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What are Bagpipes?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Bagpipes are musical instruments which are most commonly associated with the British Isles, although they are played in other places as well. The distinctive brassy sound of a set of Great Highland Bagpipes can often be heard in Scottish heritage celebrations and parades. Playing the bagpipes well does require training and skill, or the sounds produced can be quite unpleasant when the player does not know what he or she is doing. Several companies manufacture bagpipes for sale in the United Kingdom and abroad.

There are four main components to a set of bagpipes: an air supply, a bag, a chanter, and a drone. Additional drones may be affixed to the bag to achieve a greater variation in sound. When playing, the bag must be kept fully inflated with the efforts of the player, which can be very physically demanding, especially when the player is also marching. Mechanized methods of creating a steady air supply have been explored, but not widely adopted.

The bag can be made from natural or synthetic materials, but it must be airtight. The player breathes into a blowpipe to supply air to the bags. Most modern blowpipes have a one way valve to prevent air from escaping. Air flows out of the bag and through the drones and chanter to create music. The drones are single note pipes which can be tuned to produce different notes. They continuously emit a low background noise. The chanter is the part of the bagpipes which is actually played, with the player covering or exposing various holes to make notes. Some bagpipes have two chanters which can be played in harmony.

The roots of the bagpipes are very ancient. It is believed that they originated in the Middle East, where relatives of the bagpipes are still played today. As Middle Eastern merchants and explorers met Europeans, the bagpipes spread across the Ancient World. Both the Greeks and Romans referred to the bagpipes in painting, sculpture, and writing. The Romans brought the pipes to the British isles, where they were readily adopted and continue to be played today.

While some people associate bagpipes with ghastly noises, they are in fact quite beautiful when handled by an experienced player. A number of subtle and complex musical tricks can be accomplished with bagpipes. Many of the songs designed for the instrument are laments and epic poems, which complement the sound of the pipes very elegantly.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Bakersdozen — On Jun 16, 2011

@angelBraids - I was a member of a Pipe band for a good while in my teens, though my instrument was the drums rather than the pipes.

It's hard to put an exact time frame on learning, but it would be possible to get quite good in a year or two. Teenagers, those with musical experience and anyone with a lot of determination will probably take to it faster.

The beginner should start with what we call a practice chanter. This is pretty much essential, and you'd need to spend around $80 for a decent one. At this stage it's no bag, just pipes. You could also buy a metronome and perhaps a tutor book for home study.

I would recommend anyone who wants to do well to take bagpipe lessons, as teaching yourself can easily lead to bad habits. As it's more than likely you'll eventually play with a band you need this experience too.

When you're ready to buy your bagpipes be prepared to pay anything from $800 - 5000. Something around the $1000 would be fine, or a good brand sold used would also be fine. It's not worth going for something really cheap as the sound quality will be poor.

By angelBraids — On Jun 15, 2011

Several years ago I was a guest at a party where UK air force men and women played Amazing Grace on bagpipes. It was a haunting and moving sound, and I really appreciate the skill of these musicians.

I wonder how long it takes to learn how to play them. It must take at least a year or two, right?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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