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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A piper playing the Great Highland Bagpipe.
A piper playing the Great Highland Bagpipe.

Bagpipes are a class of musical instrument, aerophones using enclosed reeds. The term is equally correct in the singular or plural, although pipers most commonly talk of "pipes" and "the bagpipe."


A bagpipe minimally consists of an air supply, a bag, a chanter, and usually a drone. Most bagpipes also have additional chanters and drones in various combinations.

Air supply

The most common method of supplying air to the bag is by a blowpipe, or blowstick, into which the player blows. The blowpipe can be fitted with a non-return valve, or the player can close the tip of the blowpipe with his tongue while inhaling.

A more recent innovation, dating from the 16th or 17th centuries, is the use of a bellows to supply air. This has the advantage that the supplied air has not been heated and moistened by the player's breathing. Bagpipes using bellows can therefore use more refined and/or delicate reeds.

The possibility of using an artificial air supply, such as an air compressor, is one occasionally discussed by pipers but although experiments have been made in this direction, widespread adoption seems unlikely.


The bag is simply an airtight (or near airtight) reservoir which can hold air while the player breathes. This means that the player can play independently of the need to take breaths. It also has the advantage that the player can breathe more naturally, and so can play comfortably for long periods of time. Materials for the bag vary widely: most common are skins of local animals, for example, goat, sheep, cow, pig, and so on. In modern times, pipers have experimented with modern materials such as rubber, Gore-Tex, and other airtight fabrics. Gore-Tex bags have become especially popular; especially with the development of Gore-Tex Leather bags. These bags combine the durability and convenience of the synthetic material with the look and feel of traditional skin bags.

When made of skin, the bag is usually saddle-stitched with an extra strip folded over the seam to prevent air leaking. Holes are cut in the bag to accommodate the stocks, or connectors with which the various pipes are attached to the bag. With more modern materials, the seam is usually stitched and then a strip of material glued in place to achieve the same purpose. These bags are often fitted with rubber collars to insert the stocks in, which can result in a better, tighter fit with less chance of damaging the bag while attaching the stocks.

Another innovation in bag design within the past 10 years is the addition of moisture control systems. Moisture from the piper's breath condenses on the pipes, drones, and reeds which can cause problems. Bags with zippers can be fitted with moisture control cartridge systems attached to the drone stocks which remove moisture as air passes through bentonite clay particles. Corrugated tube traps attached to blowstick stocks also aid in moisture control via condensation. These types of systems require bags with zippers.


The chanter is the melody pipe, played by one or both hands. A chanter can be bored internally so that the inside walls are parallel for its full length, or it can be bored in the shape of a cone. Additionally, the reed can be a single or a double reed. Single-reeded chanters are parallel-bored; however, both conical- and parallel-bored chanters operate with double reeds, and double reeds are, by far, the more common.

The chanter is usually open-ended; thus, there is no easy way for the player to stop the pipe from sounding. This means that most bagpipes share a legato sound where there are no rests in the music. Primarily because of this inability to stop playing, embellishments or grace notes (which vary between types of bagpipe) are used to break up notes and to create the illusion of dynamic effect. Because of their importance, these embellishments (or ornaments) are often highly technical systems specific to each bagpipe, and take much study to master.

A few bagpipes (the musette de cour, the uilleann pipes, and the Northumbrian smallpipe) have closed ends or stop the end on the player's leg, so that when the player covers all the holes (known as closing the chanter) it becomes silent. This allows for staccato playing on these instruments, although even where the chanter can be silenced, complex embellishment systems often exist.

Although the majority of chanters are unkeyed, some make extensive use of keys to extend the range and/or the number of accidentals the chanter can play. It is possible to produce chanters with two bores and two holes for each note. The double chanters have a full loud sound comparable to the "wet" sound produced by an accordion.

An unusual kind of chanter is the regulator of the uilleann pipes. This chanter is in addition to the main melody chanter and plays a limited number of notes, operated by keys. It is fitted in the stock for the drones and is played with the wrist, allowing the player to produce a limited but effective chordal accompaniment.

A final variant of the chanter is the two-piped chanter (confusingly also usually called a double chanter). Two separate chanters are designed to be played, one with each hand. When they are played, one chanter may provide a drone accompaniment to the other, or the two chanters may play in a harmony of thirds and sixths (as in the southern Italian zampogna), or the two chanters may be played in unison (as in most Arabic bagpipes).

