of vibrations it has produced, with physical modification of the cellular structure of the cane due to moisture absorption and often because of the enzyme action of the spittle so frequently used by pipers to wet the reed.

This latter habit is detrimental to the life of a reed (not to mention hygiene) so if one wants to apply moisture to a new reed, tap water is best: after a while wetting a reed will be unnecessary as the reed will operate in a dry state until moisture from the breath is absorbed and it settles down for the duration of the piping session.

Hazards of ‘blowing in’
Now the problem resolves itself to just how does one remove cane from a chanter reed? Strangely enough pipers for a long time never used to ‘weaken’ a reed at all. They underwent a process called ‘blowing in’ whereby one took a strong reed from a box, blew it to test its strength and thereby one’s endurance for the ordeal ahead, and after liberal application of saliva, squeezing, cursing and even desperate biting, the reed was ‘blown in’ over a long period.

If one had a bad reed in the beginning this merely meant one had to repeat the process. Not a few pipers got a hernia from this which is a pity, because as a friend once observed, one does not blow the pipes, one plays them.

Modifying a reed to suit one’s playing is no great problem providing one under stands what one is doing to the reed and the end result once the cane is removed. Cane, once removed, is gone forever so the rule is to restrain one’s enthusiasm and exercise some patience. The end result will be a reed which will last for one or two years while it can always be retied and brought back to strength after that time providing it has met with no accidents en route.

*From The International Piper of July 1978.

•Aspects of tunng – reeds.