A Beginner’s Guide • By John Slavin.

The first part of this feature focused on the basics of setting up your pipe chanter to allow you to tune to concert pitch when playing with other musicians, and to recap the main points: you must have a concert pitch B-flat pipe chanter rather than a modern pipe band chanter, and when you play a low A you are actually sounding a B-flat note which tunes to 466 Hertz (Hz). 

The information in that first feature did not delve into the music theory, but gave instructions which can be followed to achieve a concert pitch B-flat chanter without understanding the music theory at work.  

•Calum MacCrimmon playing Highland pipes in his Boreraig concert at Celtic Connections 2014, with fiddler Eilidh Shaw and piper Angus Nicolson. JohnSlavin@designfolk.com/Bagpipe.news

In this second feature we will start to explore the music theory and break it down. You may not immediately grasp all of the music theory involved, but hopefully you will take in parts which should help you build a picture — kind of like doing a jigsaw — get the corners and straight edges first and the rest will eventually fall into place. It is not an easy subject, as Dougie Pincock said: “It’s a bit like trying to explain particle physics in layman’s terms. Each time you explain something, it just leads to another question.”


Let’s start with the theory behind the points we recapped in the first paragraph.

1. In the majority of western music (classical, rock, pop, folk, jazz, country, etc), instruments tune to an A note which vibrates at 440Hz.  

2.  The closest note a pipe chanter has to an A at 440Hz is our low A, which actually sounds a B-flat note at 466Hz: see example one for more explanation.

Example 1. A keyboard showing the A note (above middle C) which vibrates at 440Hz and is used by most instruments in western music to set concert pitch.  The B-flat note immediately to the right of A is equivalent to a low A note on a B-flat concert pitch chanter.  The B note next along tunes to 493Hz and the pitch of most pipe bands fall some where between B-flat and B, but usually nearer B.  That is why it is important to use a concert pitch chanter rather than a standard pipe band chanter

For a pipe chanter to be in tune relative to a concert pitch A note, our low A needs to tune to 466Hz which is the standard setting for a concert pitch B-flat note.  In most pipe bands the low A will be tuning some where between 475Hz to 485Hz or even higher, and is very sharp when compared to a concert pitch B-flat at 466Hz.

Dougie explained: “The modern pipe band chanter is too high pitched to be played with other instruments without a great deal of hassle. The pitch has risen inexorably over the last 60 to 70 years, with pipe bands striving to get a brighter sound, so have left behind the 440Hz which most other instruments tune to.”

When you are checking the tuning of your concert pitch B-flat chanter against a chromatic tuner, a Korg C-30 for example, set the pitch on the tuner to 440Hz.  If your low A is at concert pitch the needle will be in the centre, and the tuner is telling you that B-flat is in tune relative to a concert pitch A note: see example two. 

•Example 2. Chromatic tuner set to 440 Hertz showing the B-flat note ‘in tune’ when a low A is played into it. 

Do not make the mistake of thinking that the tuner is telling you that your B-flat note is vibrating at 440Hz — it is an easy mistake to make!  

By setting the pitch on the tuner to 440Hz we are asking the tuner to listen for notes at concert pitch, and the tuner is telling you where your B-flat note is relative to concert pitch.


The complexity of this whole topic is compounded because the names that we pipers give our notes are incorrect when you compare it to the actual note which is sounded by the chanter: see example three. 

Example 3

Further down this page, under the B-flat Major and Mixolydian section I talk about the keys that the pipes actually sound, but when I refer to the scales and the notes on the chanter I use the names as they are written by pipers, like low A and high G. These are the wrong names for the notes from a music theory perspective, so if you have a strong grasp of music theory and are thinking “wait a minute, a B-flat major scale does not start with an A note”, you are right obviously, it starts with a B-flat note.  I am trying to make this theory accessible to as many pipers as possible so am naming the notes as they are written (as written) by pipers rather than as they sound (as sounded) on the pipes.

As an example to show how the pipe chanter notes have the wrong names, if you were to ask a fiddler to play an A note and you were to play a low A on the pipes they would be out of tune, or as Finlay MacDonald put it, “they would be comically out of tune”.  That is because the chanter is sounding a B-flat note, and if your chanter is at concert pitch as described above it will be a B-flat at 466Hz, whereas the fiddler’s A will be at 440Hz.  

So in theory, if you were playing with a fiddler and you wanted to check you were in tune with each other, the fiddler would play a B-flat and you would play a low A note and compare them.  This would work fine, though in practice as we will see in the next article, fiddlers have another method of being in tune with the pipes.


