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Some thoughts on cabrette tuning

Ian Clabburn’s article, printed in Chanter Summer 2014, about the cabrette tuning and in particular his struggle with the “neutral third” intrigues me, and I keep going back to his article and have re-read it several times. In summary, Ian felt it was his fault that he was unable to play the instrument ‘in tune’, only later finding that the cabrette is tuned to a scale different from that which we consider ’normal’. The third (B on his G/C chanter) is about 50 cents or half a semitone flat, putting it halfway between B and B flat . This interval is known as a quarter tone (but there are even smaller intervals, micro-tones, in many musical traditions). He asked the question “Why has the cabrette retained this sort of tuning while other French pipes seem to have just intonation?” There have been a couple of replies to his article in the Chanter.

In the Autumn 2014 edition, Andy Letcher explains that many reconstructed bagpipes have abandoned their traditional tunings to conform to equal temperament (ET), to which our ears have become accustomed, although some traditional tunings remain. He argues that we are musically poorer in restricting ourselves in this way and I must agree, having recently discovered music from Bulgaria. (If you want to hear some (to my mind) beautiful microtonal music, listen to the first track of the Bulgarian State Radio Vocal Choir on )

In the Winter 2014 Chanter, Jon Swayne elaborates on temperaments and emphasises that playing ‘in tune’ was important before ET. In fact in ET, all notes are equally ‘out of tune’ with each other and ET was introduced to allow composers to use more extreme key signatures which could be played on keyboard instruments. Before this, there was increasing physical complexity of keyboards often with two or more black notes between each white one. See for an example of this.

Just intonation (JI) will, for our instruments produce sweeter sounding music. JI is an overall term for tuning systems such as Pythagorean, meantone etc., where intervals between notes are based on small fractions in the same harmonic series. For example the ratio 3/2 is a fifth and sounds harmonious.

Neutral thirds, half way between the minor and major third (and a similar arrangement for sixths) were first mentioned over one thousand years ago by the Arabian musical theorist Zalzal. In the west, these neutral notes still exist in modern music and have become the so called ‘blues’ notes often heard in jazz.

(Ref: Robert Fink; Selected works for piano). These blues notes may have evolved from the music of slaves in America trying to recreate traditional music using tuning systems derived from the natural overtone series which includes microtones. (Ref: G. Kubik; Black Music Research Journal).

Originally, neutral intonations were, probably, characteristic of all mouth blown bagpipes, including half long pipes (of England), the cornemuse (of central France) and the binou (of Brittany) amongst many others (Ref: Anthony Baines; Bagpipes). Infants, when improvising singing frequently use neutral thirds and so this seems to be a ’natural’ intonation (Ref: B Nettle; Southwestern Journal of Anthropology). On the other hand, it has also been argued that the neutral third allows the note (B half flat in the cabrette’s case) to be used as B or B flat depending on the requirements of the tune, a sort of musical fudge.

The tuning of pipes was, and still is, under pressure from “musical fashion”. When music moved from melody focused (melody with drone) music to harmony focused structures, the pipes were forced to regularise their tuning to fit with other instruments, particularly the accordion as mentioned by both Ian and Andy. The majority of early woodwind instruments without keys had the neutral third tuning (Ref: needed). Remember that in the mediaeval period, many reed instruments had a reed cap which made the control of intonation and dynamics more difficult. Therefore, musicians began to favour instruments without reed caps such as the oboe. This option was not available to the bagpiper for obvious reasons. Another factor mentioned by Jon Swayne is the even spacing of fingerholes for ease of construction and ease of playing which may have produced a “different” tuning! Mediaeval music was much influenced by the perceived scales of the Greeks but some mediaeval composers used quarter tones and microtones. (Ref: Mary Devlin; Medieval Music, Magical Minds). Microtonal music (ie using intervals even smaller than quarter tones) has been around for a long time. See: Guillaume Costeley’s “Chromatic Chanson”, Seigneur Dieu ta pitié of 1558 making use of an octave divided into 19 microtones (Ref: Lindley 2001a from Wikispaces classroom). Currently, Irish folk tunes often incorporate half sharp notes, half way between the natural and the sharp. (Ref: Peter Cooper; Mel Bay’s Complete Irish Fiddle Player).

