What musical key does the bagpipe play in?

This is a very confusing point for many people. It's sad to say that many amateur musicians (read "most pipers"!) do not know the difference between the tuning pitch and the key. Terrible mistakes can result from this misunderstanding. It's generally only an issue when bagpipers try to play with guitars, organs, orchestras or other bands.

I know of pipers who've told orchestras that they'd be happy to play Amazing Grace in B-flat with the orchestra. I know of people with smallpipes tuned to concert A and told folk musicians that they'll play Amazing Grace in A. This can lead to very embarrassing situations and can potentially ruin a musical program. Please read on to find out why this DOESN'T WORK.

For the benefit of all, it must be known that the key of the instrument is not necessarily the pitch to which it is tuned.

The low A on the modern chanter of great highland bagpipe (and the drones) are commonly tuned to above concert B flat, which is 466.16 Hz. With the application of some tape and a bit of adjustment of the reeds, the instrument can be adjusted such that low A on the chanter (and the drones) vibrate at 466.16 Hz. This is a concert B-flat tuning of the instrument, but it is not necessarily the key.

(Please note that most bagpipes today tune at 476 to 480 Hz!  This is roughly halfway between B-flat and B.  Setting up a concert B-flat bagpipe can be challenging.  Setting up a concert A pitch instrument is difficult.)

Musical "key" is defined in the Harvard Brief Dictionary of Music as "something like "tonal center" or "main note" of a composition and, by extension, all of the notes related to the central note and forming the tonal material for the composition."

As an example, a B-flat clarinet sounds 466.16 Hz when it plays a C. This is defined as a B-flat instrument. However, since it is a chromatic instrument, which can play all sharps and flats, and has a wide range, almost four octaves, it is capable of playing most pieces in any key. That is to say that it can start any tune on any note and play appropriate intervals to play the tune.

The bagpipe is much more limited. Because it is not a chromatic instrument, the music is generally written without sharps, although C sharp and F sharp implied. Because of the lack of chromatics and the limited range of an octave plus one note, tunes usually only sound decent in one arrangement on the bagpipe. For example, Amazing Grace must start with pipes playing the notes Low A ("Ah"), D ("a-maz"), F(#)ED ("zing") and then F(#) ("grace") or the tune cannot be played. Hence the bagpipe can only play Amazing Grace in one key.

So what key is this? The easiest way (and generally correct) to find out what key your tune is in is to determine upon which note the tune ends. This is generally the "resolution" of the tune and will commonly be the tonic of the key. Since, the note called low A on the great highland bagpipe tunes close to concert B flat, let's assume that the piper adjusts the tuning (with tape, sealing way, dowels, baling wire and other stuff) to become pitched to "true" concert B flat. Now Amazing Grace ends on a D on the chanter. For a chanter tuned such that when an A is sounded it comes out at 466.16 Hz, the note fingered as a D is pitched concert E flat. In communicating with other musicians, they should be told that Amazing Grace will be played in E flat.

(Note: NEVER try playing with others without actually tuning the instrument. (i.e - such that Low A to concert B Flat) I've had to endure such a fiasco on Amazing Grace and it wasn't pretty.)

Thus, we can see that the actual key depends upon the instrument and the tune. The bagpipe can regularly play in any of three keys. The scale contains essentially a sharp C and a sharp F. Tunes can be resolved to play in the following keys:

Resolved Note
(generally written note at end of tune)
Primary Notes in Tune (tonic/third/fifth in bold) Examples Concert Key for GHB tuned to B-flat Concert Key for Smallpipes (or GBH) tuned to A Concert Key for Smallpipes tuned to D
D D,E,F(#),G,A,B,C(#),D Amazing Grace, Highland Cathedral, Irish Washerwoman, Auld Lang Syne E Flat Major D Major G Major
A A,B,C(#),D,E,F(#),G,A Scotland the Brave, Irish Washerwoman, Auld Lang Syne B Flat Major A Major D Major
G (rare) G,A,B,C(#),D,E,F(#),G ??? A Flat Major G Major C Major
E E,F(#),G,A,B,C(#),D,E The Little Cascade F Minor E minor A Minor
B B,C(#),D,E,F(#),G,A,B Mist Covered Mountains C Minor B Minor E Minor

Most amateur folk musicians don't like to play in B Flat and E Flat. Consequently the more popular folk instrument accompaniment are smallpipes tuned to A or D. This puts Amazing Grace in D or G, respectively. Smallpipes in D are generally more popular than A as they are easier to play and to sing along with!

(Note that there are arrangements of Irish Washerwoman and Auld Lang Syne can be played in more than one key on any bagpipe. The melody gets "folded" (and sometimes a bit spindled and mutilated!), but it can work. Most tunes don't work well in their unintended keys.)

So what concert pitch are you playing when you finger a note? In the table below, find your instrument across the top and what note your are fingering on the left. The intersection of the rows and columns corresponds approximately to the "concert pitch" that you are playing.

Note being fingered below GHB tuned to B-flat Smallpipes (or GBH) tuned to A Smallpipes tuned to D
Low G A-flat G C
Low A B-flat A D
C (a.k.a. C-sharp) D C-sharp F-sharp
D E-flat D G
F (a.k.a. F-sharp) G F-sharp B
High G somewhere between A-flat and A between G and G-sharp between C and C-sharp
High A B-flat A D

(Note: Since concert pitch is "even tempered" and the bagpipe is "just tempered", the agreemnt to concert pitch approximate. To learn more about how far "off" you'll be, go to Can I use a tuner for intonation on my chanter?)

Finally, three additional notes (pun intended!) which will expanded to their own section in the future!:

Please note that the pentatonic mode is notes 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 8 (i.e., do, re, mi, so, la, do) in any major scale. Any and all these notes are prominent in many "Celtic" tunes.

The sharp-eyed, knowledgeable reader will note that there is a G# missing in some of these scales. Bagpipe staff notation contains only two sharps - if any at all are noted. The reason is that the tuning of High G is an issue in that the pitch doesn't quite conform to a convenient category in Western music. It's typically tuned higher and G and lower than G#. Seamus MacNeill (Classical Music of the Highland Bagpipe, 1968, BBC) suggests that the proper pitch of this note is intended to maximize the number of pentatonic modes that can be played on the instrument. He goes on to say that the interval is known as a "limma" and occurs in the Phrygian scale of ancient Greek music. As a result, some tunes can sound a bit, well, ..odd to those used to western intervals... on high G (e.g. Going Home). To make matters worse, I've not read any text that deals with the tuning of the piobaireachd high G, and, given his predilection for piobaireachd, I'm not completely sure which high G Seamus was referring to!

In various texts, the scale of the bagpipe is described as being in a mixolydian mode. This mode is derived by playing only the white keys on a keyboard and starting at G and would result in a major scale with a flatted seventh (i.e. F, not F# in the G scale). This suggests that the bagpipe scale (presumably starting on Low A) has intervals equivalent to a major scale with a flatted seventh . Maybe it's close enough. However, because of the tuning issue regarding high G, this is close, but not quite right. Seamus MacNeill (ibid) suggests that, because there are tuning issues with both G and D (which I didn't mention above!), the bagpipe scale should be called a major scale with an augmented fourth and a diminished seventh. Professor Yamane (who studied this problem while developing the Korg AT-2 Tuner) suggest that the fourth should not be augmented.

(Subnote: I'm working on some MIDI based scales for comparison so that you can hear them if you have a soundcard. )

Copyright S.K. MacLeod 1996-2016