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Simple transposition for the musicologically challenged. Neil Corbett.

Whilst I like “proper” pipe music i.e., from the piping traditions, and especially from the borders, I get a lot of pleasure from trying to play other stuff too. Coming from a folk music background on other instruments. I’m always keen to see how many of my favourite tunes (and those of my friends) will work on pipes. When they do, they have the added advantage quite often of being tunes I can play along with friends who play fiddle, bouzouki or what- ever.

It’s surprising how many “non Pipe” tunes will fit, and how good they sound on pipes (well they would if I could play a bit better). The problem is, not many of these tunes are written out in normal pipe keys, so I had to work out quick ways to leaf through a book of tunes and spot the ones which are playable on pipes. Having identified such tunes (which will often be in some “other key”) I also needed an easy way to take music written in one key and trans- pose it in terms of notes on the pipe chanter.

After some experimentation I have now arrived at a simple chart which seems to do the job, and for what it’s worth 1 offer it to you. This is written assuming a nine note “A” smallpipe chanter, but the same principles could be used for chanters in other keys.

This is written to help people who can read the dots when a piece is written in normal pipe keys or scales, but don’t have enough music theory to cope easily with music written in other keys. I guess that represents a good proportion of pipers - even many really accom- plished players.

Spotting playable tunes

There are two aspects to identifying a tune that the pipes can cope with:-

The range between the highest and lowest notes in the tune. We know we only have 9 notes (or perhaps one or two more for those with keyed chanters). This of course is easy to spot if you can count lines on a stave.

The scale in which the tune is played. Will the musical spacing of the notes on our chanter match that required by the tune? This is much harder to spot unless you have a grasp of scale theory (or my table on the next page!)

The next few paragraphs are not compulsory, so either read on if curious or skip to the chart if your brain is already full!


If you have a normal 9 note smallpipe chanter, you’ll probably only ever be playing in one of three types of scale:

  • The major scale rooted on the 3 finger note (“D” on an A chanter)
  • The mixolydian (flattened seventh) scale rooted on the 6 finger note (“A” on an A chanter)
  • The minor (Aeolian) scale rooted on the 5 finger note (“B” on the A chanter)

Remember tunes can go down as well as up from the root note, so lots of major scale tunes will incorporate the lower hand even though the scale starts on the top hand.

The root of a scale is the starting note (Doh in a doh-re-mi major scale a la Julie Andrews!). You can more often than not see it as the final note of a tune and sometimes the first note too (or the first note of the first full bar if there are a couple of lead-in notes before that).

The differences between these three types of scale relate to the number of semitones, either one or two, separating adjacent notes. Our chanters have holes in fixed places of course.

The number of semitones separating notes on the chanter (starting at the bottom hole) are:

2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, so we have to find tunes that can sit within that spacing. (As a guide, the 3 finger position starts at the bold 2)

The major scale is spaced 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 1 (can you see that it starts on 3 fingers (bold), goes up to the top of the chanter, then wraps around back from the bottom ?)

The mixolydian scale is spaced 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1,2 (see how it starts from 6 fingers upwards on our chanters)

The minor scale is spaced 2, 1,2, 2, 1, 2, 2 (from 5 fingers, wrapping over the top by one note)

Pentatonic possibilities

Then, as if life wasn't complicated enough, there are a lot of tunes (especially Scottish) that are pentatonic, that is they only use 5 notes in the scale, missing out the 4th and the 7th. This would allow a tune in G, say, to be played “as read” in the music, because of the absence of any notes of C natural.

Enough of theory, lets look at my chart. You don't have to understand music, you just need to check the notes on the sheet music against the columns on the chart.

Note this chart applies to pipes playing in A with nine notes. Its possible to use a similar idea with other pipes, but you’ll need to re-map the chart.


   The 5 dark grey rows represent the 5 lines of the stave as shown. The paler grey rows show where “ledger lines” might be used above and below the main stave.

The numbers represent the chanter fingering from 0 (left hand top fingers and thumb off - top A) T= Thumb only, 3=3 fingers on, etc.

