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Until this morning I was under the impression that the bagpipe is a D♭ transposing instrument, thus a written C would sound like a D♭, a written A would sound like a B♭, etc.

Now I see (check the fourth and fifth paragraphs) that the A of a bagpipe is tuned to anywhere from about 466 Hz all the way up to 480 Hz, both of which are actually B♭; and a very sharp B♭ at that. (Depending on how high the frequency is, it actually begins to approach B natural!)

This latter issue seems to suggest that the bagpipe is not a transposing instrument, it just uses a pitch reference that's anywhere from one to one-and-a-half semitones too high.

So is the bagpipe a transposing instrument or not?

Note that I'm not asking what a transposing instrument is, or why we have them. Rather, I'm trying to determine the notational standard for the bagpipe.

  • 2
    Aren't there several kinds of bagpipes? There might not be only one answer to this. – Todd Wilcox Apr 21 '17 at 21:53
  • 1
    Either way it sounds terrible. – Neil Meyer Apr 22 '17 at 8:28
  • @NeilMeyer Actually, they are like garlic. A little bit sounds terrible, but a lot is much better. Go to a big piping contest in Scotland, and you will have the sound of pipes continuously (literally!) for a full 8 or 10 hour day - and finishing with a massed band performance of a few hundred playing together. Leaving the competition venue won't provide any escape - the entire town will be full of pipers practising! – user19146 Apr 22 '17 at 15:59
  • You must have heard 'what do you call a set of bagpipes at the bottom of the sea?' - a good start... – Tim Apr 22 '17 at 16:14
  • "The bagpipe is a D♭ transposing instrument," - that was also the case for the original (19-century) wind band piccolo, which was in D flat. This was also occasionally used in orchestras - e.g. the piccolo solo in Tchaik's 4th symphony (in F minor) was easier to play on a Db piccolo than a modern C instrument. The same is true for the solo in Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" march. – user19146 Apr 22 '17 at 16:15
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I assume you are talking about the (Scottish) Great Highland Bagpipe.

This needs a history lesson to understand the situation.

The Great Highland pipes were were originally a solo instrument, so the exact pitch wasn't important. The instrument was monophonic (plus the drones, of course) and standard temperament was far from "equal." Some notes that were nominally an octave apart were as much as a quarter tone different from a perfect octave. The usual pitch was somewhat sharper than A=440, but did not correspond to any "classical" pitch standard. Staff notation was not used at all - the "notation" was based on a oral system that represented both pitch and rhythm.

The original Pipe Bands used the same basic instrument. Again, the absolute pitch was not important, so long as all the instruments in a particular band were in tune with each other.

Small adjustments in the pitch and temperament of the chanter are possible, but time-consuming (some adjustments involve changing the diameter of the finger holes!) though the tuning is stable once it has been set up.

Tuning the drones to the chanter and to each other is as straightforward in principle as tuning a guitar, and needs regular attention if the temperature or humidity changes - though some pipers seem reluctant to attempt it!

But when the Scottish military wanted to combine bagpipes and wind/brass bands, they changed not only the pitch standard, but also the intonation of the pipes to match equal temperament. The notation is basically a diatonic scale of D major, but written without a key signature or accidentals, because the traditional playing technique of the instrument did not include any cross-fingerings for chromatic notes. (Alternatively, you can consider the basic scale as A mixolydian, of course). But when used with military bands, the sounding pitch of the instrument was B flat mixolydian, since most of the band instruments are in B flat or E flat.

Since the Scottish regiments provide paid employment for pipers and is thus a natural career path for top-class players, the "regimental" style of pipes have become more or less standard for all types of pipe music, and the introduction of equal temperament has also added new features into pipe band music, such as simple two-part harmony arrangements.

Staff notation in D or A, rather than B flat, has the advantage that the most common note in the many ornaments in bagpipe music (which are essential to create rhythmic articulation, since the tone is continuous) which is a written G in the space above the staff, doesn't require a leger line - though the highest note of the instrument is actually written A.

  • Another reason for the staff notation in D was the crossover between fiddle tunes and pipe tunes. With the standard tuning, D or A are more "fiddle-friendly" keys than B flat, because of the open strings (G-D-A-E), and tuning a fiddle a semitone sharp to match the pipes is not a big deal. – user19146 Apr 22 '17 at 16:04
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The nearest you'll find to a standard is this. Write the tune in D. I don't mean transposed into D, but actually IN D. Two sharps. That's the only scale it has, and you only get 9 notes, G below middle C to A above. You can leave the key signature out if you like, you'll still get F# and C#.

When the player reads D, you'll hear (sort of) Eb.

That's the Highland Pipes. There are other kinds.

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All the bagpipes I've ever played with, at gigs, have been close to Bb.Close, but never spot on. I should say bagpipers - I don't play. Never seen any of them use dots, though, but it would seem that they play notes from Bb Mixolydian. It appears that with several bagpipes playing together, the drones get tuned, for the three accompanying notes, but not the chanter, the pipe that the actual tune is played on. Hence there is that well-known slight-out-of-tuneness to it all.

EDIT: Having given more consideration to the question, and with regard to my statement of believing the notes are from Bb mixolydian, that puts the open key for bagpipes as Eb. Well as close as one can get, anyway. so that should make them a transposing instrument using the same charts as an alto sax might use.

1

This suggests that some, at least, are in Bb.

Bagpipe concerto by Kevin Weed

I don't know the piece I just found it with a search.

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