Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments part three

Battlefield Band in concert at Piping Live! 2010

A Beginner’s Guide • By John Slavin.

If you have followed part one and part two of this series you should now understand the importance of playing a concert pitch B-flat chanter, and the following points summarise the other important aspects covered in the previous features.

  1. Your low A sounds a B-flat note at 466 Hertz (Hz).
  2. ‘The scale’ that all pipers first learn; from low A to high A, sounds as a B-flat mixolydian scale.
  3. Mixolydian is the name of a mode, and the name is applied to B-flat because ‘the scale’ has a flattened 7th note (the high G). The arrangement of tones and semitones from low A to high A, coincides exactly with that needed to be in the mixolydian mode.
  4. Tunes based on the B-flat mixolydian scale are technically in the key of B-flat major, but depending on the prominence of the G note (as written) in the melody, an accompanying musician would need to be careful which chords they used to accompany the tune.
  5. So in practice, if a tune has strong G notes in the melody then the standard major chords may clash with the tune, so alternative chords may need to be played to suit the modal feel of the tune.  If there are no G notes in the melody, or G is just a passing note, then the standard major chords may be an appropriate accompaniment.
  6. There are seven keys available on the pipe chanter and each key has its own scale of notes which begin at different places on the chanter.
  7. Every pipe tune has a key which indicates which scale of notes it uses, and these different keys give a different feel to each tune.

•Battlefield Band in concert at Piping Live! 2010. From left: Sean O’Donnell; Alastair White;
Ewen Henderson and Mike Katz

As said above and in the previous features; there are seven keys, in varying levels of playing difficulty, which are available to the piper:  A-flat major;  B-flat major & B-flat minor; C minor; E-flat major & E-flat minor; and F minor.  The mixolydian term is missing from this list of keys as it is a mode, not a key, but it is important to remember that pipe tunes in the key of B-flat major can be referred to as B-flat mixolydian when there are prominent G notes in the melody.

We also looked at the influence the key has on different pipe tunes, and the fact that most pipers will only have experienced keys from the feel of different tunes: think of the bright and happy, easy swagger of the 6/8 march John D. Burgess which is in the key of E-flat major, compared to the moody, purposeful stomp of the 6/8 march Angus McKinnon in the key of C minor — that’s how I always feel them anyway.

This series of features is aimed at giving all levels of piper information on what is needed when playing Highland pipes along with other musicians, and the points summarised from one to seven are about understanding some of the music theory involved.  The topics we move onto is to give the piper information on what other musicians need to do to play along with you, assuming you have set your chanter to concert pitch B-flat.


Many traditional musicians tune up or adapt their instrument to make it easier for them to play alongside Highland pipes. We will discuss in a later feature how each instrument does this, but the result is that the musician can still think and play in their normal, more user-friendly keys.  See example one, below, for the seven keys the pipes can play and the alternative names which other musicians would use.

•Example 1. The top line shows the keys which the Highland pipes actually sound. The bottom line shows the names of the top line of keys changed to suit other musicians who tune up or transpose their instrument.

Calum MacCrimmon explained: “This is another important aspect for Highland pipers to learn.  Playing a concert pitch B-flat chanter makes the Highland pipes more compatible for playing music with other instruments, but it is not perfect as B-flat is still an uncomfortable key on many instruments.  Traditional musicians would be more accustomed to playing in the keys of A and D, or E minor, for example, but all the keys on the Highland pipes are one semitone higher.  So fiddlers often tune their strings up one semitone to match the pipes, and the musician can still use their normal finger patterns or chords and they still think, play and speak as they would normally.”  

When pipers play from music written in the key of A major, our sounding key is B-flat major, and other musicians would normally play from music written in B-flat major to match the sound of the pipes. By tuning up, or using a capo, the ‘tuned-up’ musicians can sound as B-flat but read our pipe music in A major and use their A major finger patterns and chords.

So a piper who wants to play alongside other instruments should learn the alternative names for the keys: our A-flat key becomes G; B-flat becomes A; C minor becomes B minor; E-flat becomes D; and F minor becomes E minor.

An example of how this could work in practice would be if you were to play Scotland the Brave with a guitarist.  Scotland the Brave is in the key of B-flat major on the pipes, and as it doesn’t have a prominent G note the mixolydian mode does not apply to it. If you told the guitarist to put the capo on the first fret and asked him to find the starting chord to suit the first notes you were playing, he would tell you the chord which matched best was the A chord.  This first chord also indicates the key, and from now on the guitarist is thinking Scotland the Brave is in the key of A major.