Because of the accompanying drone, the lack of modulation in bagpipe melody, and stable timbre of the reed sound, in many bagpipe traditions the tones of the chanter are appropriately tuned using just intonation.


Most bagpipes have at least one drone. A drone is most commonly a cylindrical tube with a single reed, although drones with double reeds do exist. The drone is generally designed in two or more parts, with a sliding joint so that the pitch of the drone can be manipulated. Drones are traditionally made of wood, often a local hardwood, but also (particularly nowadays) from tropical hardwoods, such as rosewood, ebony, or African Blackwood. Some drones have a tuning bead, which effectively alters the length of the drone by opening a hole, allowing the drone to be tuned to two or more distinct pitches. The tuning bead may also shut off the drone altogether. In general, where there is one drone it is pitched two octaves below the tonic of the chanter, and further additions often add the octave below and then a drone consonant with the fifth of the chanter. This is, however, a very approximate rule of thumb.


The bagpiper, by Hendrik ter Brugghen
The bagpiper, by Hendrik ter Brugghen

There are dozens of types of bagpipes, each with a unique design, sound, and repertoire. Each has its own history: here we present an overview. Other articles have more information on the history of different types of bagpipes.

Ancient origins

Although the early history of the bagpipe is still unclear, it seems likely that the instrument was first developed in pre-Christian times in the area that is now known as Iran.[citation needed] It seems likely it was developed from an instrument similar to a hornpipe or shawm and coexisted with them. Indeed in several different piping traditions today the bagpipe is played alongside a shawm-like instrument, in Brittany, Italy, Catalonia, and Istria. Where or when a bag was first attached to one of these instruments is likely to remain a mystery. However, although the Aramaic word sum·pon·yah´ (סומפניה), appearing in Daniel 3:5, 10, and 15, has been translated "dulcimer" (a stringed instrument) and "symphony", modern Bible translations generally render the expression as "bagpipe." Koehler and Baumgartner's Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros gives the meaning "bagpipe" (Leiden 1958, p. 1103). The earliest secular reference to a bagpipe occurs around 400 BC, when Aristophones, the Athenian poet jibed that the pipers of Thebes (an enemy of Athens) blew pipes made of dogskin with chanters made of bone. Several hundred years later, Suetonius described the Roman Emperor Nero as a player of the tibia utricularis in Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Nero is reported to have said he would play the bagpipe in public as a penance for not winning a poetry contest.[citation needed] Dio Chrysostom who also flourished in the first century, wrote in Orationes about a contemporary sovereign, probably Nero, who could play a pipe ("aulein") with his mouth as well as with his "arm pit". From this account, it has been deduced that a true bagpipe was used- having a blowpipe, bag and a chanter (probably a double chanter since double pipes were used at this time). A coin of Nero depicts a bagpipe, according to the 1927 edition of Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. The Romans may have spread the pipes through the Roman Empire, but there is little evidence for this.

Spread and development

A detail from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch
A detail from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch

The Dark Ages have left us practically nothing regarding bagpipes or their position in societies. Prior to the 12th century, only a few Pictish and Irish stone carvings record the continued existence of bagpipes during this time.

When they were first introduced to the British Isles is debatable. Findings of statuettes of bagpipers in Roman era archaeological digs in England could indicate a diffusion of the bag technology from that vector. Ireland has references going back at least to the Middle Ages, as well as the stone carvings previously mentioned which date back to the 8th century. An explosion of popularity seems to have occurred from around the 12th century; the tune used by Robert Burns for "Scots Wha Hae", "Hey Tutti Taiti", is traditionally said to have been the tune played as Robert the Bruce's troops marched to the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. During the 12th century, Europe underwent a flourishing of art and culture as her horizons were being expanded with the crusades. The bagpipes were no exception, and many of Europe's unique bagpipes began to develop around this time.

Actual examples of bagpipes from before the 18th century are extremely rare; however, a substantial number of paintings, carvings, engravings, manuscript illuminations, and so on survive. They make it clear that bagpipes varied hugely from set to set. It seems likely that bagpipe makers at that time would have mostly been primarily woodworkers with an incomplete grasp of the art of pipemaking.

