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Four Facts About Bagpipes

Let's learn something we didn't know about bagpipes, courtesy of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids.


Long before bagpipes reached Scotland, much of Europe, southwestern Asia, and northern Africa were already playing early versions of the instrument. In fact, many historians believe that it was a form of the bagpipe that the Roman emperor Nero famously played, not a fiddle as is commonly reported. Bagpipes probably arrived on the British Isles sometime after AD 43 during Rome’s 400-year occupation. But it wasn’t until the late 13th century that they began to appear regularly in British art. Finally in the 14th century, The Canturbury Tales cemented the bagpipe’s place in literature, describing a virtuoso this way: “A baggepype wel coude he blowe and sowne, / And ther-with-al he broghte us out of towne.” It was the Scots who made bagpipes famous worldwide, however. And in the late 20th century, electronic versions of the instrument appeared, shaped and played like the regular kind but with synthesized tones, no air, and no reeds.


There are a few reasons that bagpipers don’t typically appear in jazz, country, or rock groups. First, bagpipes are made for outdoor use, so they’re loud and not easily modulated to quieter tones. Second, they are hard to tune. But probably the biggest problem is that bagpipes are tuned to different tones than the notes of pianos, violins, guitars, horns, woodwinds… well, everything, actually. For example, an A on any other instrument is 440 hz (vibrations per second). But what is called an A on a bagpipe is anything between 476 to 480 hz, a tone between B-flat and B on any other instrument. As a result, when traditionally tuned bagpipes play with other instruments, the result sounds like horns in a traffic jam, only not quite so musical.

It’s possible to modify a bagpipe to something close to the modern scale, but not with great accuracy, meaning that any accompanying instrument has to try to tune to the bagpipe. That’s reasonably doable with brass and woodwinds, harder with stringed instruments, prohibitively time-consuming with pianos and electronic keyboards, and impossible with pipe organs, xylophones, and vibes. Also, any arrangements must avoid the bagpipe’s high G: it won’t be tuned right, no matter what you do.


If you’re reasonably skilled on a modern Western musical instrument, you can play almost any song. That’s because they all offer the 13 notes on the modern Western scale, tuned to the white and black keys on a piano: C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E, F, F sharp, G, G sharp, A, A sharp, B, and C. But that’s not true of a bagpipe. It will play only two of the black-key notes (C sharp and F sharp) and won’t play two of the white-key notes (C and F). Traditional bagpipes also have a note that doesn’t appear on any other Western instrument: a high G that is halfway between G and G sharp.

(YouTube link)


What’s the bagpipe’s bag made of? Today, it’s usually something like Gore-Tex, but traditionally, players used the skin of whatever goat, sheep, pig, cow, or dog happened to be available.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Attack of the Factoids. Weighing in at over 400 pages, it's a fact-a-palooza of obscure information.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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The English Isles? You know Scotland isn't in England right? The term you were looking for is the British Isles, there is no English Isles. England isn't an island, it has land borders with two other countries, Scotland and Wales.
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