Andrew McNabb

Introduction to Bagpipe Music

How to Appreciate the Great Highland Bagpipe

A stand of Naill bagpipes

Any complex style of music requires understanding to be fully appreciated. Many people find classical music boring. They only listen for the melody, so they completely miss the variety of instruments and the interactions between parts. In contrast, a person who can recognize and listen to multiple parts finds that doing so brings out the beauty of the music. Similarly, someone who is familiar with the range of a trumpet is amazed when a skilled musician plays octaves higher than seems humanly possible, while other people simply enjoy the tune.

Bagpipe music is enough different from most standard western music that even trained musicians generally fail to fully appreciate it. Familiarity with the instrument and its art is what turns a loud noise into music.

Design of the Instrument

Bagpipe diagram courtesy of Kevin Auld

The bagpipe gets its name from its bag and its pipes. The three big pipes are called drones: the largest is the bass drone and the smaller two are tenor drones. The pipe with the holes is the chanter and the shortest pipe is the blowpipe. All of the pipes are attached to the leather bag, which is enclosed within a decorative bag cover.

With that basic terminology, we can look at how the instrument works. The bag is filled through the blowpipe, which has a one-way valve to prevent leakage. Air from the bag flows through the chanter and the drones, creating sound as it passes through the reeds. Every few seconds the piper refills the bag through the blowpipe.

The melody is produced entirely by the chanter, which has a powerful double reed. The chanter can play nine notes, ranging from low G to high A. It plays in the mixolydian mode, a fancy term meaning that its scale is the same as a normal major scale with the seventh note flattened by a half step. The tonic (base note of the scale) is A. Be aware that A is just the name of the note. The instrument has grown sharper over the years so that the A on most modern chanters is in the area of a concert B-flat (sometimes even slightly sharper). People with perfect pitch just have to get over it. Even more confusingly, the C-sharp and F-sharp are always called C and F respectively. There's no ambiguity since the bagpipe doesn't play a C-natural or F-natural, so those who are pedantic about terminology will just have to get over that, too.

The three drones use single reeds to play constant notes, with the tenor drones both playing one octave above the bass drone. The tenor drone plays the low A of the chanter and the bass drone is an A an octave lower. The drone notes harmonize with the melody notes played on the chanter in a similar manner to pedal tones in organ music. Since the chanter uses just intonation, every note on the chanter is guaranteed to sound good against a properly-tuned set of drones. Incidentally, this is the reason that the bagpipe uses a scale with the seventh note of the scale flattened by half a step. If it were to use a standard A-major scale, the G would be a half-step away from the drones, which would create dissonance.

Listening to Grace Notes and Timing

The volume of the bagpipe is steady, and the instrument plays constantly, so musical expression in bagpipe music does not involve dynamics (changes in volume) or pauses between notes. Instead, bagpipers show expression with grace notes and timing.

A grace note is a short which isn't part of the melody and doesn't officially take up any time. On the bagpipe, grace notes are most frequently used to emphasize important notes. They are also used to separate a single note played two or more times in a row (much like tonguing with most wind instruments). When more emphasis is desired, the bagpiper plays a movement, or series of grace notes. Most movements are three or four grace notes, but some are seven or more.

In the most expressive type of bagpipe music (piobaireachd), timing is impossible to write down. Even in light music, which is much more common, written timings don't exactly represent what is played. Since volume is constant, "loud" notes are often held slightly longer than other notes.

Most casual listeners of the bagpipe have no awareness of grace notes. The casual bagpipe lover enjoys the overall sound of the instrument but can't tell the difference between a world-class piper and mediocre one. The casual bagpipe hater dislikes the overall "harsh" sound of the instrument and "doesn't hear any music." When someone learns to listen to grace notes, they remove themselves from these categories. They quickly learn to differentiate between talent and the lack thereof. Whether or not the bagpipe becomes their favorite instrument, they know what they're listening to. The understanding of grace notes grants a person the basic ability to speak coherently about the instrument.

An Example: Donella Beaton

Donella Beaton is a jig, a type of dance. It's in 6/8 time and is played at a quick tempo of about 120 (each measure takes about one second). The following is the written music to the third part:

If this song were written for another instrument, each eighth note would have a stocatto mark, and the first note of each triplet would be accented. On the bagpipe, the single grace notes punctuate the melody notes, and the first note of each triplet is held slightly longer than the others.