The role of the bagpipe would have varied naturally from place to place, but in Bulgaria it was said, "A wedding without a bagpipe is like a funeral," and in Britain they were a common adjunct to religious festivals. In Britain, pipers became part of the travelling minstrel class, acting as carriers of news, gossip and music around the country. In the Scottish Highlands, the pipers started to displace the harpers, the chief Celtic musicians since Roman times, round about the 16th century. In 1760, the first serious study of the Highland bagpipe and its music was attempted, in Joseph MacDonald's 'Compleat Theory'. Further south, we have a manuscript from the 1730's by a William Dixon from Northumberland. This contains music which fits the Border pipes, a nine-note bellows-blown bagpipe whose chanter is similar to that of the modern Great Highland Bagpipe; however the music is quite different, consisting mostly of extended variation sets of common dance tunes. Some of the tunes in the Dixon MS correspond to tunes found in early 19th century published and MS sources of Northumbrian smallpipe tunes, notably the rare book by of 50 tunes, many with variations, by John Peacock. The Northumbrian sources give a view of a separate and very distinct piping tradition from that of the Great Highland Pipes.

As Western classical music developed, both in terms of musical sophistication and instrumental technology, bagpipes in many regions fell out of favour due to their limited range and function. This triggered a long (but slow) decline which continued in many cases into the 20th century.

Recent history

With the growth of the British Empire, often spearheaded by Highland regiments of the British Army, the Great Highland Bagpipe was diffused and has become well-known world-wide. This surge in popularity, boosted by the huge numbers of pipers trained for the two World Wars in the 20th century, coincided with a decline in the popularity of many traditional forms of bagpipe throughout Europe, which began to be displaced by instruments from the classical tradition and later by gramophone and radio.

In the modern era the use of bagpipes has become a common tradition for military funerals and memorials in the anglophone world, and they are often used at the funerals of high-ranking civilian public officials as well. Weddings, dances and parties are also venues for piping, in fact any social event, that can be given a lift by the addition of this unique instrumental music.

In more recent years, often driven by revivals of native folk music and dance, many types of bagpipes have resurged in popularity, and in many cases instruments that were on the brink of extinction have become extremely popular. In Brittany, the concept of the pipe band was adopted, the Great Highland Bagpipe was brought in and the bagad was created, a showcase ensemble for Breton folk music. The pipe band idion has also been adopted in Spain where various types of band are popular.

In English-speaking regions, a bagpipe player is known as a "bagpiper" or "piper," and the surname Piper derives from the latter term. Other European surnames, such as Pfeiffer (German), Gaiteiro (Portuguese-Galician), Gaiteru (Asturian), Gaitero (Spanish), Gajdar (Czech), Dudás (Hungarian), Tsambounieris (Greek), Gaidarski (Bulgarian), Gaidar (Russian), Duda, and Dudziak (Polish)[1] may also signify that an ancestor was a player of the pipes.

In the late 20th century, various models of electronic bagpipes have been invented. The first custom-built MIDI bagpipes were developed by the Asturian piper José Ángel Hevia Velasco (generally known simply as Hevia).[2] Some models allow the player to select the sound of several different bagpipes as well as switch keys. As yet they are not widely used due to technical limitations, but they have found a useful niche as a practice instrument (particularly with headphones).

The Pitt Rivers Museum in England contains a collection of bagpipes from around the world, and the Museo de la Gaita in Gijón, Asturias, Spain, founded in 1965, features bagpipes from around the world.

Modern usage

Types of bagpipes

Main article: Types of bagpipes
St. Patrick's Day 2006, St. Paul, Minnesota, United States.
St. Patrick's Day 2006, St. Paul, Minnesota, United States.

Dozens of types of bagpipes today are widely spread across Europe and the Middle East, as well as through much of the former British Empire. The name bagpipe has almost become synonymous with its best-known form, the Great Highland Bagpipe related to the Great Irish Warpipes, overshadowing the great number and variety of traditional forms of bagpipe. Despite the decline of these other types of pipes over the last few centuries, in recent years many of these pipes have seen a resurgence or even revival as traditional musicians have sought them out; for example, the Irish piping tradition, which by the mid 20th century had declined to a handful of master players is today alive, well, and flourishing. A similar story can be told of the Galician, Northumbrian, Breton, and Bulgarian bagpipes, the Scottish smallpipes and Pastoral bagpipes, as well as other bagpipes.

