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The Language of Bagpipe Music


Music is the greatest communication in the world. Even if people don’t understand the language that you’re singing in, they still know good music when they hear it.   Lou Rawls

Humans have been talking for, well, for a long time.  But we haven’t always talked – something we tend to forget about.  My guess is we started with a rhythm and gesture combo to communicate.  Vocal “music” (again with rhythm) couldn’t have been far behind.  I’ve always felt our musical memory predates our words.  Learning language with song is remarkably easier than learning language without.  And the bagpipe’s Mixolydian musical scale is incredibly ancient, the same scale produced small whistles made of bone by ancient man.

The conversation about language and bagpipe music has some improbably dramatic bits to it.  For example, the human voice interferes precisely with, and gets amplified, by the tonal quality of bagpipes.  Piping instructors, at least since the 1500’s, have sung to their students as the student plays — taking advantage of the human voice being elevated by the drone and chanter sound of the pipe.  The more resonate the bagpipe, the more in tune, the easier to hear a human voice nearby.  [As it happens, this coincident interference with voice and bagpipe means indoor piping audiences shouldn’t talk; the volume of the instrument magnifies and carries voice to every corner of the room.  You may think the volume of the instrument drowns you out, though it’s the opposite.]

So it is that voices carry the day regarding bagpipe music.  Students learn the music through singing, teachers teach it by singing, in many ways like other instruments.   Less well known is a representational written and sung language developed centuries ago to communicate and represent written ancient bagpipe music on the page, before bagpipe music was developed into staff notation.

The ancient music of the Highland bagpipe is called Piobaireachd, or pibroch.  It’s written/sung representational language is Canntaireachd, as in the Campbell Canntaireachd or the Nether Lorn Canntaireachd.  Piobaireachd is one of my specialties; it’s moderately slow moving, but it’s not a dirge.  Some pibroch’s are pretty fast moving, and have a structure of variations-on-a-theme (they are not Airs).  For lots of detail, please take advantage of The Piobaireachd Society or the Alt Pibroch Club.

Seattle Bagpipe Music, the new year — Make your Bagpipe Performance Presentation even Better!

A possible bagpipe performance audience in the '60's.

Seattle Bagpipers, ready for a New Year of making the best thing even better?  Let’s improve our Bagpipe music performance presentation for 2018….

“The Best thing to happen to us was This Job, because This Job has us doing the one thing we never did in our lives: Practice.”

–QuestLove, percussionist Grammy-award winner and joint lead for The Roots, aka America’s House Band, referring to being hired for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy FallonQuestLove was the Executive Producer for the Grammy Award winning Original Cast recording of Hamilton.

Bagpipers, ready to improve your audience-centered performances for 2018?  Get up on things by thoughtfully improving your Practice, Rehearsals and Instrument presentation.

  • How well do you know your instrument?  Reliability, ease of play, finesse in presentation?  Solve it all, before 2018 gets away from you.
  • What is your process for refining Technique?  We play the smallest notes in all of music; get involved with evolving to a high standard.
  • We’re also an instrument that requires practicing on another device, the Practice Chanter.  Make good use of that lately?

Consider the following, and begin to set some goals…

  • Are you musically “out of control” on your Practice Chanter, Highland Bagpipe, or Small pipe?  Start with a plan to be in control of all your music.  Every note has purpose, the smallest, the largest.
  • If your first notes on the chanter are “out of control”, change that.  Change your first notes, make them supremely under control — and you’ll get used to changing them all down the line.
  • Fingers asleep on the holes, Right?  Leave the gripping to folks that don’t want to play well.
  • Is your instrument too difficult to rehearse on comfortably?  Pipes that are not efficient, taking too much air or not geometrically adjusted personally for the player are often the Root cause of unsteady tone, hands not in supreme control of the musical timing, or other Performance Presentation issues.

Pipers, it’s 2018 — continually change your approach, and the Sweet Music will follow in kind.


Seattle Funeral Bagpipe, helping families say Goodbye

Let’s talk about providing Seattle funeral bagpipe music and musicianship.

Music is what feelings sound like.  – Bo Bennett

Seattle Funeral Bagpipe location

WSDOT Ferry, Photo by Grant Haller, 1976

Go ahead and read this quote again.  It reminds musicians about their job, and our patrons why they have us.

For Seattle funeral bagpipe musicians, the unseen work on bagpiping is important.  Proper practice, instrument maintenance, learning and memorizing complicated music, instructing others on the art of piping or being instructed ourselves.  It all adds up to excellent musicianship on a complicated instrument.  Our music must be played ESPECIALLY well, sans distraction, played expertly and seemingly effortlessly.  We’re called to an extra-special task:  to help others move forward.

Ready to Pipe Well Anywhere

Our music, well played, helps folks come to terms.  Memorials, funerals, inurnments, internments.  In parks, cemeteries, beaches, mausoleums, columbarium’s, cathedrals, churches and chapels.  On ferries, lake fronts, islands, on peaks and in valleys.  We need to know what to play (and play it at our best!).  Selections of different ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs (or an absence of belief).  It all adds up to moving the family forward through great music, without any instrument distraction.  With kindness, without distraction, and skill to move everyone forward.  Bagpipes for outdoors, different pipes for inside.

Seattle Funeral Bagpipe musician Tyrone Heade

Sodelbia’s service, Grants Pass Oregon

Piping is Always Personal

I grew up playing my Grandad’s pipe; he passed when I was a toddler (the family is pretty sure he’s heard me since).  My grandmother passed suddenly years later, unfortunately just after I had surgery – so no piping that time either.

One of their daughters passed this summer, and requested the family instrument in Grants Pass, Oregon.  Grandad’s set of ca 1900 Lawrie’s needed to be up and running right away.  No flaws.

For a Yakima Symphony performance in 2014, I set Grandpa’s pipes to Concert Pitch (no crossing international borders with their ivory anymore).  So a good going thru, normal-pitch reeds replaced.  Set up a modern Strathmore bagpipe chanter set to blend with the ultra smooth, velvet sound of the early Lawrie drones.  Even put back the original Bass Drone bottom section I replaced in 1992, making them a tad tricky to start; but What a Glorious Sound!

I tuned them on Monday, probably 76 degrees in Seattle.  Tuesday drove to deep Southern Oregon, with Grandpa’s pipes along with Great Small pipes for inside the church.  The Funeral Mass and internment was Wednesday, 113 degrees.  The pipes never moved from Monday’s Seattle tuning.  Not a smidge.  Marched her into the church, marched her out; into the internment, and then after the family spoke.  No change from Seattle tuning, two days, 37 degrees and 500 miles difference.

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


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