This was a topic Calum MacCrimmon, Finlay MacDonald, Dougie Pincock, Mike Katz and Angus Mackenzie agreed on, and I got the impression that it was more natural for them to talk in the same language as the other musicians than it was for them think about the actual keys that the pipes were sounding such as B-flat, E-flat and C minor.  They are mostly talking about music with other musicians in their folk bands, rather than other pipers, so it stands to reason that they will become more fluent with the alternative key names.  Though it was pointed out that some musicians, piano players for example, should be able to cope with any key that you gave them, and we will explore that aspect further in the ‘Other Instruments’ feature.


With most of our traditional music and pipe tunes, the easy way to find the key is simply by playing the first and last notes — particularly the last note — and that will give you the key.

“The concluding note of a tune is often the tonic note of that melody and will give you a feeling of completion or rest,” said Calum. “That final note will almost always tell you the key you are in.  If a piper wants to convey their true key to an instrumentalist with no piping experience, firstly acknowledge this ‘tonic’ and then decide if it is happy (major) or melancholy (minor) and apply that. For example, the classic jig The Atholl Highlanders is a happy tune and it finishes on a low A, so that suggests A major but you need to put it up by one semitone to find the key as sounded by the pipes so it becomes B-flat major.  

“The Atholl Highlanders also has a mixolydian feel in the fourth part which displays the modal effect in one part rather than applying to the whole tune.  This can really give power to a tune in B-flat major when it has a concluding part written in a modal scale.”

If we explore that example from Calum, we can see that the names of the notes on the chanter that pipers use will actually help us communicate the key when talking to a fiddler or guitarist who are tuned up. So, if a tune finishes on a low A it will most likely be in the key of A major or A mixolydian for a fiddler, or A minor if you have been cross fingering the C note.  If it finishes on a D it will likely be in the key of D major, or D minor if you have been cross fingering C or F; finish on a B and it will likely be in the key of B minor.  All these examples are using the key names changed to suit other musicians, so refer to example one above if you want to know what the actual key is as sounded by the pipes.  

Dougie Pincock added that you have to be careful as not all tunes give you the key by looking at the last note. He said: “There is the odd exception that does not fit this rule, and The Green Hills of Tyrol is a great example as it finishes on an E but that is not the key note of the tune.  Another method for finding out the key note of a tune is to listen to the tune and try and work out which note sounds like Doh, as in, Doh, Ray, Me, Fah, So, Lah, Te, Doh.  So in The Green Hills of Tyrol the tune does not feel quite finished when you stop on the E, but if you were to go down and play a low A after the E the tune feels complete because it resolves to the A — or on the Doh, the key note — and gives you the key of A.”


The drones was a topic I never considered when I started interviewing for this feature, but the guys quickly put me right, explaining how important, or not, the drone sound can be.  “I find there are two aspects to drones; recording them and playing with them,” said Mike Katz. “The truth is, when you play with other instruments in a live situation the drones can disappear.  Even on recordings the drones start to disappear and become irrelevant once you start to add harmony instruments like guitars and keyboards — they just become a nuisance really unless you are specifically making up harmony arrangements which include a big, constant B-flat note.

“What I would do on a recording, if it was solo Highland pipes or pipes and fiddle, is to have the drones louder in the mix compared to what I would have if there was more instruments.  The drones just create interference when there are lots of instruments in a recording situation.”

Dougie also had some interesting advice about drones and other musicians: “The drones are a huge part of the equation when you start to play pipes with other musicians, as those who are not familiar with bagpipes will listen harmonically to what is being played.  If you are playing a tune in B-flat and have a B-flat drone going behind it then there is no problem as the drone is providing the tonic/key note of the tune.  

“If you play an E-flat tune on the pipes, the drone is still sounding B-flat, so it is providing the dominant/fifth note of the E-flat scale, so that is a different thing that musicians need to be listening for, and it means that a guitarist will need to be careful of what chords they pick.  If the guitarist is playing the tonic E-flat chord, the B-flat note is in the chord so that is fine, but if they go to the fourth chord, the A-flat, there is no B-flat note in the chord and there will be a clash, and some musicians are just not willing to tolerate it.

“The key that other musicians find really strange is C minor, tunes like Farewell to Nigg or Angus McKinnon, which pipers don’t think are a problem, but your drone is still sounding a B-flat note which is not present in all of the chords that musicians would normally choose for a C minor tune — and it really causes them problems as they need to adjust the way they hear the music.