“What key is it in?” is not a phrase that you often hear asked by pipers, as it does not matter when we are all playing the same instrument and melody.  Once you start to play along with other instruments, you undoubtedly will be asked what key you are playing in to give the other musicians a clue of which note the melody may start on, or which chords to use if they are playing an accompanying instrument.  

In musical theory, the key generally indicates the harmonic centre or tonic note of a tune or a scale. Using the key of E-flat major for example: it means that the tune is based on a scale of notes which begins with an E-flat note and finishes on an E-flat note.  So E-flat could be called the key or the tonic note.  

To help understand keys, and the influence a key has on a tune, you could try singing a few scales.  Start off by singing the scale: Doh, Ray, Me, Fah, So, Lah, Te, Doh — yes, the scale most people will know from the Sound of Music film — and repeat the scale a few times just to get familiar with it and feel what your voice is doing to sing the notes.

That scale of notes you sang will have a key, and the tonic note can be found from where you decided to pitch the first note of Doh. The key will be different for everyone depending on where they pitched Doh, but that is not important for the moment, as long as you understand that the note Doh is setting the key (or it could be called the tonic note of the scale, or the tonic for short) for the rest of the notes which follow.  If you had a friend with a guitar sitting next to you they could find a chord to match your first Doh and tell you which key you were in.

(When Finlay MacDonald started singing scales when he attended the BA (Scottish Music – Piping) degree course at the RSAMD he naturally flattened the seventh note, Te (our high G), because he was so used to hearing this note flattened on the pipes. Many pipers may naturally do this, but the actual Doh, Ray, Me scale that other musicians would sing or play would not have the flattened seventh note.)

The next step is to move Doh up a full tone which will have the effect of changing the key: so start singing the scale as you did previously but stop at the second note; Ray — but keep singing Ray, just hold the note; then change the sound to Doh; and continue to sing the full scale Doh, Ray, Me, Fah, So, Lah, Te, Doh. 

The scale you have just sung will be in a different key to your first scale, and you could change the key again by repeating the process of singing Doh, Ray, Me; holding Me and changing the sound to Doh, and continuing with the scale.  Everyone’s voice is different, but as you continue to sing the scales and change the key you will find the keys which are comfortable for your voice and the ones which are too high or low for you to sing.  

You may now be wondering how singing Doh, Ray, Me scales relates to pipe tunes.  Well, let’s just say that the first scale you sang was in B-flat, meaning that a pipe tune written in B-flat would have used the eight notes that you first sang and the key or tonic note of that tune would be taken from the Doh.  If you then continued with the exercise and repeated it four times, with your scale getting higher every time (and probably harder to sing), you would have got to the place where Doh was an E-flat note and provided the key.  A pipe tune written in E-flat will have a very different feel to one written in B-flat, and these differences in the feel of the key is probably how most pipers, who don’t play other instruments, have experienced different keys.


Most pipers will have musical feel for keys without actually having the terminology to explain them, and to some extent, musicians with a good ear will know which key you are in the second you start playing. 
Finlay MacDonald explained: “When I started piping I didn’t know any of the theory, but I did understand that there were groups of tunes with a particular feel to them.  Take tunes in the key of C minor for example, Farewell to Nigg or Paddy’s Leather Breeches; I didn’t know they were in C minor but I knew the feel of these tunes.  Most pipers can feel these things, and could put a set of tunes together which flow well, which if you analysed you could say for example; you went from an A-flat tune, to an B-flat tune, then to a E-flat tune which is a nice key change, then you went to a C minor tune, and finished back on a B-flat tune.  Pipers may not know the names of the keys but they instinctively know what sounds good.”


There are seven keys, in varying levels of playing difficulty, as sounded by the pipes: A-flat major; B-flat major & B-flat minor; C minor; E-flat major & E-flat minor; and F minor.  Each of these keys has its own scale, and the most commonly used keys would be B-flat major, E-flat major and C minor. 

On the chanter the scale of notes for the key of B-flat starts at low A (as written) and progresses right up the chanter to high A.  This is ‘the scale’ that we all learned to play when we first picked up a practice chanter.

When we play this scale on the chanter, the seventh note; our high G (as written), is a flattened note and it moves the scale from B-flat major to B-flat mixolydian (as sounded).  

The term mixolydian is the name of a mode and we will talk about modes in another feature — so let’s stick with B-flat for the moment.  

The usual B-flat major scale does not have a flattened seventh note — B-flat major has a natural seventh note rather than the flattened high G (as written), which the pipes play.

