Bagpipe Society Logo
Promoting the Bagpipe Revival since 1986

The Bagpipe Society

A new interpretation of the fully keyed sordellinas of Settala’s collection


Since the publication of the complete study around the sordellina and the Baldano’s manuscript by TARRINI, FARRIS and VAN DER MEER(1) this Italian court smallpipe has witnessed a return of interest, especially in the past few years. An excellent example of this is the phenomenal research conducted by MONTBEL and TOMASSI, leading in 2019 to the public presentation of their reconstruction of Settala’s trimelodic sordellina ((2). MONTBEL also published in 2015 two articles about his research about Settala and his well-known instrument depicted on his portrait of 1646 (3) (or later), by Nuvolone(4).

I am not going to dwell with historical details that may be further consulted by curious readers (5), but rather present as briefly and clearly as possible, the elements which led me to the key hypothesis. Firstly, an overview of the historical context of the Italian 17th century bagpipe:

The first potential references can be found in the Aragonese Naples of 1472 assordina, and later, in the poetry and the music of the 16th century (i.e. frottole, villanelle, etc.). It is possible to see the name ofsordellina but also, sordetta or surdina, among others (6). It is not entirely unreasonable to state that the starting point of the sordellina’s mechanical development took place during the revival of ideas, arts and sciences from the Greco-Roman antiquity of the late Renaissance were this bimelodic bagpipe was related to the Greekaulos or the Romantibia (7).

Even if MERSENNE mentions Giambattista Riva, Dom Giulio & Vincenzo as the inventors of the sordellina (8), very little can be found about these men. However, since we know about the existence of, at least, a similar instrument around 1500, it is likely that they were eventually among the authors of the popular bagpipes’ metamorphosis into a more sophisticated instrument, valued and enjoyed by the sociocultural elite of the early 17th century. This Italian polyphonicmusette lived its golden-age thanks to the knowledge and craftsmanship of the Milanese inventor, Manfredo Settala, around 1650. After his death in 1680, he leaves among the most sophisticated sordellinas, upon which only references and descriptions appeared to have stand the test of time.

I will present some evidence that could be exploited to extract precious information about the holes and keys, and hence, ambitus and notes of various documented models of sordellinas. Part One focuses on MERSENNE’S depiction from theHarmonie Universelle (9); the second will provide a new interpretation of the fully developed sordellinas built by Settala and mentioned by TERZAGO and SCARABELLI IN 1666 (10)

Mersenne’s sordellina engraving

To begin, I will summarise the important facts we know about the simple sordellina. Hopefully, there is a broad consensus about the basic characteristics of that instrument. We learn that thepetite musette of the Italian peasants (11) had three pipes of similar length (i.e. two chanters & a drone), as can be seen on the sordellina held by GRAMMATICA’S Euterpe, PAOLINI’S gentleman and, except for the crooked pipe, TODINI’S Polyphemus (12). MERSENNE’S indications of the number of holes and range corresponds with what BALDANO wrote in his Libro per scriver l’intavolatura per suonare sopra le sordelline (13) for it is clear that the two chanters cover a ninth (d toee) and, as WALKER proposed quite compellingly (14), the highest chanter (soprano) plays the hexachorddurum (fg – aa – bb – cc – dd +key for ee), whereas the lowest one (tenore) has theb molle (d – e – f – g – aa - bbᵇ + key for f # (15). The drone (basso) sounds the very same bottomd. Figure 1 shows a possible solution for what could have been Baldano’s sordellina. I have placed the magenta key (c) to be played with the right-hand palm or wrist and the green key (G), perhaps the most visible and impressive key of later paintings and engravings (16), to be played with either right or left hand’s unemployed fingers.

Considering the keyed regulator of WALKER’S hypothesis as being a direct ancestor of the third chanter owned by Langlois or Settala’s three-voiced bagpipes, I’ve also proposed a linear pipe that could be stopped or leave it opened, to sound as a low drone (17).

Let’s move to a higher level of complexity and examine the hints given by the two famous French scholars to our advantage. One of the recurrent problems is the lack of quantitative measurements, not to mention the absence of extant instruments. TRICHET gives us the only approximate dimensions about the total length of the instrument¹⁸, whereas MERSENNE preferred to favour the precise shape and number of keys, relegating the perspective and realism to a secondary plan. There are details that a skilled woodwind instrument maker needs to build a particular pipe. Sure, the engraving is not as clear as today’s technical drawings but, if we consider the words with which MERSENNE starts the chapter dedicated to themusette de Naples, it is not at all incongruous to think that the reconstruction of such a complex instrument is not an impossible task: “Even if thismusette is not used in France, nevertheless I want to describe and explain it, so that our makers could build similar ones.”(19)

Fig 1 – Baldano’s 4 keyed sordellina.

