Do your pipes sound alive with rich harmonics or are you content to have your drones simply ‘in tune’? As someone once put it, the drones ARE the instrument; the chanter an add on. In part 1 of this two-part article, John Dally discusses how your drones, in providing a harmonic background, underpin everything you’re trying to achieve muscially. His article pertains to all forms of bagpipe.

By John Dally

Gordon Mooney, a founder member of the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society, once joked, “When asked why the bagpipe had drones, the old piper replied, “Well, without the drones you might as well play the piano.” There’s more truth to that than appears at first glance because, unlike the piano, the bagpipe is a harmonic instrument. The drones form the basis for the harmonics produced by the interplay between themselves and the chanter, making it an instrument unsuited for playing a tempered scale. Another way of putting it is, the piano is made for music of modulated chords whereas the bagpipe is made for modal, harmonic music.

Drones are basic to the bagpipe sound, so much so that we may take them for granted. A chanter by itself is pleasant enough, but a beautiful set of drones makes a sound that is a thing of wonder. The longer you listen to well-balanced, well-tuned drones the more you hear. First you hear the fundamental notes of the drones braided together, then the harmonics or overtones, then the fabric of sound woven by all these elements together, which is a sum greater than its parts.

Most of us grew up listening to music of modulating chords, so we have to learn to hear the subtleties in harmonically based music. Music that features a drone is harmonically based, whether it is Indian, Tibetan, Tuvan, Gaelic or Anglo-Saxon. Harmonics are so basic to experience that your ear recognises them before you do. I think this is one thing about bagpipes that makes them appealing to people from all sorts of different cultures.

There are many examples of music that use a drone sound but do not involve bagpipes. Perhaps the most basic form of drone music is vocal. When anyone sings you hear harmonics in their voice, but many musical traditions are built on harmonics. “Based on a traditional style of throat singing called hoomi, from the Tuvic region of Mongolia, many contemporary chanters have learned to produce two distinct pitch lines: the fundamental note which is sustained as a drone; while simultaneously singing a piercing, whistling melody line of overtones.” Perhaps throat singing, which predates bagpipes, inspired the first bagpiper to discover his instrument.

Harmonic music is not merely a step in the progressive development that resulted in the tempered scale and modulating chords. Some purists think that the tempered scale is unnatural and a distortion. We might add that to sing without accompaniment the tempered scale is an undertaking beyond human capacities, because we cannot, without strong external help, escape from harmonic intervals, which alone are in accordance with the physical nature of sounds and consequently with the shapes and possibilities of the organs by which we can emit and perceive them.

Harmonics are basic and profound. “When you first become aware of harmonics as a phenomenon of sound, your entire way of listening becomes altered.”

Jonathan Goldman, healing Sounds, Element, Dorset, UK, 1996, p.74

They are mysterious and have been studied by scientists and philosophers for nearly as long as we can remember. Pythagoras believed harmonics to be the ultimate expression of the music of the spheres. Many traditions, modern and ancient, believe harmonics are a source of healing and spiritual power. The German poet, Novalis (1772-1801) said, “Every illness is a musical problem and every cure a musical solution.”

There is a difference between harmonics and harmony. Many pipers seem to be confused by this. In part two of the College of Piping Tutor for the Highland Bagpipe it is stated clearly: “The job of the drones is to provide a background of harmony for the melody played on the pipe chanter.” A more accurate job description for the drones would be to say they provide a background of consonance and dissonance for the melody played on the pipe chanter, the scale of which is designed to meld with and enhance the harmonics produced by the drones.

Anthony Baines does not use the word “harmony’ to describe the function of drones in either his Bagpipes or Woodwind Instruments and Their History, “There can be no questioning that for a full and satisfying accompaniment to a simple air, the drone is hard to beat. Even today, old traditional airs that we have  grown accustomed to stuff with conventional harmonies on piano or accordion, often gain fresh life when played over a simple drone.” He goes on, “A single drone (the commonest arrangement in the Middle Ages) is nearly always tuned two octaves below the chanter key-note. The significance of this is explained by examining the weave of harmonics between the well-tuned chanter and drones. “All bagpipers, even the wildest shepherds in the southern mountains of Europe, tune their drones with the greatest care and with complete absence of hurry, for everything in bagpiping depends upon the drone being exactly in tune with the chanter.” It is essential in the best tuning that the drones underpin every note of the chantet’s scale.

The word ‘harmonics’ derives from the Indo-European root ‘ar’, which also gave us ‘army’, ‘order’, ‘hatred’, ‘aristocracy’, ‘arithmetic’, and ‘rhyme’. Its oldest form meant, ‘to fit together’. And it came to us through both the Greeks via the Romans as well as the Anglo Saxons, from whom we get another derivative, ‘riddle’. The art of tuning is in the ability to use your ear to line up the frequencies of drones and chanter so that they fit together like a perfect rhyme resonating through time.

The harmonic progression of drones shows the proportion is exactly that of a nautilus shell.

We pipers say a well-tuned pipe will ‘lock on’, describing how the frequencies line up and seem to pull each other into a fifth element. This satisfying fit of various sounds is mapped out in the golden section, a set of proportions that some claim to be the basic pattern of the universe. The pyramids, fractals, Stonehenge, Paisley shawls, natural forms such as shells, leaves and human bodies, have the same proportion as the harmonic series. When the frequencies line up, when the pipe is said to lock on, the harmonics line up like the colours ofthe spectrum in a laser beam. Before they were properly tuned the frequencies were like a prismatic assortment of colours.

If we plot out the harmonic progression of drones on a circular graph you will see the proportion is exactly that of a nautilus shell, an atmospheric weather pattern, and the logarithmic spirals of intersecting points of the eyes of a peacock’s tail.

Three types of European mediaeval bagpipes. The number of harmonics produced by the bass drone is why it is so important to the bagpipe’s sound, and probably why most bagpipes in the Middle Ages featured a bass drone

By plotting the harmonic intersection of frequencies emanating from different drones we can see why some configurations fit together better than others. In the table below, you will find the four types of drones used in configuring a Border or Lowland pipe. The octaves of bass, tenor and fundamental note of the chanter line up. The baritone drone does not correspond with a harmonic from the other two drones until its third harmonic level, and does not meet the chanter’s fundamental until its seventh level and the chanter’s second. We hear this and find it less than completely satisfying.

The fundamental tone of the alto drone, however, links with the bass, and its second harmonic level links with the bass and tenor together. The alto’s harmonics correspond with the harmonics of the chanter’s fundamental note at the same place as the baritone, much sooner in its harmonic series. These figures show you what your car tells you when you hear the difference between a Border or Lowland pipe configured with a baritone drone versus one configured with an alto drone,

The progression of fundamental frequencies from bass to tenor to alto to chanter corresponds directly with the bass’s harmonic progression. The baritone is out of sync. The number of harmonics produced by the bass is why it is so important to the bagpipe’s sound, and probably why most bagpipes in the Middle Ages, as Baines pointed out, featured a bass drone.

The typical Scottish or Northumbrian small pipe, with bass, baritone and tenor, uses a smaller range of pitches than the Border or Lowland pipe. The fundamental note of the small pipe chanter is the same as the tenor drone, and only an octave above the bass. The baritone is an octave below the perfect fifth of the pipe chanter, which is in tune with the second harmonic of the bass drone.

• Part 2 – Modes, pentatonic scales, pitches, keys and octaves (the tonal ‘colours’ of the tune).

* The permission of the Lowland & Border Pipers’ Society is acknowledged in reproducing this article from the June 2018 edition of its biannual journal, Common Stock.