Any estimate of the number of pipers playing today can only be a wild guess. However, in the Great Highland Bagpipe world, there are hundreds of pipe bands registered with pipe band associations world wide, mostly averaging ten or twelve pipers. There are many more pipers who do not play with bands. Estimates for the number of GHB players worldwide usually suggest a figure between ten and fifty thousand players worldwide. Numbers for other types of bagpipe are much smaller, but many have a substantial worldwide following, and there are many types of bagpipe who have full time makers, teachers, and professional players, supported by a large base of players.

Traditionally, one of the main purposes of the bagpipe in most traditions was to provide music for dancing. In most countries this has declined with the growth of professional dance bands, recordings, and the decline of traditional dance. In turn, this has led to many types of pipes developing a performance-led tradition, and indeed much modern music based on the dance music tradition played on bagpipes is no longer suitable for use as dance music.

Over the past thirty or so years, bagpipes have also made appearances in other forms of music, including rock, jazz, and classical music, notably with Paul McCartney's "Mull of Kintyre," the playing of Rufus Harley, and the Peter Maxwell Davies composition An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise.

The future

Bagpipes today are probably as popular as they have ever been in history; one Scottish maker produces forty sets of pipes per week for sale worldwide, and while this is high, it is indicative of the state of the market. Pipe band associations report continued growth and the number of commercial recordings of bagpipes continues to grow year on year.

Roderick Cannon, FSA (Scot.) comments: The highland chanter has been undergoing change, higher pitch, truer thirds and seemingly is moving toward a diatonic scale.(Cannon) One might envision the time when pipers use three chanters with different keys: one for piobaireachd, a second for competition and a third for concert (equal temperament) settings.

Publications about the bagpipe


  • Chanter, published by The Bagpipe Society
  • Common Stock, Journal of the Lowland and Borders Pipers Society
  • Piper and Drummer
  • The Piping Times (since 1948)
  • The Voice
  • Na Piobairi Uilleann publishes a magazine
  • The Northumbrian Pipers' Society publish a magazine
  • "Piping Today" produced by The National Piping Centre


  • The Book of the Bagpipe, Hugh Cheape
  • The Highland Bagpipe and its Music, Roderick D. Cannon
  • The Highland Pipe and Scottish Society 1750-1950, William Donaldson
  • Bagpipes, Anthony Baines, ISBN 0-902793-10-1, Book Rivers Museum, Univ. of Oxford, 3rd edition, 1995 147 pages with plates
  • Woodwind Instruments & Their History, Anthony Baines, ISBN 0-486-26885-3, Nov. 1991, Dover Pub., with Bagpipe plates
  • Highland Bagpipe Makers, Jeannie Campbell, Magnus Orr Publishing, 2001, ISBN 1-899780-02-5
  • The Bagpipe, The History of a Musical Instrument, Francis Collinson, 1975

See also

  • Types of bagpipes
  • List of bagpipers
  • List of pipe makers
  • Canntaireachd
  • Pìobaireachd
  • List of pipe bands
  • List of published bagpipe music
  • List of nontraditional bagpipe usage
  • List of bagpipe technology books
  • List of Composers who employed Pipe Music
  • Glossary of bagpipe terms
  • Associação Gaita-de-fole
  • Bagpipe Maintenance

External links

  • Bagpipe iconography - Paintings and images of the pipes.
  • The Universe of Bagpipes - 30 different examples of bagpipes from Sean Folsom's collection
  • History of the Highland Bagpipe
  • A video of a piper.


  • ^ Cannon, FSA (Scot.), Roderick D. (2002). The Highland Bagpipe and its Music, page 30. Edinburgh, Scotland: John Donald Publishers. ISBN 0-85976-549-0.
  • ^ Bailie, S.H. (1988). Piping and Drumming, An integrated Appoach, Volume I, page 32.. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland Piping and Drumming School of the Northern Ireland Branch of the Roual Scottish Pipe Band Association.
  • ^ Wark, Andrews, Kennedy, Macinnes, Duncan, Macallister, Young, Mcfie, Clark (1991). Structured Learning, A Complete Guide to Piping & Drumming Certification, Vol III, Section 3.7.1. Scotland: Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association..

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