How Do Bagpipes Make Sound?

Written by matt mckay
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How Do Bagpipes Make Sound?
Bagpipes make sound by air blown over vibrating reeds. (Dudelsackpfeifen image by ernstboese from Fotolia.com)

Bagpipes may seem like a complex instrument, but the actual working components that make its sound are straightforward. There are several types of bagpipes that all produce sound in a similar fashion, but the most common bagpipe in the United States is the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe.

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Anatomy

The primary anatomy of bagpipes is common to all types, with a few minor differences. All bagpipes include an inflatable airbag to provide air to the sound-making components. Drone pipes attached to the top of the airbag produce a single fixed-note, which harmonises with the melody played by the piper. The chanter is attached to the bottom of the bag and contains fingering holes for the piper to produce melody notes. The chanter is similar in design to a recorder instrument or simple flute, and the holes are covered or uncovered by the piper's fingers in order to produce the different notes.

Air Supply

Great Highland Bagpipes and similar designs use a blowpipe to supply the bag with air. The piper periodically blows into the pipe to replace the air that is expelled during playing, and forces the air through the instrument by pushing on with the elbow. Other bagpipes employ a bellows attached to the airbag. The bellows is pumped by the player's elbow, and takes the place of the blowpipe. Air is the catalyst for the bagpipe sound.

Sound-making Components

The bagpipe components that produce sound are vibrating double reeds connected to the bag end and chanter, and single tube reeds attached to the bag end of the drone pipes. Reeds are typically made of wood or plastic, and vibrate to produce sound when air is blown over them. The double-reed system is also used on oboes, an orchestral instrument similar to a clarinet. The bagpipe is considered a woodwind instrument, which includes single-reed instruments such as the clarinet and saxophone, and non-reed instruments such as the flute and recorder.

Types

Aside from Great Highland Bagpipes of Scotland, other countries have their own variation. Uillean pipes are of Irish design, and are used for Irish and Celtic music. The uillean pipe uses the bellows air system, and is sometimes called an "elbow" pipe. Northumberland pipes, also called "border or small pipes," also use a bellows system, and originated in southern Scotland on the English border. Bagpipes of other countries include France's biniou, the Austrian bock, the German dudelsack and the pijpzak from the Netherlands. Each bagpipe design has a particular sound.

Materials

Bagpipes use a variety of materials for their construction. The chanter and drones are made of wood or plastic and the bag is made of animal hide or synthetic rubber. The mounts between the bag and pipes are called stocks, and are usually made of wood. Decorative appointments on the drones are made of plastic, bone or ivory. Cloth is typically used for the exterior bag and the cords that hold the drone pipes together. Other than the cloth and decorative parts, the type of materials used can have an effect on the sound quality of the instrument.

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