Bagpipe chanter tuning

The first thing to know about bagpipe chanter tuning is it is different than the more common equal temperament scale which has note frequencies increasing by multiplying the previous note by 2^(1/12). To fill out one octave of the equal temperament scale, you would multiply an established fundamental note, say 440 Hz, by 2^(X/12) where X is from 1 to 12. Instead of this equal temperament scale, bagpipers use the just intonation scale which is achieved by multiplying the fundamental note by fractions made of small numbers, like 5/3=1.66666, instead of the corresponding equal temperament 2^(9/12)=1.6818. You can already see there’s more beauty in the just intonation scale. If bagpipers used the equal temperament scale the drones would sound out of tune for every note but the As, although B, D, and E might be close enough. C#, F#, and G would be way off; hence why we need to beauty of the just intonation scale.

All 12 notes in an equal temperament scale, starting at A, are labeled:

Note: A Bb B C C# D Eb E F F# G G# A

Value of X: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Those # symbols mean “sharp”, b symbols mean “flat”, and no symbol means “natural”. I haven’t taken the time to figure out why we don’t just call them A B C D E F G H I J K L A, it is what it is for now.

The corresponding notes in the bagpipe entire 9 note scale are:

G A B C# D E F# g a

This means the bagpipe scale is in the key of D major (because of the C# and F#) but oddly enough our scale starts on A instead of D when we write the music out. To music people you would be better off saying the key of Eb (E-flat) major ONLY if you happen to be playing a Bb/Orchestral chanter where low A is meant to tune to Bb = 466 Hz. Most modern chanters are sharper than this convention so it might be better to say the key is A mixolydian (since we tune our drones to “A”) with a really out of tune sharp low A at 480 Hz instead of the standard 440 Hz. A mixolydian is the same as A major (C#, F#, and G#) but with a flattened 7th note (G instead of G#). When you look at sheet music, it tells you what key to play it in right next to the clef symbol. When you look at pipe music you *should* see a D major or A mixolydian key indicated.

D major

A mixolydian

That funny looking symbol, ♮, is the symbol for natural. It is there to remind you that even though the music may look like it’s in A major (C#, F#, and G#) being heavily based around the note A, it’s actually in D major/A mixolydian (C#, F#, and G). You might find some non-bagpipe music written in A major that you can still play on the bagpipes because the tune contains no G notes that would require G# to be played.

A major

Sometimes bagpipe music books leave off the key signature entirely because they presume that no one other than a bagpiper will want to read the music, as if grace notes or our arbitrary selection of A = 480 Hz were really that off putting. The problem with this is that no symbols indicates the key of C major (no sharps or flats). Yikes! You can play C major tunes on the bagpipe as long as there are no C or F notes indicated.

C major

Lastly, some tunes are written in the key of G major (F# only). You can play these as long as there are no C notes in the tune.

G major

Of course there are a bunch of other notes that fall in the just intonation scheme that aren’t included in the normal bagpipe scale. We have 7 unique notes (2 As and 2 Gs make 9 total) whereas the chromatic scale has 12. The extra notes we don’t usually use include G#, Bb, C, Eb, and F. As an aside, because our scale is usually limited to a subset of the available notes, what are really C# and F# are usually referred to by pipers as just C and F, but to other musicians C means C natural whereas we need to be clear that our “C” is actually a C# (C sharp) and the same is true for our “F”. Sometimes you can cross-finger these “extra” notes (C is usually achieved by putting your ringer finger down instead of your pinkie on the right hand and F is usually achieved by putting down your ring finger on your left hand when playing F#). If you can cross-finger C, then you can play a G major tune that does contain C notes! Likewise, if you can also cross-finger F, then you can play C major tunes that contain C and F! However, tunes in these keys are not likely to sound as good on the bagpipe because in the background you’ll have the drones going playing the relative note A. As you can imagine, it’s better to have G drones for G major tunes and C drones for C major tunes. Check out this blog post for a special highland pipe chanter specially tuned to be played against G drones in addition to having a permanent C instead of C# so that it plays in G major/A dorian instead of the usual D major/A mixolydian key.

