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Matt Seattle has undertaken a series of articles on Bellows Blown bagpipes and their         associated music under the umbrella heading of “Drone Zone”. This is the second such, the first appearing in COMMON STOCK No. 9 of June 1994 entitled “Wider Choice of Notes for the Lowland Piper”.

The Harmonious Piper

The subject of this Drone Zone is harmonies on the pipes, a topic which I had not thought of tackling myself, but which was suggested to me by our esteemed editor. Although I have done some harmonising of traditional tunes, this has usually been for fiddles or other instruments with a more extended range than the 9-note chanter scale. What are the procedures and problems involved in arranging for bagpipes, and can we produce a worthwhile result if we are mindful of the pitfalls?

I shall start by stating some of my own opinions regarding harmony, which are not in any sense a set of rules, but may be useful as a point of departure, or as something to disagree with. Melody can be thought of as horizontal and harmony as vertical (a visual analogy from the standard Western way of notating music). While it is possible to have several horizontal lines proceeding at once (polyphony), in the West our ears have come, through centuries of practice, to expect these horizontal lines to make some vertical sense as well, in other words to form recognisable chords and for there to be a sense of harmonic direction, or to put it another way, a chord progression. This is not to rule out other ways of doing things, or to say anything negative about musical cultures which do not operate in this way, but it is a plain point of fact that a considerably large body of bagpipe music, and particularly Border bagpipe music, is constructed on chord sequences, and has been since long before the 12bar blues became a standard medium for blues, jazz and rock musicians. The most characteristic type of chord sequence in bagpipe music is the double tonic sequence, or rather a variety of double tonic sequences, which I hope someday to explore as fully on paper as I have in less tangible form. The basis of a double tonic sequence is simply that a tune is built on two chords, and one chord ‘fits’ with the bagpipe drone(s) and the other one doesn’t. This pattern, once established, can be repeated, hence the familiar practice of variation writing by pipers which I have discussed in my Border Bagpipe book. It is my broad contention that tunes of this kind do not require additional harmony. Although it is of course possible, and may occasionally be effective, to compose harmonies to this type of tune, everything really necessary is already there in the melody and its relationship with the drone(s).

So what of other pipe tunes? These may be song airs, or dance tunes which have a chord progression other than the double tonic. (I will mention here briefly a type of tune which has a very weak sense of harmonic direction, that is tunes based largely on a pentatonic scale of which there were a great many current in Scotland in the seventeenth Century. On the whole these are vocal or fiddle tunes, but an example likely to be familiar with pipers is Soor Plums Of Galashiels).

When writing harmonies for pipes the most obvious limitation is the range. If you take a tune written within the 9-note range and harmonise it in the same range you will inevitably get passages where the harmony crosses the melody, and those amateurish consecutive   identical chords where the melody moves one way and the harmony the other, in effect   cancelling any movement in both parts. You might achieve a harmonious sound this way, but if the actual tune gets lost in the mush there is very little reason for doing it. There are ways of avoiding this. The most obvious is to write a harmony for another instrument which does not have the same limited range or, as has been done by Moebius and the Quintette des Cornemuses, for bagpipes of different ranges. In both the latter cases however the problems of writing harmonies for a 9-note range are avoided because all the pipes in question have a larger range, usually 12 notes, plus the option of extra chromatic notes within their range. John Goodacre’s writing for the Goodacre Brothers however makes use of instruments with smaller ranges but at different pitches, and this is potentially a useful blueprint for players of Scottish small pipes, where the availability of two instruments in A and D (for example) is not likely to go beyond the bounds of probability.

Enough blether. Now let us arrange a tune. I’ve picked a good hornpipe which hasn’t received a lot of attention from Border pipers. It has survived in a few Highland pipe settings, but being a 3-time or ‘double’ hornpipe is very likely to be a Lowland tune in origin,       although it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.

First, here is the tune, written in the usual pipe scale in A.


Generally I like harmony not to get tangled up with the nine, in other words to stay completely above or below it in pitch. On this occasion Ill allocate the tunes to small pipes in D and write a harmony for A pipes to go beneath it. For purposes of avoiding severe brain contortion I’ll now transpose the tune up a 4th to D (the key signature will be 1 sharp, the mixolydian mode of G, in other words D with a flat 7th).


I have to be careful because the scale of the tune is not now the same as the scale of the   harmony; we have C natural above and C sharp below. The advantage of this is that with the harmony I can make a dominant chord in the drone key of the tune, not possible if both pipes are pitched the same, and in this case the melody strongly desires the dominant chord at each cadence - bagpipe music does not have to end on the tonic (‘home’) chord.

The chord sequence I'll be using has been sketched under the tune, it’s rather obvious and uses I, IV and V chords in the key of D, the notes of which can all be played on an A chanter with the flat 7th. (The A chord in bars 2 and 5 of strain 2 is more a passing chord to show the harmonic thinking involved than one which would be used for actual accompaniment.)

What of the harmony itself? There are always more possibilities than one can actually use, but some are usually better than others. Anything is permitted, but this is not jazz, which I’m quite happy with on occasion, or atonal serialism, which I’m not - some things just don’t suit our “Ancient and Pastoral” music and I tend to go for what may be considered orthodox 3rds and 6ths and their inversions, while keeping in mind the chord progression I want to suggest.

There are usually opportunities for a little contrary motion, unisons occasionally seem the best solution, and parallel 5ths and octaves are best avoided unless you specifically want that particular ‘open’ sound for special effect. The other no-no is parallel motion towards a ‘discord’, the term being used in its technical sense to mean anything other than 3rds, 6ths and their inversions.

If you pay careful attention to the effect created by these ‘illegal’   practices you can hear why they are avoided, but sometimes where you are and where you are going mean that on balance you will have more problems than you avoid if you keep strictly to ‘the book’. As in the rest of life, sometimes there are very good reasons for breaking rules.

The arrangement, written at actual pitch, appears below. The piper playing the melody on D small pipes can read from the first example to get the accustomed eye-to-finger relationship (thus neatly bypassing the brain).