Theory Top-Up: compressing tunes with high-Bs


Piping Today #81, 2016.

In the previous round of this Theory Top-Up series, we began to look at familiar tunes whose original melodies spanned beyond the nine-note range of the standard Scottish pipe chanter.  The word ‘compression’ was introduced as a way of describing the process of ‘squeezing’ these tunes into something that fits into this limited range.  Specifically, we looked at various ways to compress what might be called a low F-sharp, such as those found in the first part of The Silver Spear.  What was mentioned only in passing, however, was the fact that many tunes in our repertoire also stretch higher than we are capable of playing.  The Silver Spear belongs in this category, too, as most other musicians — fiddlers, flutists, box players, etc. — play a high-B at various points in the second part.  Given the vast majority of Scottish pipe chanters do not have a reliable method of producing a high-B, this is another case where we have to find some way of cramming a popular session tune into our frugal Scottish suitcase.  We’ll talk about our options in a moment, but first, have a peak at the second [B] part of The Silver Spear, as normally played by most other melodic instruments:

As you can see, the high-B appears more than once but is not so vital to the success of the melody that the tune will crash and burn without it.  Some of you may even find yourselves asking why this note is even part of the melody in the first place.  I might offer that sometimes melodies become a little bit richer by having a melodic peak like the high-B in The Silver Spear.  Also, that peak is an easy thing for other musicians to play: fiddlers merely have to plop down their left pinky; flute players and uilleann pipers simply lift off their left middle finger, and voilà, a lovely high-B is produced.  They play it because they can.

The Silver Spear is not the only tune in our common repertoire that stretches up to high-B when played on other instruments.  Here are some others:

Auld Lang Syne, when played in D  (air, song)
The Boys of Ballymote  (jig)
Braes of Mar  (strathspey)*
Dinky’s  (reel)
Farewell to Erin  (reel)
Haste to the Wedding  (jig)*
Hot Punch / Orange & Blue  (jig)
Lark in the Morning  (jig)*
Loch Lomond  (song, march)
The Mill, Mill-O  (song, march)
Molly Rankin’s  (reel)
Scotland the Brave  (song, march)**
Yester House  (strathspey)
*These tunes also span lower than our low-G, typically involving the low F-sharp discussed in the previous issue.
**The original, sung version of this melody goes beyond high-B, and includes high C-sharps.

•Clarinet-style high-B keys on Scottish smallpipe and Border pipe chanters made by Nate Banton and Will Woodson.

Various Scottish-style pipers have different ways of approaching the problem of the high-B.  Some simply avoid these tunes when possible, as there are plenty of other tunes in our repertoire that succeed without any hint of a high-B.  Others ‘overblow’ the B – that is, they momentarily increase the air pressure in the pipe bag while fingering a normal B, thus producing an overtone that sounds as a high-B.  This is something heard more often on Border pipes, not on Highland pipes or Scottish smallpipes, and is sometimes an option that is out of tune, of markedly different tone quality, and/or otherwise unreliable.  But it’s nonetheless a high-B.  And then there are other pipers who, no longer able to cope with the standard high-A ceiling, shell out for a custom-made chanter that includes some sort of high-B key as pictured here.  

But for the vast majority of Scottish-style pipers, the above ‘solutions’ are simply not realistic.  So what to do?  Thankfully there are a number of options, several of which can even be mixed and matched in the same tune.  One of the most common tactics is to play a high-G in place of the original high-B.  As it happens, the high-G is an interval of a 3rd below the high-B, and thus harmonises with the high-B, should there be other instrumentalists in the mix playing the original note.

A second option might be to play our usual ‘low’-B instead of the high-B.  This can work well when playing with other melodic instrumentalists, as they can cover the original high-B while you dip down the octave for that singular note.  If you are playing on your own, however, or with other Scottish-style pipers, dropping suddenly down to a low-B when the melody calls for something an octave higher can be a bit awkward sounding.

A third option is to sub in a high-A.  A high-A played alongside someone else playing the high-B will create a moment of dissonance, so this might be a more successful option on the Border pipes and Highland pipes because it is the quietest note on the chanter, and thus less likely to cause offence.   Not so for the cylindrical bore of the Scottish smallpipes.

Yet another option is to insert a low-A.  This is one of the better options for Scottish smallpipers who find themselves playing with fiddlers and the like, because the low-A of the smallpipe chanter is one of the quieter notes on the chanter, and will also blend perfectly with the A of the tenor drone.  In this way, the smallpiper slips gracefully into the drone while the other instrumentalists cover the high-B.

Further, there are times when the best option may be to alter a larger portion of the melody, either by swapping in a note that fits within an accompanying chord (i.e. playing a D if a guitarist is playing a D, G, or Bm chord), or by also changing the other notes surrounding the high-B.  

In regards to the latter option, it is sometimes possible to arrange a melody in such a way as to fool the listener into thinking there was never any need for the high-B in the first place.

Lastly, if you are performing one of these tunes with other pipers, why not introduce some harmonies, so that some pipers are playing a harmonising substitute, while others play the low-B option.  

The presence of harmonies will be a pleasant distraction that helps cover the fact that the original melody is not always sounding in its original octave.

The next time you find yourself in the position of playing a tune that originally had a high-B, take some time to experiment with the above options, and see which one seems the most musical to your tastes.  You may even find there is more than one worthwhile option, in which case you may enjoy interchanging different substitutes as a way of varying the melody and keeping it fresh for you and your audience.

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
  11. Compressing tunes with low F-sharp notes
  12. Compressing tunes with high-B notes