Due to the way our sheet music is written and the common use of Korg chromatic tuners, the description of a bagpipe’s pitch can be a confusing affair. Our scale is written on the page with what we call low A corresponding to the note A which sounds at 440 Hz; this is the A on a piano just above middle C. However, modern highland bagpipes do not pitch this low A at 440 Hz, but more like 480 Hz or higher. It is common when referring to a bagpipe’s pitch to quote the frequency at which low A tunes, e.g. my older Colin Kyo chanters tune at 482 Hz.
Due to their low cost, Korg chromatic tuners are often used to tune bagpipes (at least the drones anyway). However, these cheap tuners, while they have the ability to adjust the reference pitch away from 440, have a limited range of 410-480 Hz. If your low A exceeds this range, one trick is to simply divide your pitch by 1.05946 (twelfth root of two) and set the reference pitch to that. So for me, 482/1.05946 = 455 Hz. By doing this, the tuner will no longer report that it is hearing the note “A” when low A is being played, but will instead say “Bb”. So by lowering the reference pitch down to 455 from 480 since my 482 chanter will always register as sharp if left at 480, the reference pitch goes down while the name of the note goes up to compensate. Which explains why some pipers will answer the question of what pitch they play at with “482 Hz” while others will say “455 Hz”.
The issue of pitch gets confusing because there are older pipe chanters that do indeed have low A that pitches in the 450s, though even more are known to tune to 466 Hz. 466 Hz is true Bb (B flat) based on the orchestral standard of low A being 440 Hz: 440 * 1.05946 = 466 Hz. The Bb (low A = 466 Hz) standard for highland bagpipes is common because it is a true concert pitch and it goes well with brass marching (military) bands.
So, we’ve seen that there are many pitches for highland bagpipes, from the 450s up to the 480s, a range that encapsulates several different standards for how to refer to pitch, be the reference pitch referred to as the note A or the note Bb. One has to pay attention to context to discern if, for example, someone has quoted their pitch as being 460 Hz and whether that pitch refers to their low A playing at 460 Hz or low A playing at 460*1.05946 = 487 Hz.
All this to say that you’ll see more and more people asking about highland pipe chanters that play at A = 440 Hz. And why should they not? That’s the way we write our music. Is it too much to ask that we actually play what we write, at the pitches every other musical instrument expects based on what we write? Must we be confined to only playing with other pipers who also have the same randomly tuned pipe chanter we do? But, without fail, someone will suggest the person seeking a 440 chanter should instead buy one of the many available Bb chanters on the market. They’re thinking, “Oh, this person wants a concert pitch chanter. They just don’t know how to ask correctly.” This drives me nuts! Yes, if you have a Bb chanter and you set your tuner to 466 Hz, it should read the note name “A”. But this should not be conflated with playing low A at 440 Hz! It is true that if you set the tuner to 440 Hz reference pitch, and you play a Bb chanter it should report that your low A is sounding as the note “Bb”. But again, that has nothing to do with someone wanting to play low A at 440 Hz! The pitch. of low A. AT 440 Hz!!! There are two viable concert pitches: low A = 440 Hz = concert A and low A = 466 Hz = concert Bb. They ARE NOT the same.
There are several ACTUAL A-440 chanters on the market. MacLellan has had one available for a while. McCallum also recently came out with one (and also for sale here, though you can see on the same website, but for the Bb chanter, that this retailer can’t tell the difference between 440 and 466 chanters!). 440 and 466 are NOT the same thing despite what adjusting a Korg tuner has taught you about the relationship between setting the reference pitch higher or lower and whether it says you’re playing A or Bb!
Anyways, below are some recordings of a low A = 440 Hz chanter made for me some years ago by EJ Jones. Chanter reed is a Gilmour, drones are Kron standards with prototype Ackland A 440 drone reeds (only one tenor is playing, my bad). One barrier to playing A 440 chanters is that the drones aren’t made to play that flat. Several manufacturers have offered 440 drone reeds in the past. I still own my Wygent set and MG reeds made extenders for the normal reeds that attached to the tuning plug end (not the drone end), but neither of those ever got me comfortably to a 440 reference pitch; the bass was still extended way out on both tuning pins, for example. Terry Ackland has graciously extended our relationship beyond prototyping normal drone reeds for him and made me a couple different sets of 440 Hz drone reeds. Finally, drone reeds that get you all the way down to 440 Hz but still have normal tuning positions on the tuning pins! And they sound good. The tunes here come from a collection of Irish tunes that can be played on Scottish smallpipes in A and be in the correct key to join in on an Irish session; the tunes can be found on my Free Tune books page; the C natural was sounding so well on this chanter I decided to play a few tunes that incorporated it. Enjoy!
Salmon Tails up the Water – we don’t have low E or low F#, hence the kind of odd low G and low A sequence at the beginning of the tune; otherwise the rest fits!
McKenna’s – reminiscent of the Swallow’s Tail but I missed EVERY birl
Should you be interested in playing in A 440, keep an eye out for when Ackland 440 reeds become commercially available. Additionally, an alternate 440 chanter to use would be a border pipe chanter like Piper’s Choice, which comes equipped with a chanter reed made by highland pipe chanter reed maker John Elliott. I would advise getting the harder strength border pipe chanter reed along with using an effective moisture control system. Additionally, you’d want to make sure the chanter tenon was large enough to not need tons of hemp to make it fit into a highland pipe chanter stock.
Edit: I demonstrated an updated version of these reeds on Facebook playing tunes a bit more native to the Scottish idiom, but Facebook destroys the audio with compression so below you’ll find the audio off my Zoom H4n Pro that goes with the Facebook video also linked below.
Audio of Facebook Video – A couple of MSRHJ and other more “native” tunes than what is presented above as a 47.3 MB mp3 file.