Bagpipes – Musical Instruments with a Rich History
Bagpipes have been in existence for centuries and have been among the most popular musical instruments in Europe. While the find extensive use across Europe, Northern Africa, and the Persian Gulf, the Scottish Highlands is the place that first comes to mind whenever there is talk of bagpipes and bag piping.
Bagpipes have had a very colorful history and have traveled across seas and continents. Bagpipes have evolved continuously over the centuries, both in terms of the sophistication of the instrument and the method in which it is played. However, a set of bagpipes still consist an air supply, a bag, a chanter, and a drone. Additional drones and chanters that are now a part of most bagpipes are a comparatively recent addition and were not present in the bagpipes of old.
Popular belief places the origin of bagpipes in Scotland or Ireland. Bagpipes though, first made their appearance several centuries before Christ in the Middle East. Back then, it was made out of goat skin and had reeds crudely stuck into the bag.
Evidence of bagpipes has also been found in ancient Egypt. As the Mediterranean lands became civilized and population spread through Europe, the bagpipe found its way to Rome, where it became the musical instrument of the infantry.
It is believed that the Romans brought the bagpipe to Scotland in the 14th century, where it was quickly adapted by the natives. However, another school of thought believes the bagpipe came to Scotland through Ireland, while certain others believe the Scots developed it on their own without any external influence. Whatever the case, bagpipes found a permanent home in the hearts and lives of the people of Scotland.
The Great Pipes of Scotland, as they were better known in Europe, have historically been the most used musical instrument in wars. As the pipes could produce sharp and shrill notes that could easily be heard above the din of battle and could carry up to a distance of 10 miles, army units found them to be perfect for leading both infantry and cavalry.
During the Highland revolts of the early 1700s, bagpipes were classified by the ruling government as instruments of war and were banned from use. However, the Highlanders continued to use bagpipes as a mark of their demand for freedom. So beloved was the bagpipe as a musical instrument in Scotland and Ireland, that every village had it along with an official piper.
The piper would play music and entertain villagers at marriages and other village events. The haunting notes of the bagpipe were also used to rally clans to battle, and for marking the passing away of a clan leader or chieftain.
Talking of present times, the bagpipe continues to find use in military units especially in the UK, Canada, and New Zealand. It is played at almost all formal occasions. Police forces in Scotland, Canada, Australia, the US and a number of other countries have also adopted the bagpipe as an official musical instrument and have pipe-bands for playing the instrument.
Noteworthy Scottish Bagpipe Music
Most people are familiar with "Amazing Grace", the bagpipe melody that bands often play at military funerals. However, this tune is not Scottish; it came to the bagpipe by way of England. The author and lyricist wrote this song aboard a slave ship bound for home. Although this popular song soon gained a strong following in Protestant churches, this haunting melody has lyrics that speak neither of Scotland nor of the lives of people who created the Great Highland bagpipes.
The earliest known record of the Scottish bagpipe date to around 1400 A.D. The songs that Scottish pipers first played on their bagpipes had their origin in folk songs heard for centuries at weddings, dances and community celebrations. These songs regale Scottish culture and traditions. They tell the stories of beautiful women, famous clans, Scotland's heroes and places that bonded the Scottish people to each other and to their land.
"Auld Lang Syne" is a familiar tune that we often hear at New Year's celebrations. It plaintively asks, "should auld (old) acquaintance be forgot"? The Scottish author, Robert Burns tells us "no", in a poem he wrote in the 18th century. Burns tells the Scots (and all of those throughout the world who have adopted this tune), that friends and memories must be held dear, no matter how far from home.
"Scotland the Brave" is one of the most famous folk tunes in Scotland. When it is played on the bagpipe, by either a band or single piper, it moves the stalwart clansman to public displays of emotion. The bagpipe melody has been played since the beginning of the 20th century. Cliff Hanley added lyrics to this tune in the mid-1950s, recalling the history of Scotland, its beauty and the fierce spirit of its people.
"Flower of Scotland" is a strong contender to be Scotland's official national anthem. It also details the history of Scotland and its troubled relationship with England. Scotland is officially part of the United Kingdom, after centuries of struggle against British rule. However, the Scottish Football Association and the national rugby team adopted "Flower of Scotland" for their opening ceremonies before each game. It is especially significant when Scottish teams play against England, where the national anthem, "God Save Our Queen" is the ceremonial tune.
The bagpipe is a complex musical instrument that takes time to learn. Every pipe player must commit to taking lessons and going through each stage of training. To develop proficiency, you will need to learn more than reading notes on a musical score. You will also need to master the art of proper breathing. For many players, this is one of the most difficult aspects of learning to play bagpipes. Next, you will need to learn fingering, sometimes quite a feat for any musical instrument, but especially this wind instrument.
Long ago young aspiring bagpipers studied with an accomplished piper. It could take years to master the multiple techniques required to become a competent piper. Today, learning to play bagpipes is easier because of the practice chanter. You will use it to grasp the fundamentals of breathing, fingering and producing the notes of the scale. With practice, you will soon be ready to start producing the notes of the musical scale, but no actual melodies yet.
The practice chanter resembles a flute, but it has a reed, like an oboe. Its purpose is to introduce people to playing bagpipes. Some people attempt to start out with an actual bagpipe. Most experts agree that this method is futile and frustrating even if you are musically inclined or a trained player of a different instrument.
Finding practice music and lessons will be the next step. It helps if an aspiring bagpipe player can already read sheet music. Bagpipe music has special notations on the score, for different techniques that players must use during the selection. It will be difficult to become proficient at bagpipes until you learn to read music.
Some people can progress from the chanter to the bagpipe on their own. It is easy to find a few free lessons on the Internet at Bagpipe Lessons.com. Many large music stores carry CDs, DVDs and bagpipe sheet music. If you are truly interested in learning to play this instrument well, consider taking lessons from a good piping teacher. Check out bagpipe bands in your area and ask for recommendations. Just like long ago, the best pipers had teachers who helped them master this beautiful instrument, step-by-step.
World Pipe Band Championship Video
Simon Fraser University Pipe Band wins the World Pipe Band Championship. Watch the video of the SFU bagpipe marching band playing in front of thousands of happy spectators.