Now that the theory is out of the way for now (Ewan MacPherson has a great page here I learned a lot from), there are several resources for learning how to (and understanding the theory behind) tuning a bagpipe with an equal temperament tuner. Now, this sounds like an odd thing to want to do since we don’t use the equal temperament scale. The reason you would want to use an equal temperament tuner to tune a just intonation instrument is simple, economics. Bagpipe tuners cost over $100 and a regular old Korg is about $20. Although, there are some bagpipe tuner apps that are pretty cheap (~$10) for use on smart devices.

A more general treatment of the subject of just intonation not specific to bagpipes can be found here, which is a useful resource for figuring how to tune such an instrument. I have decided to combine this resource with Ewan’s because the former isn’t relevant to bagpipes and the latter is incomplete. Specifically, Ewan’s page doesn’t address the tuning of cross-fingered notes like C and F (technically called accidentals since they fall outside of our designated key of D/A mixolydian). Why do we care about these other notes we might never use? Well, someday you might use them! Perhaps you’re playing a Gordon Duncan tune and I bet you $5 there’s a 50/50 shot of finding an accidental in there somewhere. Maybe you’re starting up a bagad band in the Breton tradition so you’ve bought the bagad chanter that Xavier Boderiou just came out with and you want to know how to tune the C and F when you insert the pastilles into the C# and F# holes? Or maybe you’re trying to play a church Hymn like the one I transposed this morning (There’s a Friend for little Children) to the bagpipes and it just about fits on the bagpipe scale except it’s in the key of G major (meaning F# as usual but C natural in stead of C#) and you need to make sure your C is in tune when cross-fingered.

Time for some more theory and resources before you we get to the technique of tuning with an equal temperament tuner. Below you’ll find a table generated from an Excel spreadsheet I made a long time ago. The reference pitch for low A is set to 480 Hz since that is the most common pitch for modern pipe chanters. However, this absolute pitch is arbitrary and easily changed. The first column is the note name followed by the X you’d have to put in 2^(X/12) to get that equal temperament note whose frequency is then in the 3rd column [480*2^(X/12)]. In the 4th column is the fraction needed to multiply our low A, 480 Hz, by to get the just intonation tuned note whose frequency is in the 5th column. In the 6th column is the cents deviation flat (-) or sharp (+) of that just intonation tuned note from the perfectly tuned equal temperament note. These “cents” deviations are the key to tuning your bagpipe with an equal temperament tuner. Having set the tuner to a reference pitch of 480 Hz, when you play F#, for instance, the tuner should read the note F# AND for it to be in tune on your bagpipe it would need to be -15.64 cents flat of what the tuner itself considers to be in tune. So, the needle will be a bit to the left of straight up and down. Note that the cent deviations in the 6th column do NOT change when you change the reference low A frequency! They’re good regardless of the absolute pitch of your low A, be it 480 Hz or 440 Hz. Cents are just a way to divide up the space between equal temperament notes; there are 100 cents between every note (which means the size of 1 cent changes depending on which notes you’re talking about being in between because as we’ve seen above, the equal temperament scale is exponential, not linear). The 6th column has the frequency of the just intonation tuned note for comparison with the frequency of the equal temperament tuned note. Notice how clean the frequencies in column 6 (just intonation tuned notes) are compared to column 3 (equal temperament tuned notes).

You can make your own tuning table like this by downloading the excel spreadsheet here: ChanterTuningBlog (change the reference pitch of low A by changing the value in the yellow cell in the top left hand corner). I’ve placed a copy on Google docs too in case you don’t have Excel. You’ll note in the table and the spreadsheet that there are multiple entries for a couple notes. There’s Gm, Gj, and Gh for high G which the lower case letters stand for m=MacNeill, j=Just, and h=Harmonic. For modern bagpipe tuning, you’ll use Gh. There are many fractions to pick from when making your just intonation scale and research of old recordings has shown that other tunings different from today’s convention have been used. These designations follow those on Ewan’s webpage. D has Dm and Dj, where modern convention is Dj. My own study of various high G tunings can be found in this blog post. You’ll also notice I’ve included all of the “extra” 5 notes we don’t usually use, just in case you find occasion to use them and have figured out how to make your chanter make a sound resembling that note. I have highlighted the notes we usually use in red.

