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I’ve always loved the skirl of the uilleann pipes ever since I first heard it used in the James Horner’s Titanic OST as a kid. I don’t know much of anything about the instrument (or bagpipes generally) yet, but I have one particular question:

Something I’ve noticed in uilleann pipes music is the lowest note of the chanter, a D, usually sounds distinctly louder than the higher notes. A good example of this is in this track from the aforementioned Titanic OST (note the harsh D at the 8-second mark).

I’m an amateur composer and I use lots of sampled sound libraries, and of the uilleann pipes patches I have, one (from ProjectSAM’s Symphobia 2) has that distinct louder lower D tone, whilst the others (EastWest’s Ra, Cinesamples’s CineWinds, and Native Instruments’s Kontakt 5 Factory Library) have a lower D that isn’t notably different in loudness or tone than the other notes.

So this is my question: Is the uilleann pipes’ lower D meant to sound distinctly louder than the other notes when played by a human, or does that depend on technique or something? I’d really appreciate it if someone could explain it.

  • It's a guess but I wonder if the player is using the chanter for most of the melody but a drone to reach the low D. One of the reasons I have for believing this is that the D doesn't stop immediately but continues to play underneath the following notes. Have a look at this link for an explanation of drones and chanters en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uilleann_pipes – chasly - supports Monica May 9 '19 at 14:12
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The volume and tone of uilleann bottom D is certainly a function of being played "off the knee," but perhaps more significantly, it is a function of which bottom D technique the piper chooses to play:

  • Soft bottom D
  • Hard bottom D

Both are played with the chanter lifted, as the sound passes through the bottom hole. However, it is arguably more than a stylistic difference, insofar as the fundamental pitch of these two notes can differ by as much as a quarter-tone or more.

At a normal bag pressure simply lifting the chanter would produce soft bottom D. This is typically somewhat flat of concert D, usually by some fraction of a semitone. If your drones, regulators, tone holes, etc. are tuned to a concert pitch, then depending on the set, a soft bottom D in the context of a tune can sound jarring and outright wrong.

Hard bottom D is played by increasing the pressure used to play the note a little bit. When the chanter is lifted, you then quickly play an A grace note and then seal it. (This is called a "cut.") If the pressure is sufficient and the cut fast enough the chanter will actually begin to sound a noticeably different sound, which has some almost foghorn-like overtones. This is what you noticed in the Titanic OST. Hard bottom D is an iconic uilleann sound and it is typically more in tune with concert D.

For this reason many pipers will choose to play hard bottom D exclusively, to sound the most in tune, most of the time. As the lowest and in some ways loudest note on the pipes, hard low D is often used as a percussive tool. It can really break up phrases in jigs and reels, and can be cut or otherwise modified with almost any gracenote to great rhythmic effect.

I should add that hard bottom D is also in some sense harder to play. Without focusing on maintaining correct hard D bag pressure, it is easy for a hard D to fall back into a soft bottom D, which can sound very jarring as the flattening of the note will be marked. There's a wide range of pressures that will produce a soft bottom D, but only a narrow band of pressure space that will create a correct hard bottom D without any squeals. Staying in this pocket takes practice.

There are more advanced techniques with uilleann pipes where "bursts" of volume of this sort can be managed, together with lifting or lowering the chanter, to create various effects. For a list of such techniques, check out https://www.uilleannobsession.com/faq.html#cut

For more on the harmonics of hard vs soft bottom D, check out this excellent summary: http://blog.robertrueger.de/?p=157

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  • Another great answer that’s totally different from the others! The thorough explanation and the links you provided seem most definitive though. Thanks! – Walter Apr 8 at 8:14
  • I should also add, there's a "hard E" too! It's fingered slightly differently from a regular E, and has the same pressure jump, and it produces a louder, more "aggressive" E! – msolters Apr 8 at 19:17
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It's a stylistic thing, because many players favour having a really strong solid low D note for emphasising rhythm, and making their ornamentation really 'pop' with that strong low note.

In a classic 'chicken and egg' situation some instrument builders are biasing their chanters to make the hard low D easier to play, which will then increase the prevalance of that as a stylistic device.

Classic players like Willy Clancy and Liam O'Flynn used the hard low D in their ornamentation; it's also a desirable quality for many Irish music players in a flute as well, possibly because that emulates the pipes.

If the sample patch set you're using don't have the lower D louder you'll need to be careful not to overdo it, so again it's a question of listening to good players. Or, if you've got 21 years to spare, why not just learn to play the pipes for real instead? 'Seven years learning, seven years practicing, and seven years playing' is the old saying ...

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  • Thanks for the answer! So to be crystal, the lower D being played more loudly is just a player’s preference thing? Are players actually taught to play that note more sharply? Also, if written out, does the composer just add an accent (>) to that note, or otherwise indicate to play it with emphasis? – Walter May 9 '19 at 14:23
  • Yes, it is a preference, but players are taught that a striong low note is part of the style. In the uilleann pipes' natural environment of Irish traditional music the music isn't written out in that level of performance detail (if at all, it being very much an aural tradition). For film scores etc. I cannot comment on whether that would be specified by the composer, or how it would be indicated in a score. – Steve Mansfield May 13 '19 at 11:49
  • All right, thank you for the clarification. – Walter May 13 '19 at 15:08
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The bottom D is different from every other note, because the hole at the end of the pipe must be open (and it is the only open hole).

That means that the bottom D has a different tone colour from the rest of the notes, as well as being louder.

For all the other notes, the end hole is covered by pressing the pipe against the player's leg, so that covering all the finger holes produces silence.

This is different from the highland pipes, where the end hole is always open and the large difference in tone colour doesn't occur.

See this tutorial at about 4 minutes from the start:

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  • Huh. That’s a completely different answer than the above, yet the video is pretty persuasive. Thanks for posting this! – Walter Dec 23 '19 at 2:05

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