Piping Today #80, 2016.

Because there are only nine melodic notes available on a typical Scottish chanter, piping students become aware of the limitations of our instrument pretty early on in their piping careers.  Inevitably, the moment arrives when they realise that the entirety of the Braveheart or Star Wars themes cannot actually be played properly on our instrument.  Clearly that’s not always a bad thing.  Other times, such as with achingly-beautiful melodies like Neil Gow’s Lament for His Second Wife, or popular session tunes like The Silver Spear, our limited chanters can be a source of frustration.

You may already be aware that a number of other tunes in our common repertoire don’t fit perfectly on our chanter.  Indeed, there are scores of popular session tunes — Irish tunes in particular — whose original melodies span beyond our usual nine notes.  If the tune is desirable enough, someone will eventually be motivated to squish the original melody to fit our range.  This ‘compression’ may happen more than you realise, and most often involves finding a substitute for what should be a low F-sharp or a high-B.  In this article, I’d like to examine just the tunes that originally called for that low F-sharp, and the options available to us in terms of playing those tunes on Scottish-style pipes.  We’ll talk about that pesky high-B in another issue.

Below are some more examples of tunes that originally stretched down as far as low F-sharp, and have since had their wings clipped to fit within the limited range of Scottish chanters:

Bonny Strathyre  (slow march)
Braes of Mar  (strathspey)
Calliope House  (jig)
Haste to the Wedding  (jig)
Hey Tuttie Tatie / Scots Wha Hae (song, air, march)
I Laid a Herring in Salt  (jig)
Lark in the Morning  (jig)
Mairi’s Wedding  (song, 2/4 march)
My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet  (2/4 march)
Paddy Clancy’s  (jig)
Paddy O’Rafferty  (jig)
The Wind that Shakes the Barley  (jig)

The benefit of compressing melodies to fit our chanters is that it allows us, by and large, to play these otherwise inaccessible tunes.  The downside, however, is that by compressing them, we are changing their character, thereby compromising their original form and rendering them to be something other than what was intended by the composer.  It’s not inconceivable that we could be altering them to become something other than what first drew us to the tune.  Compression is an imperfect concession, and sometimes it only involves one fairly insignificant note (e.g., what has become the briefly-heard low-G of Calliope House); other times it’s a fairly significant affair (e.g., the prominent starting low-G of Mairi’s Wedding).

As you might have already guessed, by far the most common method of fudging a low F-sharp involves replacing it with a low-G, the next closest note available to us:

The vast majority of Scottish-style pipers seem to be content enough with this arrangement.  Others may not even be aware that something isn’t quite ‘right’ about the low-Gs in these tunes.  And then there are those who are a little too particular, perhaps, and wince each time a tune is compressed as such.  In over 30 years of piping, I have sat at all points along that spectrum of tolerance, initially having no clue about that sort of compression, but eventually moving all the way to the point that I can no longer use the low-G substitute — at least not with any grace.  When I encounter tunes like those listed above, I often ask myself two questions: Do I really need to play this tune?  And if so, is there a worthy alternative to the low F-sharp other than low-G?

The need to play a particular tune is, of course, an individual and circumstantial matter.  As for the second question, though, are you aware there are other options for replacing the low F-sharp?  Indeed there are.  My own approach to finding something other than a low-G substitute is to look more closely at the tune, determine its key, as well as imagining what chord an accompanist would likely choose to play at the points in which the low F-sharp is called for.

In almost every case, tunes that began life with a low F-sharp are in the key of D.  This is true for all of the tunes listed before.  And in almost every single case where the low F-sharp was originally used in these melodies, a D-Major chord (or possibly a B-minor chord) would be the most likely accompanying chord for the moment when that note appears.  Those of you who have some background in music theory may remember that a D-Major chord is based on a ‘triad’ of three notes: D, F-sharp, and A.  (A B-minor chord is made up of B, D, and F-sharp).

If you let that information marinate for a moment, you may come to two conclusions:  first, the low-G substitute most commonly used for the low F-sharp is not actually a member of either of those chords, and in fact will clash a bit with them.  (The low-G will also clash significantly with any other instrument playing the original low F-sharp.)  Second, there are two shared notes between the D-Major and B-minor chords: D and F-sharp.

If this is all a little too theoretical for you, fear not.  The point I’m getting to is that there are other, perhaps better alternatives to low-G.  For starters, you can opt to play the only F-sharp available on a standard Scottish chanter, the one that lies an octave above the low F-sharp in the original melody:

Another option is to play a D, which would be equally appropriate in terms of fitting in with either an accompanying D-Major or B-minor chord.  And there’s a third option that’s particularly well-suited for the smallpipes, which is to play a low-A.  On the smallpipes, the low-A is not only a member of a D-Major chord, it’s also one of the quietest notes on the chanter.  It’s also precisely the same note as the A of the tenor drone, meaning that for the brief moment you’re playing the low-A, it effectively melds into the drone.  If you’re playing in a session or otherwise in the company of fiddlers or other melodic instruments who can play the original low F-sharp, then they can easily cover that note while you duck quietly into the drone.  

Below is a setting of The Silver Spear that makes use of ‘high’ F-sharps, Ds, low-As, and some melodic tweaks that attempt to improve the overall shape of the melody:

Much more drastically, some pipers have gone so far as to acquire a chanter that has a low F-sharp key, as shown below, thus allowing them to play the full melody as it was originally intended.  This is obviously a not a simple, quick, or cheap alternative.

•A low F-sharp key on a chanter by Nate Banton 

And lastly, for the class clowns among you, there is sometimes the possibility of simultaneously playing a low-G and clamping your knees on either side of your chanter’s base, thereby closing off the side vents and producing a note that is often fairly close to a low F-sharp.  This is not only ridiculous looking, but also exceedingly difficult to execute with any precision.  My advice is to try it at home, and only at home.

Keyed and kneed-chanters aside, I would urge you to experiment with the other alternatives for any of the above tunes.  If you’re like me, you may not initially favour these options above the usual low-G – they will probably surprise your ear after years of acclimatisation to the low-G.  But keep trying the high F-sharp, D, or low-A alternatives for a while and see if you have a similar experience to me: that after a spell you begin to prefer them over low-G and that you begin to vary the options each time you play the tune, or even vary them on the repeats.

In closing, I’ll mention another possible result from trying these other notes in place of the low-G: it’s possible neither the low-G nor any of the alternatives are satisfactory to you, and thus you may find yourself avoiding these sorts of tunes altogether.  And that’s OK, too, because there is truly no end to the solid tunes in our repertoire that never did have any need for the low F-sharp in the first place.

Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe musicHis Theory Top-Up series ran in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.

Theory Top-Up articles published on Bagpipe.News so far:

  1. Tunes in the key of D-Major
  2. Tunes in the key of A-Mixolydian
  3. Tunes in the key of A-Major
  4. Tunes based on a ‘gapped’ A scale
  5. Tunes based in A-pentatonic major
  6. Tunes in B-minor
  7. Double Tonic Tunes
  8. Tunes in the Dorian mode
  9. Tunes in G-Major
  10. Exotic tunes and tunes that change key