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The Bagpipe Society

Calls and Responses

Editor’s Note: There was something of an editorial oversight in the last edition. Somehow, Jon Swayne’s response to Andy Letcher’s question on tapering bores (p.11) acquired an extra paragraph at the end of his article. At this point I must confess I have no idea where the paragraph came from and who wrote it! So, I will reprint it as a “Call” and hope that there are some “Responses” – and to both Jon and the questioner – apologies!


Conical bores differ from cylinders in pitch, the latter playing an octave lower. A D Smallpipe chanter plays at the same pitch as a D Border but is half the length. Can then a chanter be made that can switch between the two and hence play two or more octaves?

Response to “Thoughts on ‘Tuning and Temperament’ by James Merryweather (Chanter Vol 31, No 1, p53)

James rounds off his heartfelt article on this thorny subject by anticipating disagreement. I hasten to assure him that I heartily concur with his main assertion, and in fact have several times written along the same lines in this very publication. But I do have some comments and observations which I would like to put to him and share with readers.

My experience of learning music at school was somewhat different from that of James. I started playing flute at the age of twelve (and recorder rather earlier), and singing in school choirs. From the start the practice of listening to yourself in relationship to other musicians/singers in order to be ‘in tune’ with them was drummed into us, so that it became a matter of habit, though not invariably implemented successfully. When intonation in choirs or ensembles fell below the standards of the teacher or conductor, they didn’t hesitate to stop and put it right, if necessary in the same way as in James’s example by building the chord note by note from the bottom up. Like James, I played in a wind quintet for over ten years, and if necessary we used to stop and look at problem chords as a matter of course.

What I don’t remember is ever having explained to me what being in or out of tune means in objective, physical terms, let alone the concepts of Just or Equal temperament. I remember just one telling remark: my flute teacher when I was twelve or so said that she found it not so easy to play with a piano because they were tuned differently. Unfortunately she did not elaborate.

Bagpipe Tuning: I am glad that James gives examples of musicians playing notes which depart from consonance for a particular reason, either to give extra emotional weight, or because a particular musical tradition demands it or otherwise. It is all to easy to get into the habit of thinking that the intonation practices of western art music are the only ones that matter.

As for tuning the chanter, I like the importance and detail he attributes to the process, and he is quite right that it is a process which takes time and careful attention to detail. He says however that ’there seems to be no absolutely right or wrong, black or white in chanter tuning’. This may be a conclusion he has come to as a result of the experience of playing a bagpipe newly received from the maker, and in practice he may be right to the extent that there are so many variables involved, but in principle I believe we should allow that in order to tune a chanter to the exacting requirements of a modern musician such as James, a maker has to adopt a number of ‘rules’ for which there is little room for departure from black or white; for example:

  • he must establish the correctness of the overall pitch of the chanter relative to a universally recognised pitch standard, such as A=440hz
  • he must do this at a known temperature, usually 20 degs Celsius according to British Standards
  • as far as possible he must adjust each note of the scale to be in tune with the drone(s); if he does this by ear, then he must certainly know what he is listening for, and he must be certain that the drone is stable and invariable (in my experience, it is exceedingly easy to be confused by a drone which is just not quite stable enough); if he does it against a tuner, then it goes without saying that not only must he know what adjustments to make for the fact tuners normally measure equal temperament, whereas we are aiming for just intonation, but also, it is usually necessary to turn off the drone which may otherwise confuse the tuner; in that case it would be essential to use a pressure meter to monitor playing pressure (a useful check, whatever method you use for tuning)
  • in the preceding paragraph, I said ‘as far as possible’; this is because if there are any cross-fingered notes, a compromise may be necessary; an example would be F and F# on a French style fingering Border chanter in G; the tuning of both notes depends on the size of the top fingerhole; if the F# sharp is made sharp enough to satisfy all leading note requirements, then the F natural may sound too sharp

The above process having been carried out correctly, then if the new owner is to have the same experience as the maker, he must ensure that the same conditions apply, that is to say, that the temperature must be the same, the drones must be tuned to the same pitch as the maker tuned them, that he uses the same playing pressure as the maker and so on.

As far as just tuning is concerned, the scale is a matter of figures and not open to argument. The following chart (adapted from the writings of Uncle Octavius in a previous Chanter) may be useful in seeing the correct frequencies for a just diatonic scale in G, and how they compare with equal temperament.