Note name X in 2^(X/12) freq of ET note just fraction freq of just note cents deviation
Bb 13 1017.08 32/15 1024
A 12 960.00 2/1 960 0.0
G# 11 906.12 15/8 900 -12.0
Gm 10 855.26 9/5 864 17.2
Gj 16/9 853.3333333 -4.0
Gh     7/4 840 -31.8
F# 9 807.26 5/3 800 -16.0
F 8 761.95 8/5 768 13.3
E 7 719.19 3/2 720 1.9
Eb 6 678.82 45/32 675 -10.0
Dm 5 640.72 27/20 648 19.1
Dj     4/3 640 -2.0
C# 4 604.76 5/4 600 -14.0
C 3 570.82 6/5 576 15.3
B 2 538.78 9/8 540 3.8
Bb 1 508.54 16/15 512 11.4
A 0 480.00 1/1 480 0.0
G# -1 453.06 15/16 450 -12.0
Gm -2 427.63 8/9 426.6666667 -4.0
Gh     7/8 420 -31.8
F# -3 403.63 5/6 400 -16.0
F -4 380.98 4/5 384

I would be remiss if I didn’t provide the following graphic which I believe was made by bob864 on the forums which graphically shows you the deviations for all the normal notes on the bagpipe scale if you’re using something like a standard Korg tuner:

Looking at the table, it is interesting to note that C (natural) has the same offset as F#, but with the opposite sign. Same thing for F (natural) having the same offset as C#, but with the opposite sign. So, if you’re already familiar with the offsets for the normal notes, the accidental offsets are just as easy to remember. Unfortunately the other popular accidental is G# and its opposite is Bb which is a note we don’t play even rarely.

Below is a summary of possible cross-fingerings that MIGHT work with your chanter/reed combination. None of them may work.

x = covered hole; o = open hole, top hand on left, bottom hand on right

Bb = x xxx xxox

C (natural) = x xxx xoxo

Eb = x xxo xoox OR x xxo xoxo (basically experiment with different bottom hand configurations)

F (natural) = x xox xxxo OR x xox ooxo

G# = x oxx xxxo

Finally, you can hear the scale with the C and F added in this recording to give you this slightly augmented bagpipe scale:

G A B C C# D E F F# G A

You’ll note that the tone of the bagpipe in that recording is a little different. That recording was made with a 3/4 set of John Center bagpipes with original chanter. Old 3/4 chanters are very similar to modern border pipe chanters in size and construction. Many modern highland chanters cannot play these accidentals anywhere close to being in tune (either cross-fingered or just taped like crazy). This chanter was capable of playing C, C#, F, and F# and they were recognizable as such. Don’t be surprised if all you get is some really ugly noise when you try these cross-fingerings on a modern highland chanter. Chanters are designed with the 9 notes we usually use in mind, and rarely the accidentals. Easier reeds are generally more capable of producing these notes than harder ones. Furthermore, chanters with smaller holes will probably do better as well. Lastly, despite this post being about tuning those notes, in the recording above, I didn’t check to see if the cross-fingered C and F were in tune, I just tuned the C# and F# and hoped for the best. If your tune has both C and C# and F and F#, that’s the best you can do. But, as in the hymn linked earlier in this post, where you only encounter C with no C# or F with no F# then you can tune specifically for that note.

4 thoughts on “Bagpipe chanter tuning

  1. Nice job thanks Patrick!

    Makes all our lives (at least mine that is for sure!) so much easier.


  2. Hello Old Piper in the USA’s land of the sand…pun intended. You have posted a topic that has had me puzzled for some time. I do think I understand it better now than before as you out it out in a way I could grasp and understand. A bit techy but not too techy,
    Thanks for putting it in a way I could understand.


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