So when you play a pipe tune in B-flat which has a prominent high G note as part of the tune, this G makes the tune modal and moves the key to B-flat mixolydian rather than B-flat major: see example four:

Example 4. The two tunes shown directly above and below both use the B-flat mixolydian scale, but because there are no strong high G notes in Morag of Dunvegan the tune sounds like it is in the key of B-flat major, and so can be accompanied by the standard major chords.  Whereas The Battle of Waterloo does have strong high G notes as part of the melody, making it sound modal and implying a key of B-flat mixolydian, so a different chordal approach brings out the modal feel of the tune. 

As in the first feature here: these pipe tunes have the C# and F# marked in the key signature and guitar chords added above the bars.  This music can be used by any musician who tunes up, or transposes, their instrument, e.g. a fiddler who is tuned up one semitone or a guitarist who is tuned up or using a capo on the first fret.

Though it is still possible to play in the key of B-flat major on the pipes, as Dougie explains: “There is a large number of B-flat tunes that don’t have a G (as written) in them, except as a passing or joining note, so the presence of the G doesn’t particularly affect the key or choice of chords. That means accompanying musicians can use conventional major chord sequences with the tune.”

Sincere thanks to Jim McGillivray of pipetunes.ca for his permission to use the tunes above, and to Janette Montague for her advice and work in typesetting the tune samples.


The scale for the key of E-flat (as sounded) is a normal major scale and starts at our D (as written) note progresses up the chanter to high A, then goes down to B, up to C and finishes on D.  

The scale for the key of C minor (as sounded) starts at the B note (as written) progresses up the chanter to high A then comes back down to finish on B.

Typical B-flat tunes would be Scotland The Brave, The Rowan Tree, When The Battle’s O’er. Common E-flat tunes would include such as Bonnie Galloway, Lochanside and 10th HLI Crossing The Rhine. Finlay has already given two excellent examples of C minor tunes — Farewell To Nigg and Paddy’s Leather Breeches.

So B-flat (major and mixolydian), E-flat major and C minor are the three most common keys used in pipe tunes, and Mike Katz explained about two of the more unusual keys: “The key of E-flat minor is only possible if you cross finger your C and F notes, and the key of F minor is also very ‘broken’ because you are starting so high up in the scale.   So while it is absolutely the case that you can play in F minor you are generally playing partial tunes i.e. changing between the octaves, which gives you the effect of a second fiddle part or something of the like.  The Little Cascade is in F minor and the unique nature of this tune probably best exemplifies the place of this key in piping.”

Calum MacCrimmon spoke about the key of A-flat and just how unusual it can sound to another musician: “There are tunes on the pipes based around the low G note (as written), which are in the key of A-flat major (as sounded), and this can confuse a lot of other musicians as our drones sound a constant B-flat major against that A-flat major key.

“That creates a strange effect harmonically. The notes from the chanter and the drones are not really producing a chord but are creating an effect, and this is because you are playing a tune which is a whole tone lower than your drone.”

We will explore the importance of the drones and their effect on different keys in a later feature, but Calum added: “I love playing tunes in A-flat, because there is something quite gritty and dirty about the sound, though you often get a similar feel from tunes in the key of F minor.”

Dougie agreed with all the keys available on the pipes but added: “A-flat is not so easy as you would need to cross finger the C to make it a C natural (as written), or miss that note out all together.  To do anything in any other keys requires a lot of thought and manipulation to the extent that is barely worth it really.  

“The hardest gig I ever had was in a very funny radio play written by Don Paterson called Kailyard Blues.  The premise of the play was that jazz had been invented in Scotland rather than America, and the iconic instrument was the accordion and not the tenor Saxophone.  The music Don had written was all jazz type music, and he wanted to continue the Scottish theme and have a piper in the band.  So Don called me up to ask what keys the pipes could play in, and I told him them all, plus a couple of others like F-sharp minor and C-sharp minor, which are very hard but you can adjust things.  Then he sent me the music which he had written and it was littered with cross fingerings in keys that you just wouldn’t play on the pipes.  So you have got to be careful what you tell other musicians, or you can make life very difficult for yourself.”


So if you managed to grasp all that musical theory about keys — well done, but I’m afraid you are going to need to learn new names for the keys to allow you to speak the same language as other musicians.  We will look at that and more in the next feature to give you time to digest what has been said above.

This feature was only made possible thanks to Calum MacCrimmon, Finlay MacDonald,
Dougie Pincock, Mike Katz and Angus MacKenzie, by the generous sharing of their
extensive musical knowledge and experience of piping in folk bands.