Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments – why B-flat and not A?


A Beginner’s Guide • By John Slavin.

I have often wondered why the notes on the Highland pipe chanter have the wrong names, and thought it might point to a time in history when the pipe chanter’s low A note did actually sound an A note at 440Hz. I took the chance to ask the question to each of the musicians I interviewed.  

I got various interesting answers; Calum MacCrimmon suggested: “It is possible that the pipes were in the key of A at one time and I have heard an archive recording from the 40s or 50s of a piper whose pipes were almost in concert pitch A.  However, not all pipers would have been at the same pitch, and with different regional pipe makers there would be varying pitches from piper to piper.  We use low A, B, C, D, and so on for simplicity but pipers now need to appreciate it prevents us from easily communicating with other musicians as the notes on the chanter are incorrectly labelled — we need to understand the flaw in our simple labels.”

Dougie Pincock admits that he did once hold a ‘romantic’ notion that the pipes must have been in concert pitch A at one point, due to the fact that the pitch of the pipes has been steadily rising over the years.  Dougie explained: “If you go back to the early mid-19th century when published printed music started to appear, I believed our low A must have sounded a concert pitch A.  If you imagine the piper going along to a piano player, saying ‘I need to write this tune down, can you tell me what my starting note is?’ and playing a low A;  the closest note on the piano would be an A.

“Although I have now changed my thinking on that idea after reading research by Barnaby Brown. Barnaby has explored the pitch of some very old chanters and has concluded that, even in the 18th century, chanters were pitched somewhere around B-flat.”

Mike Katz had a different answer: “I have read about the competitions held by the Highland Society of London in the early 19th century which offered prizes to pipers for the best way to write pipe music. Before that time music was orally transmitted and the majority of people were not literate let alone able to read music.  When music did start to be written down, it was done in various ways, and even written in C, a fifth down from where it is now on the stave.  The style that we now use, with the melody notes going up the way and the grace notes coming down the way, and with our tonic B-flat note starting from A, was pioneered by Donald MacDonald.”  

•Battlefield Band at Piping Live! 2018 with Mike Katz on Highland pipes. Photo: /

So from those answers I could surmise that some pipers may have been playing a concert pitch A but there would have been others playing at B-flat or various other pitches above and below B-flat. The person responsible for fixing the names of the notes to the chanter would have been Donald MacDonald when his style of writing pipe music as staff-notation from A became the norm. 

Following on from Dougie discussing Barnaby Brown’s research I looked into the matter further.  Barnaby very kindly forwarded this interesting input he received from Keith Sanger, who has had a long-standing research interest into the history of bagpipes and harps in Scotland and Ireland.

By Keith Sanger

Here’s my mini paper on the question of Pitch. What happened before the 19th century is, of course, open to question but we do have one hard piece of evidence which seems to be ignored, although it does fit with the general background of the history of late 19th century pitch in general. I am referring here to the J & R Glen Catalogue of circa 1929 which goes into great detail about the two pitches of the chanters they made and I quote:

“All our Pipes are made to Standard Army Pitch, Old Philharmonic, A=452 v.r. 

Low pitch Chanters are made to order only, A=439”

J & R Glen Catalogue, January 1929

Now setting that statement against the general history of pitch, a lot tends to fall into place. The standard military pitch first came about after an occasion in the Crimea circa 1850 when the top brass decided to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday by assembling together the bands of all the regiments out there for a massed playing of God Save the Queen. It turned into a farce because they were all playing in different keys, pitches and settings. The result was the formation of the Military School of Music in 1854 followed shortly afterwards by The Standard Army Pitch of A=452. This in turn also became the ‘old’ Philharmonic pitch, thought to be due to the effect of military musicians also becoming civilian musicians and influencing British (and Empire) orchestras.

What is certain is that A=452 was adopted as the pitch for the International Exhibition of 1885 and there it remained until 1895 when a Scottish doctor called Cathcart who was working and presumably doing well financially in London, had become concerned about the effect that pitch was having on singers’ vocal chords. So he offered to sponsor a series of London Concerts provided that the pitch was lowered to the French Government Commission Diapason Normal of A=435. This was agreed but, not for the first time in Anglo French communication, there was a misunderstanding of what the French Standard pitch actually was, (something to do with not allowing for temperature), and so the ‘new’ Philharmonic was actually set at A=439.

Of course, the military decided to stay where they were with A=452, and around 1910 re-emphasised that in Kings/Queens Regulations. Finally in 1928 they issued an order that all army bands would change from the higher pitch down to A=439. So going back to Glens catalogue, and as they would not have been the only pipe makers supplying the military, I would imagine other makers too, it would appear that they had been producing their standard chanters pitched at the old military pitch. Although they were also offering to supply chanters to the new lower pitch, the fact that they only made them to order suggests that they did not expect to sell many. History seems to have proved them justified because it would appear that from that point came a break with the rest of the military bands and free from that standard the pitch of the modern pipes started its upward climb.

There is one further refinement before I cease this diatribe but I have long had an interest in the history of pitch and the remarkable divergence over time and place. My favourite bedtime reading when I can not sleep is Bruce Haynes’ The Story of A, a History of Musical Pitch, which works better than counting sheep. But apart from the remarkably wide variation for A, almost 100Hz between highest and lowest noted from circa 1600 onwards, and the fact that the modern International standard of A=440 did not actually come about until the 1950s, is the work he cites for measuring pitches of old instruments, which leads to the next variable in the equation.

A point made by Haynes is in regard to the fact that the instruments themselves change over time, all wood shrinks, even hardwoods and this of course has the effect of pushing up the apparent pitch when measured some hundreds of years later. In terms of other woodwinds he allows between 4 and 8Hz adjustment in those measured instruments he quotes depending upon their age.

Now I was interested a year or so back when I read a statement by Roddy Livingstone that he had some early 20th century chanters which seemed to want to pitch naturally around A=456. It immediately occurred to me that taking the lower end of Haynes’ adjustment, which would be consistent for chanters of about 70 to 100 years old, then those chanters in Roddy’s collection would in fact probably have been originally made to that old military pitch of A=452. By the same logic, if anybody did commission any of Glen’s lower pitch chanters of A=439, then they now could be expected to come in around A=443 or so.

This brings the first part of this series of features to a close.  These features have focused on the practical aspects of playing your pipes with other musicians and hopefully allowed you to grasp the basics of the related music theory.  Future articles will explore the music theory in greater detail.

•Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments part one

•Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments part two

•Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments part three

•Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments – extra interviews

•Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments part four

•Playing the Highland pipes with other instruments – why B-flat and not A?

This series of 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.