A bagpipe performer in .
A bagpipe performer in Amsterdam.

Bagpipes are a class of musical instrument, aerophones using enclosed reeds. The term is equally correct in the singular or plural, although pipers most commonly talk of "pipes" and "the bagpipe".



Missing image
A set of Scottish Great Highland bagpipes.
1) Chanter
2) Bag
3) Stock
4) Blowstick or blowpipe
5) Tenor drones
6) Bass drone
7) Tuning Slide
8) Cords

A bagpipe consists of an airtight bag, which can supply a continuous stream of air. Air is supplied either by a blowpipe or a set of bellows; the inlet to the bag normally has a one-way valve which prevents air from returning via the supply. Every bagpipe has a chanter, upon which the melody is played, and most have at least one drone harmony, although there are relatively many important exceptions to this rule. All these pipes are attached to the bag by a stock, a small, usually wooden, cylinder which is tied into the bag and which the pipe itself plugs into. The bag usually consists of leather, but in more recent times many other materials, such as rubber and Gore-Tex have become popular amongst many pipers, particularly Highland pipers. In the Middle east, and the Balkans, a whole goatskin is used, cured with salt and alum.

The melody pipe, or chanter, can have a single or double reed and a cylindrical or conical bore. The drone(s) usually have single tongue reeds but there are a number of important exceptions, including the Italian Zampogna, the French Musette du Cour, and several varieties of Scottish Small Pipes which all have double reeds (in conical bores for the Zampogna, and cylindrical bores for the Musette and Scottish Small Pipes). In general, chanters with a cylindrical bore will produce a very mellow oboe-like sound, while chanters with a conical bore will produce a louder and brighter sound.

Skirl is a term used by pipers to describe an unintended shrill sound made by the chanter, and is usually produced when the chanter reed is too easy and thus the chanter is overblown. Sometimes the term is also somewhat mistakenly used to describe the general sound produced by a bagpipe.


The history of the bagpipe is very unclear, and worse, many of the secondary sources from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are misleading or verging on fantasy (the works of Grattan Flood are particularly bad in this respect, but continue to be quoted and referenced to the present day). For example, an oft-repeated claim is that the Great Highland Bagpipe was banned after the '45 Rising. This claim is untrue; there is no mention of the bagpipe in the Act of Proscription, and the entire myth seems to stem from the letterpress of Donald MacDonald's Martial Music of Caledonia, written by an unknown Romantic. However, it seems likely they were first invented in pre-Christian times. Nero is generally accepted to have been a player; there are Greek depictions of pipers, and the Roman legions are thought to have marched to bagpipes. The idea of taking a leather bag and combining it with a chanter and inflation device seems to have originated with various ethnic groups in the Roman empire.

Where they were first introduced to Britain and Ireland is debatable, though Ireland has references going back to the Dark Ages. An explosion of popularity seems to have occurred from around the year 1000; the tune used by Robert Burns for "Scots Wha Hae", "Hey Tutti Taiti", is traditionally said to have been the tune played as Robert the Bruce's troops marched to Bannockburn in 1314.

In the modern era the use of bagpipes has become a common tradition for military funerals and memorials in the anglophone world, and they are often used at the funerals of high-ranking civilian public officials as well.


There are many kinds of bagpipes; the following is an overview of some of the most common:

The Great Highland Bagpipe

Probably the most well known are the Great Highland Bagpipes (commonly abbreviated GHBs), which were developed in Scotland and Ireland. The picture above shows a set of Great Highland Bagpipes.

A modern set has a bag, a chanter, a blowpipe, two tenor drones, and one bass drone. The scale on the chanter is mixolydian with a range from one degree lower than the tonic to one octave above it (in piper's parlance: Low G, Low A, B, C, D, E, F, High G, High A ). The two tenor drones are an octave below the keynote (Low A) of the chanter) and the bass drone two octaves below. In the 1990s, there were a few new developments, namely, reliable synthetic drone reeds, and synthetic bags that deal with moisture arguably better than hide or older synthetic bags.

Regional Usage

The GHB is widely used by both soloists and pipe bands (civilian and military), and is now played in countries around the world, particularly countries with large Scottish (and often Irish) emigrant populations, namely Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Pollig Monjarret introduced the GHB to Brittany during the "Celtic" revival of the 1920s Breton folk music scene, inventing the bagad, a pipe band incorporating the GHB, the Scottish pipe band drum section, the bombarde and latterly almost any instruments, from model elephants,to small jazz orchestras. Well known bagads include Bagad Brieg, Bagad Kemper, and Bagad Cap Caval. In Brittany, the GHB is known as the Biniou Brahz, meaning Great Biniou, in contrast to the biniou, the small traditional Breton bagpipe.