Fig 2 – The range of MERSENNE’S third v-shaped chanter. (20)

Far from being such an expert, I armed myself with patience and started assessing all the bits of information about MERSENNE’S sordellina. As regards the two highest chanters, it is possible to state without too much doubt that the basis we already discussed is mostly unchanged (21): five keys are added to thesoprano and three to thetenore(22). Another important thing is the presence of the two thumbholes mentioned (but not visible) in the Latin edition of theHarmonie Universelle: “[…] the two chanters EF and their holes on the front and rear side […].”(23). In order to build the link to interpret the third and fourth chanters with all its keys, let’s pause for a moment on an important data given by MERSENNE “[…] the highest sound of the early third chanter was an octave apart from the highest sound of the discant chanter […]”(24). This, combined with the notes available on this v-shaped pipe visible in figure 2, is what allows us to state that the highest note of the first chanter isgg, indeed one octave higher than the highestg of the third chanter(25).

At a certain moment in the history of the sordellina, the v-shaped chanter equipped with fourteen keys (26) was split in two: A straight pipe (new third chanter) containing the descending part of the former bent chanter and an z-shaped chanter having the rest of the keys plus some additional ones to extend the range of the pipe towards the bass (fourth chanter). At this moment, both MERSENNE and TRICHET coincide in the fact that this transformation has been accompanied by a rearrangement of the keys in order to provide a decent range for the two new chanters.

Last but not least, the fourth chanter was clearly provided with ten keys divided in two groups. The four keys that form the first group were already present in the old third chanter (i.e. DEᵇ – E – F) (27). The second group is composed of six keys, all of them on the last descending chanter segment: “[…] But (if) we equip the sordellina with a fourth chanter to [play] the fourth part or voice; we transfer the keys of the hk branch – that belonged originally to the third chanter – to the fourth chanter DhkH, with the addition of six new [keys] kH, with which it emits the sounds a fourth lower, divided into semitones.”(28)

As it is known that the lowest note prior to the addition of the bass extension was a C, and that each of those six keys give a semitone betweenC and what we will labelΓ (i.e. Gamma), the notes produced by pressing those keys should be: Γ – Γ# – A – Bᵇ – B & C. The next step, trying to figure out how to position the keys with the smallest portion of fantasy, was a matter of comparing the position of the key-knobs in MERSENNE’S engraving as well as in the most detailed representations. Figure 3 shows a drawing representing the four-chanter sordellina of thirty keys with the following colour code: magenta and violet tones are to be played mainly with the forearms, wrists and various parts of the palm and hands; the red and orange keys are for the right hand fingers while the ones in blue are operated with the left hand fingers. The two green ψ‑shaped keys²⁹, can be pressed with both hands, and stand for important notes, G andbᵇ. In addition, I’ve decided to maintain the keys present on Baldano’s hypothetical regulator as it seem to be clear that, as the sordellina evolved, the most used keys were conserved.

Fig 3 – Harmonie Universelle’s sordellina. Notes and keys distribution (right) ; detail from the engraving (left).

Reconciling bagpipes with keyboards

Apart from the translations between Italian, Latin and French, MERSENNE and TRICHET coincide in the fact that this harmonic bagpipe could also be calledorganine or portative organ (30). This nickname could remain anecdotic if we don’t pay attention to this passage:

“This instrument can be used as a portative organ, but after it made the lowest sound being completely closed, & letting the air passing only through the hole of the bell, we have to stop this hole when we lift the keys to play the other sounds, if not the chanter crows and spoils the music.” (31)

I’ve interpreted this suggestion as being important for skilled players who are going to use the four chanters as independent voices – as would have played a lutenist or organist) rather than accompanying the two upper melodic lines with a moving drone punctuated bybassizans cadential figures. The comparison with the organ is also found below a printed portrait of François Langlois after the painting of Vignon (32):

“There is no organ or other instrument that the Sordellina does not surpass being played by this one.”

Knowing how Langlois played the instrument emphasizes even more why a bagpipe would be compared with such a complete polyphonic instrument as an organ: “[…] the difficulty was much more important as one has to run the fingers through the open holes as well as the small keys that close the other holes of these three chanters in order to sound the three parts as a consort” (33).