A chart for pentatonic tunes


 If the scope of the tune falls within the overall range of the 9 note chanter, then tunes in the keys of A major. G major, E minor and A minor can also be played if certain “offending” notes are not present in the tune. This is commonly so in pentatonic tunes. So we can have another table to show this:



How to use the chart

  • Look at the key signature on the music, and note the number of sharps or flats (or nei- ther), and the tune’s highest and lowest notes.
  • Refer to the chart in the column for the number of sharps/flats, and check the range of notes against the highest and lowest.
  • If it fits, the melody is playable.

But watch out - there’s always a catch. Some tunes have “accidentals” i.e. notes not belong- ing to the nominal key of the tune. These are shown by sharps flats or naturals next to the actual note in the music. Keep an eye out for them, they might:

  • Make an otherwise playable tune unplayable
  • Vice versa

or sometimes if they are only passing notes you might get away with ignoring them or play- ing the nearest note you have. Only your ear will tell you this.

A couple of examples

Let’s look at a tune from way outside the highland/border traditions - a nice Belgian tune called Waltz for Polle


Well, it has one sharp, so looking at the table we can see that to be playable it should go no higher than the 4th line up of the stave and no lower than the “C” ledger line below. So we can play it. See below for how to transpose it.

Here’s another more challenging example found in the key of one flat, it’s a beautiful Breton song called Kimiad ar soudard yaouank (young conscript’s farewell). Please don’t ask me to pronounce it, but it sounds great on pipes.



Checking the table in the one flat column, you can see the tune in this key needs to go no higher than the C and no lower than the B below middle C. Our three finger note is at F on the stave. Note by the way that the tune changes from 4/4 to 3/4 in the middle. Well I said it was challenging - although finger wise, it’s easy to play, because it should be played quite slow.

Finally, here’s a pentatonic tune, kindly suggested by Jock, under whose watchful eye this article is composed! This time it is I think from the Border tradition. It has a key signature of one sharp (G major), but has no C’s at all and no F’s either.


Although its key signature is one we can not normally play without transposing, the missing notes allow us to go right ahead and play it just as it is.


Transposing the tune so you can play it.


There are two approaches to this - either in your head, or on paper.

Transposing in your head


This way you use the sheet music as it is, and learn to re-map fingers/ brain to “see one note/ play another”. Actually, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can learn to do this, although it gets harder the more keys you learn to read because you can get mixed up. I find the best way is to fix my mind on the position on the stave of the 3 finger note and read up and down from there. Try it with Waltz for Polle above using G as the 3 finger note.

Rewriting the tune in a friendly key


Tunes like Kimiad above in one flat are not nearly so easy in the head. If you can’t get your head round re-mapping you fingers, you can rewrite (transpose) the music into the key you can read. If you’ve never tried it, it is not half so hard as you might think. The only thing that changes is the position of the notes up and down the stave. If you have a computer with almost any cheap music writing software (this can cost as little as under £20) it will almost certainly transpose for you at the touch of a button. All packages are different so I can’t tell you how, but it’s generally easy.

Failing that you can do it by hand. This is easy but slow of course. Just use my chart. For each note, refer to the column indicating the key signature written on the original music,

  • note the fingering for that note,
  • look up the same fingering in my ## column
  • read off the line on the stave,
  • write the note on that line on your transposed copy, and Bob’s your

Note however, when you transpose whether by sight or on paper, the melody will sound fine, but you’ll still really always be playing in Amix/ Bmin/ Dmaj and not any other scale/ key (assuming you have A smallpipes). If you are playing solo, this is no problem. If you are playing along with other instruments, then, as ever, they have to play in your key. This is often not a problem. Lots of fiddle players for instance will happily transpose in their heads from D major to G major etc. This is partly because their instruments make it easy to do that, by playing the same only one string further over, and partly because they tend to prac- tice scales a lot when they are learning. Guitarists have it even easier, they can just slap on a capo at the appropriate fret and play as before.

Lets look at our first two examples above after they have been transposed.



Last, not least, what to do about drones



Scale                                           Drones

Mixolydian Rooted on A              AEa

Major Rooted on D                      Dad ideally - if you have 4 drones ADa is next best

A-A is OK

AEa - often used, but a bit discordant

Minor Rooted on B                      BDb best if possible ADa tolerably.

Well, that’s it. I hope some of you find al this useful. Remember, as long as you understand how to use the table, the theory behind it is not essential knowledge.