Seeing bagpipe sound is believing…

All the sounds of the earth are like music.  

— Oscar Hammerstein II

Bagpipe sound depicted thru Water wave pic, Education Development Center negative, "Arons", #RT20, ca 1960.

Water waves depict bagpipe sound leaving drones.

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.

Bagpipe sound depiction thru Water wave pic, Education Development Center negative, "Arons", #RT55, ca 1960.

Water waves depict the bagpipe sound of two side-by-side pipe drones. Note the nodes and anti-nodes as the sound mixes in the open, smooths over distance outside of our constraining tubes.

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!


A Pipers Musical Voice – The Bagpipe Chanter!

Tyrone Heade, Piper

Tyrone Heade performing on Grandpa’s pipes, 1900 Lawrie drones & chanter, A=440 with Yakima Symphony, 2014.

Our voice – the Bagpipe Chanter

“The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Our Voice!

The bagpipe chanter is every piper’s musical voice.  Whether mouth-blown or bellows-blown.  Whether the pipes are Highland, Small, Reel-Border-Lowland, Uilleann, Northumberland, Galician — or so many others — our bagpipe chanter is our instruments’ voice.  And, as musicians – the bagpipe chanter is Our Voice.  It Speaks — to us, to our audience, to the music we play.  To the rest of our instrument, and to our purpose.

Our Rain!

The other “sticks” of our instruments matter greatly — and support our bagpipe chanter’s voice.  The best set up chanter/reed combinations can’t be heard without full-on, well maintained support by the rest of our instrument.

Our drones must be air-efficient, harmonic, blending; a sound you marvel at, appreciate, look forward to.  Rely on.  Blown into our personal perfection.  So, let’s get on-board with detail….

The Ripple!

The reeds in all of these are so Darn important.  Origin – selection – manipulation – efficiency.  All of which comes down to… Desire!  Meaty, gut wrenching, full throated – do anything to get a sound.  Anything.

Pipers, with the modicum of power I have – you’re henceforth given permission.  Do Anything to get a sound.  More precisely:  do anything to get Your Sound.  It’s all about you, what you hear in your head.  This, all of this, reflects you.  We all know – we play better if we sound better.

Pipers, I know you know this.  It’s crossed your minds – can I, should I, go to great lengths to get a sound?  Yes, yes and YES.  I’ve sat with pipers, the world acclaimed folks that we all look up to.  They will work on instruments after dinner until… whenever (multiple nights is common).

Our desire is there, but it’s best to plan ahead for practical matters.

  • We need a block of time;
  • Space to hear yourself think;
  • A large table and good lighting.

Help from Others

Bagpipe Chanter has the large silver sole (soul?) hallowing the bottom, next to David Glen drones, 1890.

Bagpipe Chanter with large silver sole (soul?) halos the bottom, next to David Glen drones, 1890.

Whether we’re shy on skills or heavy on experience — it’s wonderful and simply terrific to get another’s take on all this.  Bagpipe chanter, drones, reeds, tools, more reeds, blowpipes/bellows, position, posture, bags — all of it.  We best succeed by reaching out.  [For example, the Mastery of Scottish Arts Winter School — I’ve attended about 20 years, and helped to found it back in 1995 —]

Create an instrument you get to know as you moving forward.  Knowing your instrument is a great thing!

  • Is my Maintenance solid?  Air leaks (tenon, valve, reed seats, bridals, perfectly clean stocks?)
  • How long will my tuning last?
  • What’s the affect of letting the instrument rest?
  • Tune the instrument thoroughly, then rest it.  When you start up again, how long will it take for the instrument to come back into tune?
  • Can the instrument take rigorous play over days?  Solid for travel?
  • Balanced chanter?
  • How long does it take, including rest, for the instrument to settle?

We play better when we sound better.  Now, go off and Fitzgerald’s “exhilarating ripple”!

Cheers, kind regards,






Classical Bagpipe Music and Great Highland Bagpipes – an overview

Classical bagpipe music? Now that’s tricky business.  It’s spelled funny, pronounced strange.  Like other things Celtic, classical bagpipe music is connected to “story”, yes — but we’re not always sure which one, or which version of which one.  If you endeavor to perform the music, it’s not about the tale — it’s about your notes, and how, in each different composition, the notes relate differently.  For listeners, the title (which for you might frame a “story”) is all you might have to reflect on.  Complicating matters, the music is passed on orally, say since the 1500’s.

I’ve been playing the Classical music of the Highland bagpipe since 1991.  I’ve won competitions in performance of it, and I’m even writing one.  But that doesn’t mean I know it all; to some, I’ve only scratched the surface.


So let’s define some terms.  Classical bagpipe music — specific to the Great Highland bagpipe — is known as Piobaireachd, or the shorthand and much-easier spelled “pibroch”.  Brass tacks are the following…

  • Classical bagpipe music is based on a theme and variation structure (yes, there is a structure).
  • Tunes have histories of composition from the 16th – 21st centuries.
  • Timing is irregular — and based on a “pulse”.  Consider here that the Great Highland bagpipe (and associated bellows pipes, meaning Small pipes and Reel pipes) have a continuous sound.  Notes are not broken by silence, so the “pulse” is created by exaggerating or denigrating bagpipe chanter note length, as our melody notes harmonize with our unyielding drone sound.
  • The music is learned by singing, not by reading the staff.  The continuous sound of pipe’s can’t be reflected by the math of staff notation (which is why we had our own language to represent the notes of the sung music, teacher to student; staff presentation began after 1780, inconsistent presentation wasn’t widespread until 1900).
  • The official site for all classical bagpipe music matters is the Piobaireachd Society’s website.  Sign up and be member (I am!).
  • Tunes may feel slower, but are not supposed to drag!  There should be consistent shape, movement and flow to the music expression.


Whether you’re a listener — or player — a visual analogy to classical bagpipe music (hopefully close to coherent) might be Celtic Knot design.  Lines and curves flow somewhat regularly – and yet irregularly.  The lines and curves “pulse” as they fit into and define their own “ordered space”, defining the viewed design.  There is shape, yet you can see that things can go on forever.

Consider that generations down the line have added sketches to the Original Celtic Knot work.  So original themes were added to and perhaps altered in this oral tradition, but not written until decades later.  More variations, more complexity comes into vogue to enhance the initial Theme.  Slow tempos favored, faster pulses preferred, interpretations reexamined, and interpretations lost to time — a bit of humanity gets thrown in.

An experienced piper working toward learning and performing this means even more tricky business — how the tune has been approached through time, what pipers played things how, where the printed score is incorrect, and which corrections are accepted.

Thanks for reading, and hope this is helpful.  More on the structure and categories of Classical bagpipe music, or Piobaireachd, soon!

Cheers to you,

Tyrone Heade