Some comments on the above:

  1. Since equal temperament has twelve equally spaced intervals to the octave and frequency doubles at the octave, then the frequency of the semi-tone is arrived at by multiplying the frequency of the first tone by the twelfth root of two (1.0596 etc); if this is done twelve times then you reach the octave. This is more easily accomplished on a calculator by using the alternative arrangement of two to the power of one over twelve. This is how the equal temperament interval ratios above are derived.
  2. The just intonation interval ratios are simple whole number ratios, the consequence of which is that their harmonics align, resulting in an absence of beating. For example, the third harmonic of G = 392 x 3 = 1176. The second harmonic of D = 702 x 2 = 1176.
  3. Perhaps the most interesting line from our point of view is the final one giving the difference in cents. This is the one to use if you care to check your chanter against a tuner. Note that the third (B) and sixth (E) are the furthest away from equal temperament, by 14 and 16 cents respectively, whereas the fourth and fifth (C) and (D) are only 2 cents different, a small amount and not easy to hear. If you want to try experimentally tuning your drone to an equal temperament fifth, the following may help. As you know, intervals which are slightly mistuned ‘beat’ or vary in intensity, which is partly how we hear mistuning in the first place. The rate of the beating is determined by the difference in frequency between the two notes. If we take the equal temperament interval G to D in the above chart, the notes are too far apart to beat directly, so the beat we hear is taking place between the third harmonic of the G (392 x 3 = 1176) and the second harmonic of the D (587.3 x 2 = 1174.6). 1176 – 1174.6 = 1.4 – just under one and half beats per second, or exactly 5 beats in 7 seconds. In fact what a piano tuner does when he tunes a fifth is to count the number of beats in a certain period of time.
  4. Don’t pay much attention to the figures for F nat and F#; they are theoretical and unlikely to be used in a real chanter for the reasons I’ve given above.

In his section on the Piano and equal temperament, James states that he thinks it must be equal temperament that leads to the perception of different moods for different keys. I can’t follow the logic of his reasoning. If the relationship between the notes remains the same regardless of key as is evidently true in equal temperament, and as James alleges is the case with his ‘orchestra where proper tuning is possible’, then in neither case can there be a subjective difference between keys except for ‘higher’ and ’lower’. The most I can say about it is that before harmony there were modes, the early church modes and the ancient Greek modes on which the church modes were supposedly based. These were supposed to have different characters because the each mode had a different arrangement of small and large intervals. One can well imagine that each mode can have been perceived as having a different character. James explained his general objection to the sound of a piano tuned to equal temperament. When music developed to the point where keyboards were required to play harmonised music in more than one key, a system had to be found of tuning the notes of the keyboard so that the music sounded as consonant as possible over the course of the piece. Before the development of equal temperament, various systems were tried, including one called mean-tone temperament (of which there were numerous varieties), which was in wide use in organs and pianos at least until the mid-19th century. As a generalisation, in the meantone system the thirds were tuned nearly true over a limited range of keys. When composers started to write music which modulated beyond those keys, the compromise tunings (wolf notes) became more obvious and the search for ways to get round this eventually resulted in the equal temperament system. My point is that before it became possible to modulate freely, each key on a keyboard instrument must have had demonstrably different character, because the component intervals of each key were subtly different. This is one possible explanation for the attribution of different moods to particular keys, but I don’t believe that it is the fault of equal temperament.

In declaring that equal temperament is one of music’s worst ideas, I fear that James is tending to be waylaid by the misconception that equal temperament has to do with anything but the tuning of fixed-pitch instruments and in particular the piano. In playing pipes, in performing in a wind group or a string quartet, who is there commanding ‘slavish adherence to manufacturers’ settings and artificial temperament rules’?

I’d like to finish by quoting from my bible on these matters, Intervals Scales and Temperaments by LS Lloyd and Hugh Boyle. Lloyd says:

“It is often said that equal temperament has made a marked contribution to the art of music. That statement calls for some qualification of its literal meaning. The mistuned intervals of this temperament make no contribution to the art of music. Good violin players are conscious of them on the pianoforte, and some pianists of sensitive hearing are well aware of differences between the intonation of a good string quartet and that of a pianoforte. A good orchestra does not play in equal temperament, nor must the faulty intonation of a poor one be identified with equal temperament. The real contribution that equal temperament has made to the art of music is indirect; it lies in the fact that, in spite of its mistuned intervals, equal temperament made possible the continued use of a keyboard with twelve notes to the octave, such as had been used for mean-tone tuning. To that continued use of a twelve-note keyboard is due the nineteenth-century development of pianoforte technique and pianoforte music.”

Jon Swayne

Letters to the Editor

Hi Jane

I saw in the Chanter that you are producing an Iberian Special, and thought this might be of interest to you.

I was visiting the English writer, Robert Graves, house in Mallorca in 2015 and saw that he had several pictures/prints by an artist called Trajani, circa 1800. I bought postcard copies of the pictures. They show delightful vignettes of ordinary life from those times. One of the pictures shows a chap playing a great big bagpipe with a double chanter that has more finger holes than fingers. (A common practice amongst artists, ancient and modern). Still it’s a cracking little picture. I’ve seen pipes played in Mallorca, but never with a double chanter.

Pete Randall

Hello Jane

I have enclosed some pictures I’ve taken on the Iberian Peninsula and Madeira. I hope you can use some of them.

Dave Rowlands

Editor’s Note: Dave sent in a great collection of pictures. Sadly there isn’t room to include all of them in this edition. More will no doubt crop up from time to time!