In Ireland, a presumably related instrument is seen in a woodcutting from the 1500s showing a piper leading a group of soldiers and playing a two drone instrument with a long chanter. The instrument largely died out in Ireland before the 1700s, but in the late 1800s a number of Irish pipers revived it in Ireland with the Brian Boru pipe (see below). The revived instrument was essentially a GHB with a keyed chanter, having a greater range than the GHB, a bass drone, and a single tenor and was often termed the Irish Warpipes. This configuration can also be found having been played in Scotland in the 1700s. In all other respects the Brian Boru pipe was identical with the Great Highland Bagpipe. The two-drone pipe is now an extreme rarity even in Ireland, having been replaced by the GHB.


As with most other types of bagpipe, the fact that the air flow is continuous means that two notes cannot be separated by simply stopping blowing or tonguing or the like. The gracenote is therefore used for this purpose. A number of more complicated ornaments using a series of grace notes are also used, such as doublings, taorluaths, grips and birls. These are used for emphasis on, say, the first beat of a bar, or just as a more musical way to get from one note to the next.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages we have the first evidence of piobaireachd (also written pibroch). This form of music is often called the "big music" of the GHB (in Gaelic Ceol Mhor), and has something of a scholarly circle devoted to it. It consists of a slow ground movement (Gaelic urlar) which is a simple theme, then a series of somewhat minimalist variations on this theme, and ends with a return to the ground. The other music for the GHB, sometimes called "light music" (Gaelic Ceol Beag), includes marches (2/4, 4/4, 6/8, 3/4, etc), dance tunes (particularly strathspeys, reels, hornpipes, and jigs), slow airs, and more. It dates largely from the last two centuries, being either Scottish or Irish folk music played on the pipes, tunes written by pipers in the British Army during this time, or, increasingly, tunes composed by pipers in civilian pipe bands.

Related Instruments

A smaller, quieter instrument, the practice chanter, with a smaller reed than the GHB chanter reed, and lacking a bag or drones, is suitable for practice in settings where a great volume of sound would be inappropriate or unappreciated. Another practice instrument, called a goose, has a bag but lacks drones, and allows a student to practice "winding" the pipe with the proper mix of breath and bag pressure.

The Irish Uilleann Bagpipe

The next most common type is the Irish or Uilleann (pronounced illin) bagpipe; this vies with the Northumbrian smallpipe for the title of most developed bagpipe in existence. This Irish bellows-blown pipe plays a two octave diatonic scale in D major and a cross-fingered C natural is used to play a huge number of G major tunes (indeed, tunes in G major probably outnumber those in D in the Irish traditional music canon) Also tunes in E minor, A minor, and D mixolydian. The second octave is produced by overblowing, and extra keys and/or cross-fingering can be used to produce other tones than those in a diatonic D major scale. The most commonly added keys are a C natural,B flat,G sharp, and an F natural key. Although the chanter does not have a completely closed end, like the Northumbrian smallpipes, the player can press the end of the chanter against a leather pad on his/her knee while closing all fingerholes, producing complete silence. This is used to play short staccato passages. The leather pad is sometimes replaced by an air-tight key at the end of the chanter bore, which supposedly makes it easier to close the pipe completely with the knee. The Uilleann pipes also have three drones (although there are a few examples of sets with four drones, these are non-standard), set in a common stock, all tuned to three different octaves of D, and up to three (or in rare cases four and five) regulators which are effectively a kind of plugged chanter with keys, designed to be played by the wrist. Accomplished players can use these to provide a limited but powerfully impressive chordal accompaniment, while playing the chanter at the same time, and with/with out the drones, which have their own on/off switch. Often Uillean pipes are found without any drones or regulators; these sets are called somewhat misleadingly "practice sets". In fact, many pipers use these sets for their entire piping careers. Another common choice is to have only the drones, without regulators. This is known as a half-set. A final occasional variant, the three-quarter set, omits the bass regulator. A "full set" is a chanter, 3 drones (tenor,baritone,and bass)3 regulators (treble, baritone, and "G"bass) The pitch that the Irish pipes can be in different keys: E flat, D, C, B, and B flat. The lower pitch sets are very quiet.

