All the sounds of the earth are like music.
— Oscar Hammerstein II
Bagpipe Sound is a curious thing. Bagpipes visually represent a ‘bouquet of sound’ — Blackwood or Ebony hollow tubes displaying sound all around, pushing it into the world. And more tubes of wood mean even more sound, making things even More Curious.
The sound of Highland pipes and Small pipes involve four reeds: one each sounding the three drones, and one for the melody chanter (see the picture of my Glenn drones and chanter). Same for Northumbrian pipes. A Full Set of Uilleann, or Irish pipes, may have as many as eight reeds – a two-plus octave chanter, three drones, four regulators (keyed drones that play a wide array of combined harmony — Uilleann Full Sets are something else entirely).
On all these pipes, one thing is constant: the reeds are individuals. Nothing identical between. They could be made by the same maker, be the exact same size, manufactured to an exquisitely high tolerance of microns. But they are not twins or triplets (nor octuplets, as in the Uilleann example).
But they don’t have to be. They do have to thrive in the tubes they live in — so their ‘bagpipe sound’ moves into the outside world with a refined result. And the tubes, be it a drones or chanter, need to guide the sound through carefully created holes. Gently sculpted, intricately fashioned, well maintained by their musician-owners.
Add that we don’t have silence in our bagpipe sound with either drones or melody, at least with Highland pipes or Small pipes. Timbre and instrument character need to be pleasant, as it’s a constant sound, with no respite for the audience or musician. Bagpipe musical expression needs extra accounting for it’s constant and unrelenting nature. Indeed, staff notation in bagpiping is fairly false — it assumes silence during the melody (the reason Highland piping began with sung/written syllabic language in the 1500’s, instead of our staff invention created thru a notation competition in the 1780’s). As such, singing to learn the music is critical for pipers, and previous choral work is an advantage for learners.
And so it goes, as nature (with some nurture) takes care of the curious, warm, sonorous sound that we pipers work to enjoy, as both musicians and listeners. Getting as much as we can with our sound as it enters the World.
Now, On with the Show!
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