Eventually, great pipe makers of that time like Settala or the duke of Bracciano, started working on the sordellina, and the instruments that have followed were, until now, thousands of miles away from our understanding.

Is it possible to find the function of so many keys? Assuming that the range of the instrument in its fully developed version did not change radically along the years, the number of keys could be of great help to estimate their function. It seems also probable that, the more complex an instrument is, the less possible development paths remain yet unexplored. Combining these facts with the human tendency to ensure what is effective, clear the ground of the sordellina’s last evolution part should not be impossible anymore.

With MERSENNNE we learn that “It should be noticed that those chanters make all the semitones, like the organ; & consequently they should have twenty- four keys to play two octaves, as they sound with the closed system, which means that they don’t emit any sound, [they do it] only by lifting the keys” (34). Hence, considering that the interpreted Mersenne’s four-chantered Italian musette has thirty keys, there is still room for four keys to fill gaps betweenC – D, afterF (fourth chanter), as well as betweenG – a,* c – d* andf – g (third chanter) (35). Only with these five keys addition our instrument “only” has thirty-five keys (or thirty-six if theG is repeated).

To reach the forty keys mentioned in TERGAZO’S description of Settala’s museo(36), four more keys are needed. I propose to fill the octave of the second chanter, adding a cc# and a dd key and, literally on the other hand, completing the chromatic scale with a g# and aneeᵇ key. Aneᵇ key on the second chanter would not be necessary, as the same pitch is already available on the third chanter (the same could be argued with a potentialf# key on the first chanter). If we prefer to trust only the Latin edition³⁷, two more keys are to be added with a possible solution being to mount anF (orF#) key on the third chanter and a lowF (orF#) retropolis (i.e. belowΓ, the lowest note), allowing to close the bell of those two chanters in the same way as thepetit chalumeau of the French musette baroque or the modern Northumbrian pipe chanter, and still using the complete length of those pipes. The figure 4 shows the extension of the sordellina.

At this point, we shall delve into the most interesting passage of TERGAZO’S account:
“Another sordellina, which could not be more perfect, had four chanters inserted in the bag, furnished with fifty-six keys, this fourth chanter has been invented by the same Settala so that this instrument could achieve celestial harmonious consonances.”

The Italian translation by SCARABELLI gives more detail: “The sixth, & last one is the most perfect, it has four chanters charged with 56 keys, the fourth of those chanters, which makes the second octave was a particular invention of Sir Manfredo, who found a way of doing some inexplicable harmony with this instrument, the sordellina, with which it seems it cannot receive greater perfection.”

Where did Settala put the fourteen additional keys that bring such perfection to the instrument? One could think that those keys were used to extend the range of the fourth chanter towards the bass, and maybe further increase the ambitus of the first chanter. Though it is unlikely enough to be pursued, this hypothesis has the disadvantage to not consider the “celestial harmonious consonances” as well as the “inexplicable harmony” made with the instrument.

A more interesting hypothesis that takes care about these mysterious consonances could be a bit subtler. Indeed, the different mesotonic tunings that were used around 1600 did, in fact, make the difference between for instance an
eb andd# and this implies that within the octave one need a key for each of the absentflats orsharps, this means five, as well as two more keys between*e – f and bc. This represent a phenomenal challenge for an instrument maker and also for the piper, but, in exchange, one gains the possibility to play the chromatic music of the end of the 16th and 17th century and modulate in almost all the keys while keeping the consonances pure. Moreover, as the sordellina was deeply connected to the ancient Greek aulos, it is not completely foolish to think that the most advanced musical theory of that time, applied to the keyboards already by the time of VICENTINO, wass brought to the bagpipe by some of the most brilliant inventors of the 17th century

Fig 4 – Compared range of the 42-keyed sordellina with the main keyboard range of the 17th century. The pitch of aa was not fixed through Italy.


The present article has derived what were the function of the keys and fingerholes of a true portative organ built and developed to play four independent parts. The instrument had to grow enough in popularity among the cultural elite to become so complex and being perfected to the level of the chromatic harpsichords and organs. This, in turn, asks for more answers: Why this semitone division was not applied to the two first chanters? What was the disposition of the keys in order to allow a normally constituted human to play such a complex instrument? Have we finally found thearchisordellina? I am sure that all this and even more will be experimented thoroughly during the next years and will throw some enlightenment on such a wonderful topic.

