What can and cannot be played on the bagpipe?

A wide variety of tunes can be played on the bagpipe - but many cannot. The bagpipe has nine notes. It is not by design a chromatic instrument, but some players can force a couple additional sharps flats if they are very skilled. The bagpipe is set up to play in three pentatonic modes each with a major and minor key. Yes, this IS confusing.

While there have been attempts to add additional sharps and flats to the bagpipe chanter's capability, the issue is that these notes do not resonate well (i.e., they CLASH!) with the drones.

There have been thousands of tunes written for the pipes and hundreds adapted. I've played tunes from McCrimmon to Purcell to Bach to Handel to Wagner to McCartney to Bing Crosby ... Well, you get the point.

If you have any questions at all about a specific tune, it's best to ask the piper. Sometimes a tune not intended for the bagpipe can be "folded" or "bent" to fit the capabilities of the instrument. If, however, it gets to the point where a tune must be "spindled" or "mutilated", most pipers won't play the tune. (Note: I offer my apologies to those who've never had the "opportunity" to use computer punch cards as that's where the terms above come from!)

One frustrating aspect of modern movies are that they show an actor with a set of highland pipes and the soundtrack plays a smallpipe with a larger or more chromatic musical range. This can lead to a disappointed patron when you explain that the "Dragon's Lullaby"  (from Dragon World) or the "Outlawed tunes on an Outlawed Pipe" (from Braveheart) can't be played on your pipe.  (In both these cases, the music comes from Uilleann pipes and not Great Highland Bagpipes.)

An even more frustrating issue surfaced when I was asked to recreate a piece where a synthesized chromatic bagpipe was part of the original score ("The Call").  The piece had a large range and was (very oddly) chromatic.  Eventually, an oboe was used...

If you have a specific tune in mind, I'd be happy to evaluate the tune to see if can be "fit" onto the bagpipe. Please contact me for more information on this subject.

Copyright S.K. MacLeod 1996-2016