I asked myself what musical tradition in that area of France used quarter tones and could possibly have influenced the tuning of the cabrette? The obvious candidates to have affected the development of the cabrette, it seems to me, are the so-called Arabic Scales which have in turn influenced music of the Roma which generated Flamenco in Spain and also some Jewish music. Now we all know that Moorish and Jewish influence was strong in France and Spain in the Middle ages so it is not unreasonable to think that the cabrette retains this sort of tuning.

Are there any specific Arabic scales which would fit the particular pattern of the cabrette tuning? Here I have to admit arguing from personal ignorance and a bit of internet searching! Many of the Arabic maqam (or modes) use microtonal intervals, that is, they are not limited to tones, semitones or even quarter tones but can use even smaller intervals. Generally however the music is notated with half flats and half sharps, the more subtle intervals are an oral tradition. The maqam scale is made up of ajnas which are usually groups of four notes (although ajnas of 3 or 5 notes occur).

The Cabrette scale appears to be: G-A (1 tone)

A-B half flat (3⁄4 tone)
B half flat - C (3⁄4 tone)
The ratios 1 : 3⁄4 : 3⁄4 form a jins (singular of ajnas) called “Rast”

Then the scale continues: D-E (1 tone)

E-F (1⁄2 tone)
F-G (1 tone)
The ratios 1 : 1⁄2 : 1 form a jins called “Nahawand”

So the Cabrette maqam appears to be formed of two ajnas, Rast + Nahawand. If anyone out there really understands Arabic music forms and can comment on this, I would be very interested.

Another interesting input comes from “The Origin of the European Folk Music Scale: a New Theory” by Aindrius Hirt in Ethnomusicology Review. He argues that early folk and “rustic” music is based on a natural scale of harmonics obtainable from a home-made wooden trumpet like instrument (trombita or tulnic) that was used by shepherds all over Europe (think bugle crossed with alpenhorn). Instruments of this type were used in Scandinavia 2500 years BC. Look at “tulnic” on You Tube to hear the modern equivalent. This natural scale continued in folk music until it was translated into the rigid 12 semitone octave that is in common use today. An example of the scale of notes available for an 8 foot wooden “trombita” is given below:

C2 ; C3; G3 ; C4 ; E4 ; G4 ; B♭4 ↓ ; C5 ; D5 ; E5 ; F♯5‚ ↓ ; G5 ; A5‚ ↓ ; B♭5‚; B5 ; C6 11

The scale of this type of instrument has two characteristics:

  1. It is gapped at the lower end, ie the notes get closer together the higher you go. The first two notes are an octave apart! and
  2. There are microtones. B♭4‚ ↓ is closer to A4 than to B♭4 ; F♯5‚ ↓ is almost exactly half way between F5 and F♯5 etc.

Bagpipes usually have drones and the harmonics of the drones will fall into the same pattern as those of the trombita. It is not unreasonable to suggest that chanter tuning would be done to harmonise with the drone harmonics and so would include intervals outside our currently accepted scales.

Now while I accept that this example doesn’t fit exactly with the cabrette’s neutral third, it does show that deviations from our accepted diatonic scale were extensive and go back a long way into prehistory. I suppose the question is, why, as “primitive” instruments, (NB primitive does not equate to crude or unsophisticated) aren’t more bagpipes tuned to early, pre-common era, scales? If only some early British pipes had survived so that we could hear them!

Having said that, an early MacDonald chanter (Ca. 1800 and probably a Union chanter) was analysed by Alexander Ellis who found the intervals to be:-

a’ b’ c’ d’ e' f' g' a''
interval in cents 197 144 154 208 150 154 191
sum in cents 0 197 341 495 703 853 1009 1200

We can see that a’ to b’ is nearly 200 cents = 1 tone; b’ to c’ is nearly 150 cents = semitone and a half and together this gives nearly 350 cents, the neutral third (a minor third is 300 cents and a major third 400 cents). The interval from a’ to f’ is a neutral sixth, ie f’ to a’’ is a neutral third down from the octave. Similar analyses of later GHB chanters show a drift of tuning towards ET intervals.

I suppose that the, admittedly superficial, research I have done suggests that the Cabrette tuning reflects back to a time when we weren’t constrained by the eight notes and twelve semitones of current musical fashion, although it doesn’t answer Ian’s question, “Why has the Cabrette retained this sort of tuning while other French pipes seem to have just intonation?” Ian, thank you for opening this door onto an aspect of the pipes that was a complete blank to me.