“Opinion varies widely what should be done in those situations.  I have done a lot of recording sessions where musicians wanted my drones shut off, and not particularly for the benefit of taste, but harmonic reasons.  

“The well-known Scottish classical composer, Eddie McGuire — who has also been a member of Scottish traditional music group, The Whistlebinkies, — always insists on the drones being present whenever he writes a classical piece which includes bagpipes.  He believes the drone is an integral part of the bagpipes sound and that it must be there.

“It is arguable that if the drones are not there, then is it bagpipes? You might as well have someone play the part on a tenor sax or a bombarde — as it is the drones which make the bagpipe.  

“I have always fought very hard to keep the drones, and explained what the harmonics are doing, and that it is accepted practice just to leave the drones in there.

“One of the problems that Duncan MacGillivray faced in the early days of Battlefield Band was to fight to keep the drones.  It wasn’t that the other guys didn’t want them, they just didn’t want them amplified.  They had the attitude of ‘you will hear them anyway’, and of course you don’t hear them when the band is in full flow.    

“It is also an extra thing for PA guys to deal with.  You need to have the mics up behind the piper pointing down toward the drones, and that means the mic is also pointing towards the monitor speakers with the danger of picking up the monitors more than the drones.  Which means that the sound just gets really muddy.  So I have always agreed to have my monitor speaker a bit quieter or else my drone sound would just get lost in the fuzz of the monitors.”

The final word on the subject of drones goes to Mike Katz: “One of the criticisms that old-school pipers have had with this type of (folk) music is because it is not drone based.  The drones are paramount for pipers, but they are completely meaningless to almost everyone else — and that is basically the two mentalities.”


Finally, we get to sheet music and what needs to be done to make it easy for other musicians to read pipe music.  If we first look at instruments like the fiddle, whistle, guitar or anything which tunes up or transposes to be in tune with the pipes, then it is quite simple, and I’ll leave it to Dougie to explain: “Write your pipe tune as usual for a piper to read, mark the key signature with F sharp (F#) and C sharp (C#) for the fiddler, and tell him to ignore the grace notes, and put chord symbols over the bars for the guitarist.

“Lots of the modern pipe tune collections, particularly the Australian and Canadian composers, are printing the key signature with the F# and C# marked on each tune anyway.  Though there is one wee thing with that which pipers are not really paying attention to, that I think is quite important.  When you write F# and C# as the key signature, that is a very specific instruction to a musician telling them ‘this tune is in the key of D, or B minor’, if it is a minor tune.  That means that they will expect every tune to be in the key of D, but if you then start playing a tune like Scotland the Brave, which is in the key of A, it will be very misleading.  We can’t write it in the key of A major as that would mean adding a G sharp (G#) to the key signature, but that is not in the tune as it is a G natural we have as the seventh note on the chanter.

“So what I do, and I’m not alone in this, is to mark the F# and C# as normal and in the space where the G# would go I would put a natural sign. You can even put it in brackets just to denote that it is a wee courtesy, and that tells another musician that it is in the key of A but we have a flattened seventh note, G natural rather than G sharp, which they need to consider.

“In some of the pipe music collections, when the C natural (the cross fingered C note) first started to appear, they would mark a flat sign on the C in the key signature to show it should be played as a C natural. But that was wrong as it is not a C flat — it is a C natural — but that can only counteract a sharp, so you would need to put your sharp in at the start of the music — aaghhh, it can be a minefield!”

Of course, as discussed above when showing the G natural in the key of A major, in a similar way we could indicate the C natural in tunes where you are cross fingering the C note by using the natural sign for C instead of the sharp sign in the key signature.

That all may seem a bit complicated, but if you go back to the first paragraph in the section and follow Dougie’s instructions, then it is pretty straightforward without needing to understand the theory.

There could be some situations where you need the tune written to suit an instrument which does not tune up or transpose, like a piano or any of the brass instruments which sit naturally within the flat keys.  In that case the notes on the stave need to move up by a semitone, so you just write them one position higher on the sheet music and mark in a B-flat, E-flat and A-flat on the key signature.  

These three features have now covered the basics of playing Highland pipes with other instruments. They have given the reader information on setting the pipe chanter up, and looked at some of the music theory related to the Highland pipes and pipe music. They have also given advice on what a piper can do to start talking in the same musical terms as other musicians, and touched on what other musicians have to do in order to play along with the pipes.  The next feature is aimed at giving the piper a fuller understanding of other instruments and how they deal with playing along with the pipes, and our not so user-friendly keys.

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.

Sincere thanks to Janette Montague for her help and advice in preparing this feature.