The Northumbrian Smallpipe

The Northumbrian smallpipe is a bellows-blown pipe which, as noted above, shares the unusual characteristic with the Uilleann pipes of being able to stop the sound of the chanter. This is done by giving the chanter a completely closed end. This combined with the unusually tight fingering (each note is played by lifting only one finger) means that much Northumbrian piping tends to be very staccato in style. The chanter has a number of keys, most commonly seven, but chanters with a two octave range can be made which require seventeen keys, all played with either the right hand thumb and left hand pinkie. There is no overblowing to get this two octave range, due to the cylindrical bore, the keys are integral, along with the length of the chanter, to obtain the two octaves. The oridginal (18th century) short keyless chanters only had the range of one octave. In practice, few players find they require anything more complex than an seven key chanter. Traditionally, the chanter is pitched in what Northumbrian pipers refer to as F+, a pitch approximately twenty cents sharp of F natural. The music, however, is always written in G. Nowadays, chanters are available anywhere from D to G, G and true F natural being the most popular for playing ensemble. There are usually four drones on the Northumbrian pipes, which can be tuned to several different combinations of pitch for playing in different keys.

The Scottish Smallpipe

The Scottish smallpipe is a bellows-blown bagpipe developed from the Northumbrian smallpipe by Colin Ross (1970s), to be playable according to the Great Highland Bagpipe fingering system. Historical antecedents do exist, but modern designs are not based on these and there is no unbroken line of traditional playing. Most modern players use any comfortable open fingering or are trained GHB players. It has a cylindrical bore chanter, most commonly pitched in A, although any key is feasible; D, C, and B flat are the next most common keys. They are most commonly unkeyed, but occasionally G sharp, F natural, and C natural keys are added. It is possible to add enough keys to produce a two-octave chromatic scale, but this is rarely done. The present writer cannot think of any prominent piper using such a set, and the most keys witnessed on a chanter is 6, giving an range of low G to high C in G major on an A chanter. The drones are set in a common stock and are tuned an octave below the tonic, either the fifth or an octave below the fifth (a few players choose to tune this to the fourth instead), and two octaves below the tonic. It is perhaps the youngest bagpipe with any popularity, having only existed since its invention in the early 1980s. It is however extremely popular, particularly with Highland pipers, many of whom keep it or a Border pipe as a second instrument. Mouth-blown versions are available, but it is difficult to produce quality tone from these instruments due to the reed's delicate construction.

The Biniou

The Biniou is a mouth blown bagpipe from Brittany, a region of France. It has a one octave scale, and is very high pitched; an octave higher than the Scots Great Highland Bagpipe. It has a single drone two octaves below the tonic. Traditionally it was played as a duet with the bombarde, for Breton folk dancing. It is the most famous bagpipe of France, but not the most played due to the revival of other French bagpipes in other regions, Bourbonais, Limousin, Auvergne, etc.

Center-France bagpipe

The Center-France bagpipe is another bagpipe rebuilt in the 1970s from older specimens. It is identical to the modern Flemish bagpipe, apart from the positioning of the drones. It has been successfully revived in France, where there are a number of schools, and is played for Bal folk, traditional French set dancing.

The Border Pipe

The Border pipe is a close cousin of the Highland bagpipe, and commonly confused with the Scottish smallpipe, although it is a quite different and much older instrument. With a conical chanter, three drones in a common stock, tuned as per Highland pipes or Scottish smallpipes, this bagpipe combines the Highland pipe tone with the more manageable key of A, and lower volume, suitable for playing in folk bands and at informal folk sessions. Other names for this pipe are Scots lowland pipes, the Cauld (cold) Wind Pipes (due to the air from the bellows), and the Northumbrian Half-Long pipes.

The Gaita

Gaita is the Spanish and Portuguese name for the bagpipe used in Galicia, Asturias and northern region of Portugal. It has a conical chanter with a partial second octave, obtained by overblowing. Pipe bands and folk groups playing these instruments have become popular in recent years.