¹ Baldano, Tarrini, Farris, V D Meer, Libro per scriver l’intavolatura per sonare sopra le sordelline:
Savona 1600, Associazione ligure per la ricercadelle fonti musicali, 1995.
² Montbel, La sordellina de Marco Tomassi, Conference at the international Colloquium
“La Musette, un instrument de Cour, un instrument tout court”
(Rouen, the 27-29 May 2019).
³ Manfredus Septtalius Fecit M·DCXXXXVI can be read on the brass armillary sphere now conserved in theVeneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana.
⁴ Montbel, The Sourdeline of Manfredo Settala, a Milanese inventor in 1640 (Part 1), Chanter, Summer 2015; id., The Sourdeline of Manfredo Settala (Part 2), Chanter, Autumn 2015.
⁵ V. D. Meer La sordellina: organologia e tecnica esecutiva (pp.73-105); Tarrini, Documenti e testimonianze sulla sordellina (secc. XV-XVII) (pp.107-146). ⁶ ibid., p.111-120.
⁷ De’ Cavalieri, Rappresentazione de Anima, e di Corpo, (1600): Aria Cantata, & Sonata; al modo AnticoIo piango Fili”, intended to be played with the sordellina and a singer. For iconographic evidence of the symbolic relationship between the sordellina and the aulos, see Gramatica Euterpe (1620), Palazzo Chiablese (Torino). ⁸ Mersenne (1636), p.293.
loc. cit.
10 Terzago Musaeum Septalianum Manfredi Septalae Patritii Mediolanensis, 1664.
pp.285-6.; Terzago Scarabelli (trans. It.), Museo ò Galeria adunata dal sapere, e dallo studio del Sig. Canonico Manfredo Settala Nobile Milanese, Tortona, 1666.
¹¹ Mersenne (1648), p.97. Only the Latin text specify the relationship between the small bagpipe and the Italian peasantry: “Superest alia Museta STXV, quae inter rusticos Italos est in usu […]” (Next come the other smallpipe STXV which is used among the Italian peasants: […]). The French text only underlines the simplicity of the pipes: […], il faut remarquer que les Italiens ont une autre petite musette représentée par STV, […].” ([…], it has to be noticed that the Italians have another small bagpipe represented by STV, […]).
¹² Gramatica, Euterpe (1620); Paolini A young man holding bagpipes (ca.1645).; Todini Macchina di Polifemo e Galatea (or
The Golden Harpsichord
), Metropolitan Museum of Art (NY)
¹³ Baldano (1600), fol.16v.
¹⁴ Walker, Giovanni Lorenzo Baldano’s sordellina manuscript of 1600: a new approach to reconstruction, Chanter, Autumn 2019.
15 V. D. Meer interpreted Baldano’s sordellina as having a key forf#. Walker, however, ends up proposing that 2Γ was a key for anA on another pipe (see also O’Neil, The Sordellina, a Possible Origin of the Irish Regulators. The Seán Reid Society Journal. Vol.2, 2002). After a careful examination of Baldano’s tablatures, I have come to consider that, even if the use of the key is not indicated on each cadence, a cantizans (f# – g) is needed no matter how much one wants stick to solmisation and medieval music theory.
¹⁶ Vignon portrait of François Langlois playing the sordellina; Biffi Portrait of Francesco Gabrielli showing a keyed sordellina
¹⁷ The “regulator” was thought to look like the third chanter of the four-voices sordellina illustration in Mersenne (1636,48). Obviously, this pipe can be longer (e.g. to sound low D) and/or bent as Langlois’s, Settala’s or Gabrielli’s sordellinas (cf. note 17).
18 Trichet, Traité des Instruments de Musique (ca.1640), fol.39: “[…] Cest instrument pouvoit avoir un pied et demi de long […]” ([…] This instrument could measure one and a half feet in length […]). Note that, since the author does not inform us about the diameter of the main bore this measurement is useless. Moreover, does this dimension apply to the whole bagpipe (with the bag) or only to the chanters?
¹⁹ Mersenne (1636), p.293: “Encore que cette musette ne soit pas en usage en France, néanmoins je la veux décrire et expliquer, afin que nos facteurs en puissent faire de semblables.”
²⁰ ibid., p.294. Figure reproduced by the present author using Elam Rotam’s font EMS SERENISSIMA
