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Nigel Richard

This article is basically a summary of the talk that I gave at the LBPS collogue last November. This talk was illustrated with brief pieces being played on the cittern to give examples of various styles. I will cover much the same ground here, without the benefit of this method of illustration, but 1 will go into the background theary in slightly more detail.

But first, is accompaniment necessary for the pipes - well, generally speaking, no. Pipe music is built round a drone in much the same way as, for example Indian folk and classical music is. The melody line is almost always intended to be heard in the context of the drone which provides a simple pedal note harmony, and because of this the bagpipes have been seen as ideally a solo instrument. In the past most pipers did not approve of the idea of the pipes playing with other instruments, and with the Highland pipes this was not a very practical proposition anyway. 

One of the first recordings which joined a pipe band with orchestral instruments (Amazing Grace) caused quite a stir, and was no doubt disapproved of by many people in piping circles at the time. Nowadays all this has changed and many folk groups have pipers playing with harmony coming from guitars, bouzoukis, keyboards, etc. 

So whereas accompaniment for the pipes may not be necessary, it is now happening on a significant scale, so the next question is; Is it desirable. I think that depends on how it is done, not so much in terms of the technical excellence of the performance, but more in terms of the appropriateness of the harmony and rhythmic feel to the melody being played on the pipes. 

I have heard some excellent music involving pipes in traditional sessions and folk concerts, which powerfully puts across the argument for this combination, on the other hand results can be dire! These impressions are of course subjective, but after some 25 years accompanying traditional tunes on the pipes, fiddle, flute etc., (and not having been thrown out of a session yet!), I've decided to stick my neck out and say what I think are the basic elements to getting it right.

  • The first guideline is to be aware of the importance of the drone, and appreciate that if you play any chord on your instrument that could not comfortably include the drone note, then it is unlikely to sound good with the pipes.
  • Secondly the basic 9 note scale of the standard pipes implies a limited range of chords. These are built up from the triads within the scale which run 1,3,5:2,4,6: etc. This gives the following chords A major, B minor, C# diminished, D major, E minor, F# minor, G major.

The “double tonic” often referred to as characteristic of Scottish music is the movement                  between A major (the tonic) and G major. Other combinations of these 9 notes can be used, try them out against an A drone.

  • Partial chords:- It is not necessary to always use the three notes in the standard chord triad. Often a chord which misses out the third altogether can be most effective, particularly with A and E. Parallel fifths, deeply frowned upon in classical harmony are no problem with the pipes, the double tonic being a perfect example:
  • Keys:- When we say what key a tune is in we basically mean what note does the melody revolve around, even if that note is hardly ever played. Although the drone is in A (for example) the tune may be in D, B minor, or E minor. The best (though not foolproof) guide is to see what note the melody ends on. Remember the tune quite often changes key between different parts. 
  • How do we tell what actual chords to play as the tune progresses? This is largely a matter of experience, but what we need to look for is the telltale information in the melody line that indicates that the chord is about to change, and which direction it is likely to go. It’s a good idea to get used to the sound of the arpeggios of the chords so you can recognise them in the melody line. With pipe music the key chords are I IV V VII, i.e. with pipes in A A, D, Em and G. The chord of IIm (Bm) is also important.

With many pipe tunes you can quickly establish whether it’s a I IV V progression, or one based round I IV and VII. The I IV V progressions do not dominate the repertoire nearly as much as in Folk music (and pop music) generally. It’s a good idea when playing the V chord (E) to choose an inversion that omits the third of the scale, giving the chord a “floating”       neither major or minor feel. Tunes actually strongly involving E minor (such as Miss    Campbell of Shiness, or The Little Cascade) are quite obvious. The same is true of Bm tunes, although this chord is used extensively in many other tunes.

The next thing is to be aware of the scale being played. Heptatonic and pentatonic tunes (i.e. tunes with one or two of the possible seven notes in the pipe scale missing) are surprisingly common in pipe music. In these tunes the harmony should be more restricted. For example the popular march “John Macmillan of Barra” has no G or D (pentatonic), it’s hard to avoid the D chord in this tune, but chords with G (G and E minor) are best avoided, E can be played without the third. Another example is the reel “Dolina Mackay”, here there are no C#s, and the tune has a definite A minor feel about it. In this case the note C natural which is not part of the pipe scale is implied by the melody and can be introduced into the har- -mony Finally most good Border pipes and various other pipes are capable of playing a number of cross fingered accidentals, in particular C nat, F nat, and G#. If the tunes use these notes the harmony rules naturally change, you can find yourself playing a Bmaj7 chord during a Dminor tune and all the time there is a drone going on in A! Having this sort of harmony with the pipes is surprising but can give a very attractive sound.

Basically I think it works best if you keep the accompaniment fairly simple harmonically, the danger of playing a lot of complicated jazz style chords is that it tends to take away from the inherent simple strengths of the pipe sound, and introduce harmonies which are not part of the tune. From this point of view it is often better to tune a guitar in DADGAD, since full voicings of chords are more difficult to avoid in standard tuning. The overall aim is to support and enhance the melody, without dominating it, either in volume, or in style - if you want to play solos, learn the tunes!

  • Rhythm:- Its here that the accompanist can really add a great deal to the tunes. The melody line being played on the pipes suggests but does not generally play the underlying rhythm. Also the pipes with the continuous sound have no possibility of staccato. Here you have the freedom to emphasise the beat, the back beat, or the upbeat, or any combination of beats. Or for example you can play 3/4 against 6/8. There is a limit to the amount that the “boom chick” vamping style can be effective - use it selectively! One of the most powerful tools that you have is volume, the pipers can speed up, or introduce more embellishments, but their instruments have no dynamic range.


I appreciate that an understanding of harmony is not essential for good melody playing on pipes or other single line instruments such as the flute and the fiddle. However a knowledge of the harmonic structure of tunes can be a great help in their interpretation, and it is   certainly a big benefit when you are writing tunes. Playing a simple accompaniment can be less technically demanding than playing a fast melody, but the accompanist has more   freedom of interpretation, I certainly find it just as rewarding.