Harmony Writing Part One.

By TIM CUMMINGS
Piping Today #85, 2017.

We have, in this Theory Top-Up series, covered a range of topics related to the music of Scottish-style bagpipes (among other bagpipes and non-bagpipes).  We have examined practically every major, minor and modal key used in our repertoire, and more recently explored the hidden world of harmonics and how we use them to tune our instruments. 

For the next batch of articles, I’d like to focus on crafting successful harmonies and countermelodies to our pipe tunes.  This topic may be a useful exploration for all readers: those interested in composing original harmonies for pipe bands and other piping ensembles, those looking to improvise harmonies for cèilidh bands and the like, and those of you just generally interested in boosting your understanding of music theory.

Before we dive into the deep end of writing full-on harmonies, however, I’d like to unfurl the word “harmony”.  When applied to music, harmony generally refers to moments when two or more notes are sounding at the same time.  These moments can be dissonant, eliciting emotional tension and discomfort, or consonant, suggesting emotional release, relief, and a general feeling of peace and accord.  Certain combinations of notes can also be more emotionally neutral.  Harmony can be homophonic, whereby the harmony part moves with the same rhythm of the melody, or it can be polyphonic, or more rhythmically independent — a distinct countermelody of sorts.  Harmony can be exceptionally simple, acting as a drone, or it can be more involved, creating multi-note chords or multiple distinct melodic lines sounding simultaneously.  It can also be written in such a way as to come and go like occasional chords on an accordion, or short bursts from uilleann pipe regulators.  A particular harmony part can even include several of the above approaches.  Indeed, there’s quite a lot to talk about on this topic.

Perhaps the best place to start exploring harmony is to look to the very nature of our instrument.  Most bagpipes, certainly Scottish varieties, involve a melodic pipe that plays one note at a time, accompanied by at least one continuous-sounding drone.  The drone, as most of you are aware, is one of the simplest and most ancient forms of harmony there is — a note that sounds at the same time as the melody, and generally never changes pitch or stops sounding.  At times the drone is dissonant with certain melodic notes, and in those instances it produces some emotional tension.  More often, it is consonant, producing a pleasing combination with melodic notes.  Some would argue this is the ultimate essence of music: tension and release.  Our instruments achieve this automatically, simply by the nature of their design.

•The ensemble of pipers at the Just for Gordon concert at Celtic Connections 2016. From left: Ian Duncan, Allan MacDonald, Lorne MacDougall, Angus MacColl, Stuart Liddell, Gary West, Ross Ainslie, Alex Duncan and Ali Hutton. Photos: JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news

In some circles of music, namely the ‘classical’ and sacred realms of music, drones are often referred to as pedal points, particularly when they are low notes.  This term originates from the church organ, which not only has multiple rows of keys available to the organist’s hands, but also a row of very large keys down by the organist’s feet, which, unsurprisingly, are played by the organist’s feet and are called “pedals”.  You can imagine how hard it is to use both your hands and both your feet all at once, as dictated by sheet music that requires reading three staves of music at once!  Such a feat (so to speak) is a pretty daunting prospect, and I for one would be sorely tempted to simplify matters, press a foot on one appropriate pedal, and keep it there.  And were I to do that, I would be producing a drone, or pedal point, and enabling basic moments of tension and release against the melodies and chords being played by my hands.

Bagpipes and church organs are not the only instruments to make good use of drones.  Hurdy-gurdies have multiple drone strings that sound continuously, just like bagpipe drones.  The fifth string on a standard five-string banjo serves the purpose of a drone, albeit a higher-pitched one that has to be plucked regularly in order to be heard.  In some of the traditional music from India, shruti boxes — both bellows-blown and electric varieties — produce a soothing drone which anchors and enhances the melodic variations played by the sitar, for example.  Tuvan throat singers and jaw-harp players sing and play melodies by focusing and manipulating the harmonics of an underlying drone.  Some Native American flutes have a double-bore, one of which is a drone.  The same is true for some North African and Eastern European types of bagpipes (not to mention recent creations by Callum Armstrong and Julian Goodacre).  And are you familiar with the first rock song I ever liked, Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’?  There is an F-based drone sounding in the guitar throughout the entire song.  Radiohead’s Everything in Its Right Place has an incredibly powerful C-drone through most of the track.  

All this is to say that drones and pedal points may be very primitive in their nature, but they are timeless, ubiquitous and undeniably effective for human listeners.

In the world of piping, it should be noted that we don’t need to relegate this simplest form of harmony exclusively to our drones.  A pedal point can be an effective tool when employed on a pipe chanter, too, so long as it’s not overused.  

Without further ado, I have an assignment for you: find another piper (or record yourself, if none are within reach), and have them play a tune.  Any tune will do, so long as you’re able to identify what key it’s in.  While the tune is being played, try playing a continuous drone on your chanter.

You’ll probably have the most success if you play either the tonic (first scale degree) or the dominant (fifth) of whatever key the tune is in.  For example, if the chosen tune is in some form of the key of A, I’d suggest ‘droning’ either on a low or high-A (tonic) or an E (dominant).  If you’re in the key of D, try a D (tonic) or a low or high-A (dominant).  Almost certainly this will not create a harmony that you’ll want to go public with, but I guarantee there will be some very interesting musical moments.  [N.B. This experiment will have a greater chance of success if both instruments are well tuned to each other.] You’ll immediately hear instances of both dissonance (tension) and consonance (release), and the effect of a pedal point played on the chanter may surprise you.

Be sure to try different tunes in different keys, and feel free to experiment with notes that aren’t the tonic or dominant.  Simply explore the world of drones and pedal points, and let your ears tell you what they like and don’t like.  You may be very surprised.  And you may find that a pedal point works so well against certain parts of a given melody that you may end up using that as part of a harmony line that will eventually include different notes and rhythms. If you need a little more encouragement or guidance, try test-driving the examples above.  Which pedal point do you like better in this case, the tonic (A) or the dominant (E), or another note of your choosing?  Do the dissonant moments ultimately make the consonant moments even more rewarding, or are they too distracting?  Do you think that if you were to compose a more involved harmony part for this tune, you’d include one of the given pedal points for several beats (or bars)?

In the next article, we’ll start getting a little more in-depth in our exploration of harmony, combining the pedal point approach with harmonies based on simple chord progressions.  Until then, keep alert for more examples of drones and pedal points in the music you listen to at home or in the car.  (Hint: Johann Sebastian Bach, Frédéric Chopin, Duke Ellington, The Supremes, Led Zeppelin, Coldplay, various film composers, and many, many others have also made great use of pedal points.)


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
  13. Theory Top-Up Harmonics: an introduction to the mysterious overtones in our music
  14. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 2: continuing the discussion on overtones
  15. Theory Top-Up Harmonics Part 3: using harmonics to fine-tune our pipes