A Pipers Guide to Music

A Highland Pipers Guide to Music

A Pipers’ Guide to Music [to read this white on black click here]

One consequence of the changes that have taken place in Scottish piping in recent years is that pipers who formerly played only from music written for the Great Highland Bagpipe now find themselves being presented with music for other instruments, music which makes demands on the players which they have not met with before.


The purpose of this brief tutor is to offer pipers who have little or noexperience of the more arcane mysteries of written music some techniques for mastering these new challenges. At the same time, it offers techniques that can be adapted by players of pipes in other keys to enable them to read GHB music.

 It assumes that pipers are familiar with reading GHB music. It will not cover details such as rhythm, time signature or note-values. If you need help with reading these elements of music notation I recommend the theory books of any of the Music Examination Boards.

This tutor will also lay the groundwork for a future section which will tackle the question of writing harmonies for bagpipes.

Part One       Keys


This tutor assumes that pipers are familiar with reading GHB music. It will not cover details such as rhythm, time signature or note-values. If you need help with reading these elements of music notation I recommend the theory books of any of the Music Examination Boards.


Keys and Their Signatures

The majority of highland pipe music is of this format:


Figure 1  The 42nd Highlanders Farewell to Gibraltar[from Maclachlan’s Piper’s Assistant]

Midi sound file 1

A musician other than a highland piper could read this music, but the notes they played would be rather different

Midi sound file 2


Why is this?

The answer is revealed by the following images. Fig 2 shows the music that our non-GHB player would need if they were to play the same notes as the GHB player.

Fig 2

Fig 3 shows the music that represents to the non GHB player the sounds that were produced by them when playing from the GHB music in figure 1. [listen to midi 2]

Fig 3

It is clear that each of these music images show the ‘same’ notes; each dot is in the same position; what is more, figures 1 and 3 produce exactly the same sounds when read by a non-GHB player. However, figures 2 and 3 contain symbols which the GHB music in fig. 1 does not.

Our first task is to understand what these differences mean and why they exist.

Key Signatures

The first difference between figs 1 and 2 comes at the beginning of the music. Each figure begins the line with the ‘Clef’ symbol [clef =’clue’]. Fig. 1 then has the time signature, [which is also common to all, and which we here take to be understood by all] and immediately after gets straight on with the music. Figures 2 and 3 however, before their time signature, have a further bunch of symbols. Together these symbols form the ‘Key Signature’ – they tell the non-GHB player what ‘key’ they are to play in, that is to say, which notes must have adjustments in pitch made to their apparent notated pitch. Fig 3 also contains additional symbols, known as ‘accidentals’ before certain notes which further adjust the pitch, in this case to cancel out the adjustments imposed by the key signature [seems odd? Don’t worry - it will become clearer later]


Why do we need to know what key we are playing in? GHB players do not need to know; they have only nine notes and they never venture beyond them [in orthodox piping]. But other musicians have a much fuller range of choices. The key signature exists to inform them which of these choices to make. The choices themselves come in what we might call ‘packages’ - what music theory calls ‘keys’. The key signature exists to tell players which ‘package’ of choices they must make to play the ensuing music as the notator intended.


Because of the limited/non-existent choices available to GHB pipers, GHB music only ever requires one package; so, the GHB piper does not need a ‘key signature’. Not, that is, until they play with another musician who asks them ‘what key is that in?’

Before exploring this further, let’s take a similar look at another tune from Maclachlan’s collection. This is Robertson’s Quickstep

Fig 4

Midi 3


And here is the same music played by a non-GHB musician

Midi 4

And here is the notation of what this player is actually playing:

Fig 5

A workable tune, you might think, but definitely not what the GHB piper played. Here is how it would be notated to sound like the GHB music

Fig 6

The left hand end of fig 4, the GHB music, looks identical to that of fig 1- like most GHB music it has no key signature. But the beginning of fig 6 looks different to that of fig 2. It has a different key signature. The GHB piper was playing in a different key!

OK. Let’s take just one more example from MacLachlan, this time The Stormont Lads. This is the last four bars of the second part:

Fig 7 The Stormont Lads

And here’s what the non-GHB player would make of this music:

Midi 5

And here’s the music written to sound the way the non-GHB player played it:

Fig 8

And how they’d expect to be written to replicate what the GHB piper played

Fig 9

Again, the key signature is different; the GHB piper is playing in yet another key!


As an exercise, you might try identifying the key of a range of tunes from your repertoire, or from any GHB collection.


So, what’s the difference between these three keys?