( We can thus read fifteen notes, “the first being the one produced when all the keys are closed; the second represents the sound made with the first hole opened by the mean of the first lifted key, […]” and so on. It is possible to see the following notes: C – D – Eᵇ – E – F – G – a – bᵇ – b – c – d – eᵇ – e – f – g.
²¹ Two main hole dispositions on thetenore
have coexisted. Baldano’s tuning instructions suggest a second chanter with holes for
d – e – f – g – aa – bbᵇ
thumb & a key for
; whereas iconography points mostly towards a fingerhole for the
and a key for naturalf instead.
²² This result has also been found by Tomassi & Montbel in their reconstruction of Settala’s sordellina. ²³ Soprano’s notes: f – g – aa – bbᵇ – bb – cc – cc# – ddthumb
ee – ff – ff# – gg*; Tenore’s notes: d – e – f – f# – g –g# – aa – bbᵇthᵘᵐᵇ* – bb – cc*. (bold notesrepresent keys).
²⁴ Mersenne (1648), p.97. “[…] duas tibias EF suis foraminibus in antica, posticáque parte, [..]]\ ibid., p.98.* “[…] sonum acutissimum tertij calami antiqui Diapason cum acutissimo sono tibiae superioris efficere […]”*
²⁵ Mersenne gives the notes of fifteen sounds, but then speaks about fifteen keys, mixing up – or forgetting – that the first sound corresponds to the whole tube resonance (without pressing keys). Hence, there should be fourteen keys, which, ironically, were correctly engraved.
²⁶ I suspect that the sordellina shown in the Settala’s portrait by Nuvolone had a third chanter different from Tomassi’s prototype. Examining the proportions, it is more likely that the five keys of the rising branch of the v-shaped chanter corresponded to the notes
D – Eᵇ – E – F & F#* (i.e. the longest of those keys, closing the hole drilled on the bend of the pipe). Langlois’s sordellina is indeed smaller but seem to be made according to the same proportions as Settala’s. TheF# key that reaches the bend of the chanter is also visible (the Portrait of Langlois is currently held by the Davis Museum at Wellesley College and could be observed here: (
²⁸ Mersenne (1648), p.97.* “[…] sed cùm quarto calamo in gratiam quartae partis, seu vocis Surdelinam instruamus, clauiculas brachij hk, quae antea tertio calamo conueniebant, in 4 calamum DhkH transferimus, nouis sex kH additis, quibus integro Diatessaron in semitonia diuiso sonos grauiores edat.”
²⁹ Mersenne’s sordellina don’t exhibit those peculiar ψ-shaped keys. My design of theG* key is di-rectly inspired on Settala’s and Langlois’s sordellinas.
³⁰ Mersenne (1636), p.294; id. (1648), p.97; TrichetTraité des Instruments de Musique (*ca.*1640), fol.39. 31 loc. cit.: *“Cet instrument peut servir d’un orgue portatif, mais après qu’il a fait le son le plus grave étant tout fermé, & le vent ne pouvant sortir que par le trou de la pâte, il faut boucher ce trou, quand on lève les clefs pour faire les autres sons, autrement le chalumeau corne et gâte le jeu.”
*³² David, Mariette & Vignon, Langlois’s portrait, inv.3592205, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (see: “*Il ny a orgue ny autre Instrument que la Sourdeline ne surpasse estant touché de celuy cy.”
*³³ Trichet (*ca.*1640), fol.39: “Mais la difficulté estoit bien plus grande de parcourir des doigts tant les trous ouverts que les clavettes qui fermoint les autres trous de ces trois chalumeaux pour faire concerter ces trois par- ties ensemble.”
³⁴ Mersenne (1636), p.294: “Où il faut remarquer que ces Chalumeaux font tous les demitons, comme l’Orgue; & conséquemmment ils doivent avoir vingt-quatre clefs pour faire deux Octaves, puis qu’ils sonnent à ieu couvert, c’est à dire qu’ils ne font nul son qu’à proportion qu’on leve les clefs.”
³⁵ As a good theoretician, Mersenne counts an octave as divided into twelve semitones, hence two octaves should have twice the number. In practice thought, we have effectively twenty-four divisions, but twenty-five notes and as many keys.
³⁶ Terzago, Scarabelli (1666): “[…] quaranta taste, come verghe […]
. Notice the lexical field of the keybords (tasto, taste) used to refer to a woodwind key (chiave, chiavette).
37 Terzago (1664).