Gaitas can be found in the keys of G,A, B flat,B, C, C sharp (Do brillante), and D, with some groups using a combination of keys. For example: there may be several sets in C and a set in G acting as a bass, or A and D together and so on for a bagpipe "choir" (different ranges played together). For many years the playing of close harmony (thirds and sixths) with two gaitas of the same key was/is the normal style, and this influenced the French pipers, starting in the 1970s, who began the bagpipe "ensemble des cornemuses", or bagpipe choirs. Bulgaria also had similar choirs starting in the 1950s, with gaidas in different keys. (Gaida= goat,the bag is a whole, case-skinned goat hide.) Gaitas have various drone arrangements. All will have a bass drone(roncon= snorer), which sits horizontally over the player's shoulder. Some will also have a tenor drone, pitched an octave higher than the bass, and a few have a 'screamer' (ronquito or ronc󮩮 This last is in unison with the fifth of the chanter scale, and has a plug to close it off, if it becomes too irritating!

The Brian Boru Bagpipe

The Brian Boru bagpipe was invented in 1910 by Henry Starck, an instrument maker in London, in consultation with some Irish pipers. The name was chosen in honour of the Irish king Brian_Boru, though the pipe is not a recreation of any pipes that were played at that time. The Brian Boru pipe is related to the Great Highland Bagpipe but with a chanter that adds four to ten keys to extend both the upper and lower ends of the scale, and optionally adds chromatic notes. His original pipes changed the drone configuration to a single tenor drone pitched one octave below the chanter, a baritone drone pitched one fifth below the tenor drone, and a bass drone pitched two octaves below the chanter. Some later designs of these pipes reverted back to the Great Highland Bagpipe configuration of two tenor drones and one bass drone. The Brian Boru bagpipe was played for a number of years by the pipe band in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, as well as a number of civilian pipe bands. It is still played in Northern Ireland but has lost most of its former popularity. Bagpipe makers in Pakistan still make the chanters.


Regardless of origin of the instrument, bagpipes can be classified into several broad categories.

  • Is the instrument mouth blown or bellows driven?
  • Has the chanter a conical bore or cylindrical?
  • Are the chanter reeds single or double?

Other types

Missing image
Traditional Swedish bagpipes, s䣫pipa, made by Leif Eriksson

There are literally hundreds of types of bagpipe; what follows is not by any means an exhaustive list.

  • Bock : Czech bellows-blown bagpipe with a long, crooked drone and chanter that curves up at the end
  • Cornemuse : French bagpipe featuring a bass drone and a tenor drone that emerges from a common stock with the chanter.
  • Cornish pipes : extinct English bagpipe undergoing revival
  • Duda : Hungarian Bagpipe with one drone and one chanter
  • Dudelsack : German bagpipe with two drones and one chanter
  • Gaida : Bulgarian & Macedonian bagpipe with one drone and one chanter
  • Lancashire Great-pipe : another extinct English bagpipe undergoing revival
  • Musette : French Ancestor of the Northumbrian pipes. The shuttle design for the drones was recently revived and added to a mouth blown Scottish smallpipe.
  • Pastoral bagpipe : Ancestor of the Irish bagpipe, played by the Scots and N.E. English as well!
  • Sac de gemecs : Used in Catalonia.
  • Tulum : Turkish bagpipe featuring two parallel chanters, (and no drone) usually played by the Laz and Hemşin people.
  • Zampogna : An Italian bagpipe, with an unusual arrangements of multiple chanters that act as drones when not being played. The word "tzimpounas, tsimponas" still used for bagpipe in Pontic Greek and Turkish (Trebizond region of northeast [Anatolia]])
  • Dankiyo: An ancient word for bagpipe in Trebizond are in the text of Evliya ǥlebi (17. century, Ottoman Era)"The Laz's of Trebizond invent bagpipe called dankiyo..." Etymology: < Ancient Greek To ankiyo, angion(άγγείον) "skin, bagpipe" Source: ֺt?zhan (2005). Karadeniz: Ansiklopedik S?k. 2 Cilt. Heyamola Yayıncılık. İstanbul. p. 300 ISBN 975-6121-00-9.
  • S䣫pipa : Also the Swedish word for 'bagpipe' in general, this instrument was on the brink of extinction in the first half of the 20th century. It has a cylindrical bore and a single reed, as well as a single drone at the same pitch as the bottom note of the chanter.
  • Schweizer Sackpfeife ( (Swiss bagpipe): In Switzerland, the "Sackpfiffe" was a common instrument in the folkmusic from the middle-age to the early 18th century – documented by iconography and in written sources (one or two drones and one chanter with double reeds).

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