Listen to the third part of Donella Beaton (played through one time) at normal tempo, 25% faster, and half speed. Listen for the grace notes, which sound a little like chirping. The recording is of Jack Lee playing at the Piping Centre.

Light Music

Light music is the more modern and common branch of bagpipe music. It consists marches, airs, and dances. Light music can be played by a soloist, a small ensemble, or a band. I personally prefer to listen to soloists, although I have also heard amazing performances by ensembles and bands.

On average, pipe bands have about a dozen pipers and three or four drummers. They commonly play in parades, competitions, and other events.

Soloists often play slightly more difficult music and arrangements than bands, and since tuning and fingering on a single set of bagpipes is a lot easier than on a dozen, they tend to have a more refined sound.

Whether in the context of a band or a soloist, any particular tune will generally be one of the following types:

2/4 March, 4/4 March, or 6/8 March
Slow Air or Retreat
Strathspey, Reel, Hornpipe, or Jig

Each of these types has a distinctive style, and with a little experience it is usually easy to distinguish between them based on characteristics of rhythm, melody, and grace notes.

It is rare for a single song to be played on the bagpipes. Instead, a piper will play a set of tunes (or medley). A very common type of set, especially for competitions, is an MSR, which is a 2/4 march followed by a strathspey and finally a reel. While there are common types of sets, a bagpiper is free to play whatever he wants whenever he wants.


Though it is the traditional music of the bagpipe, you have probably never heard a piobaireachd before. First, an explanation of the term: it is pronounced "peeb-roch" (almost rhyming with "rock" but with a hard H). The word piob means pipe, and piobair means piper, which when combined with the suffix "-eachd" yields the word piobaireachd, meaning "the art of the piper." Another name for piobaireachd is ceol mhor meaning "great music."

Piobaireachd is different from light music (ceol beag) in many ways. A piobaireachd has no steady rhythm and is purely expressive. Unlike light music, it always played by a solo piper and can never be played by a group or band. It is in a form most simply described as a theme with variations. It is therefore a set of distinct movements beginning with the ground, which is followed by a series of variations. If not for the variety of gracenotes and expression, at least half of the movements would be identical. A piobaireachd is generally about ten minutes long and can even take longer than twenty minutes.

Grace Note Movements

Earlier we discussed the concept of grace notes, and you have hopefully learned to hear at least some of them when listening to a bagpipe tune. I would now like to present some general types of grace note movements and a few of the most common movements. I will not attempt to provide a definitive list, since that could only confuse the listening experience for a beginner.

[Printed music and audio tracks will be provided for these descriptions in the near future--thanks for your patience.]


Doublings are a category of grace note movements which show that a note in the melody is "more important than most". A doubling is basically repeating a note for emphasis: the note is played for a brief instant and then played again for the normal length of time. A doubling could be thought of as an intentional stutter. Of course, an even shorter grace note must be played in between the the two notes to make a separation, so a doubling has two or three grace notes in addition to the main note.

There is a unique doubling for each note of the instrument except high-G: a bagpiper will often speak of a "double-high-A," a "C doubling," or a "E doubling." A high-A doubling has two grace notes and all of the others have three (whenever possible).

The high-A doubling is the simplest one, so I'll try to convey how it works. First, a high-A grace note is played quickly (remember that high-A is the highest note on the bagpipe). Immediately after the high-A, a high-G is played. Finally, a high-A is played: this is the main note, so it is held out for the normal length. All together, this movement makes the sound of two high-A's played in quick succession.

Doublings on other notes follow the same pattern as the double high-A, but they include an additional high-G grace note at the beginning for extra emphasis.

Other than perhaps single grace notes, doublings are the most common form of emphasis on the bagpipe. Most measures in the average tune have at least one doubling and mesures with two or more are quite common.


Most bagpipe tunes have a couple of birls, and the movement is very easy to pick out. A birl is particular movement that quickly switches between a low-A and a low-G a couple of times to produce a low rippling sound.

Throw on D

References / For More Information

Lilypond for Bagpipe Music
All written bagpipe music in this document was typeset with Lilypond. On the page linked to above I explain how to make use of Lilypond for bagpipe music.
Pipe Band Articles
A link to a variety of well-written articles about bagpipes by Thue Kjelstrom
Piper's Dictionary
A thorough glossary of bagpipe terms, by Andrew Lenz
How does it work?
A diagram with information on individual parts of the Great Highland Bagpipe, by Kevin Auld
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