The art and mystery of composition for the bagpipe: part 1


Piping Today #100, 2020.

The ability to compose music, any music, for the bagpipe or otherwise is a peculiar talent and very difficult to describe or define. We know what the results of the effort are, but not much is known about the process itself. Everyone has heard a tune composed by someone trying their hand but without much natural ability for it. It’s not attractive, perhaps not ghastly, but sure to be confined to the bin the moment the neophyte’s back is turned.

But think about that and contrast that stuff with the gems  – the timeless treasures. Think of The Little Cascade, the work of a compositional genius, Lochanside with its exquisite melody, The Knightswood Ceilidh a grand competition march and the iconic Mist Covered Mountains. Each of these is a lovely example of pure inspiration at work, and they each illustrate a fascinating and liberating aspect of composition for the bagpipe.

The Little Cascade, composed in the era of Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht seems to capture some of the mysterious zeigeist of those times. Without going too far down the rabbit hole, let’s ignore the away the bagpipe has rocketed up in pitch, and accept that in earlier times it was pitched roughly at B flat. With the advent of digital technology, we can convert the pitch of the modern pipe chanter, which helps us to understand the keys available to us, and the chord patterns of those keys which can and do support pipe music. We simply take a tunable electronic keyboard and tune or adjust the keyboard’s B flat to the bagpipe low A. Voila…we are “sort of” playing in B flat, even though the pitch of the modern chanter will actually be higher than that. Note that we must be allowed a little flexibility of mind here. The pipe scale operates in a mixolydian mode, with both high G and low G flattened by a half tone, and the pipe note C is slightly flatter than the analogous note on the keyboard.

To explore the tonality of The Little Cascade, noodle around on the re-tuned keyboard while having someone play the Cascade on the pipe and it becomes obvious that the tune was written by GS McLennan in the key of F minor. At the time this was a rare and exciting breakthrough, as to my knowledge, it’s the first of its kind and it is still relatively unusual to see compositions in this key and mode. Dr Angus MacDonald’s Chloe’s Passion and Bruce Gandy’s Coppermill Studio are two examples of the rare, but in these two cases, successful recent attempts to compose in F minor. I suppose that most pipers realised that GS mined the territory so thoroughly and beautifully with The Little Cascade that they avoid it.

The Knightswood Ceilidh employs what I call a faux B flat minor mode, or if you prefer, an implied key of B flat minor. Tunes of this type are usually rooted in low A, although the march, The Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society has its focus on E. They achieve the effect of a minor key simply omitting the third note of the major mode, C, on the pipe chanter. There are myriad examples of this type of composition – my own, The Busy Buddy is one.

The Knightswood Ceilidh is quite a typical march in this faux B flat minor mode, but as ever, Donald MacLeod pokes expectations in the eye by dropping what at first sounds like an out of place C in the sixth bar of the third part. This buckshee C draws the ear to this attractive melodic quirk.

This faux B flat minor mode is employed generously throughout blues music, where it’s applied to various keys, not just B flat. Blues also features a repeated focus on the fifth interval which too, seems to be a feature of much Celtic/Gaelic music. 

Little needs to be said about Lochanside. Composed by the great John MacLellan, Dunoon. It’s a pure and beautiful melody which is produced on the bagpipe in the key analogous to E flat major. It’s so accessible that the Scottish singer Andy Stewart made it into a lovely song, sung by him by the way, very beautifully. Ignore his horrid Donald Where’s Your Troosers and seek this one out instead.

But there’s more… think of tunes like The Hen’s March or The Geese in the Bog… here the composition is in the bagpipe’s low G mode, which is analogous to A flat major on the retuned keyboard, with the triad being Low G, B and D. It’s a major key, but feels dark and grumbly like much minor key music. That’s because it’s in the basement of the chanter’s tonal structure, but with the drones stubbornly refusing to go along.

And finally The Mist Covered Mountains, while so familiar as to seem hackneyed, is a wonderful poignant air, composed in the key of C minor on the re-tuned keyboard, the triad of which on the pipe chanter is our B, D and F.

So, while remembering that we have re-tuned the keyboard to take the B flat to the pipe chanter’s Low A, we have the following keys available for bagpipe composition:

  • B flat major
  • B flat minor (faux or implied)
  • F minor
  • E flat major
  • A flat major
  • C minor

Pretty wonderful stuff… six distinct keys all on a scale of eight tones… no halftones to help us.

This article is excerpted from the writer’s memoir Preposterous: Tales to Follow and has been edited for length. The book is available from here.