Bagpipes | Smallpipes

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Arabic: مزمار القربة (mizmāru l-qírba), القربة (al-qírba); Finnish: säkkipilli; French: cornemuse; German: Sackpfeife, Dudelsack; Greek: άσκαυλος (áskavlos), ασκομαντούρα (askoma[n]doúra), γκάιντα (gáida), τσαμπούνα (tsa[m]boúna); Hebrew: חֵמֶת־חֲלִילִים (ĥemet ĥalilim); Italian: cornamusa, zampogna; Japanese: バグパイプ (bagupaipu); Polish: kobza; Portuguese: gaita de foles; Russian: волынка (volýnka); Scottish Gaelic: pìob mhòr; Slovene: dude; Spanish: gaita; Swedish: säckpipa; Sp: Gaita; Fr: Cornemuse; Med. Fr: Estive, Pibole, Saccomuse; Ge: Dudelsack, Sackpfeife; It: Cornamusa, Piva, Zampogna; Ga: Adharcaid cuil, Pibau; Cat: Coixinera; Lat: Utricularium


A detail from the Cantigas de Santa Maria showing bagpipes with one chanter and a parallel drone (13th Century).


Bagpipes (the term is equally correct in the singular or plural) are a class of musical instrument, aerophones using enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air. A bagpipe minimally consists on an air supply, a bag, one chanter (sometimes two), and some drones.

The most common method of supplying air to the bag is by blowing into a blowpipe, or blowstick. In some pipes the player must cover the tip of the blowpipe with his tongue while inhaling, but modern blowpipes are usually fitted with a non-return valve which eliminates this need. An innovation, dating from the 16th or 17th centuries, is the use of a bellows to supply air. In these pipes, (sometimes called coldpipes) air is not heated or moistened by the player's breathing, so bellows-driven bagpipes can use more refined and/or delicate reeds. The possibility of using an artificial air supply, such as an air compressor, is occasionally discussed by pipers.

  Droneless bagpipe. Marginal detail from the Hours of Jeanne d'Évreux (ca.1325), fol. 35. New York, Cloisters Collection.  

A major innovation in bag design since the 1990s is the addition of moisture control systems to bags for mouth-blown pipes that keep moisture from the piper’s breath from condensing on the pipes, drones, and reeds, a situation that can lead to decay and other problems, such as reed malfunction. Bags with zippers can be fitted with moisture control cartridge systems attached to the drone stocks to remove moisture as air passes through bentonite clay particles. Corrugated tube traps attached to blowpipe stocks also aid in moisture control. These types of systems require bags with zippers.



Bagpipe. Shepherds in a round dance (detail). French (early 16th century). Cleveland Museum of Art 39.158.


The chanter is usually open-ended; thus, there is no easy way for the player to stop the pipe from sounding. A few bagpipes (the musette de cour, the uilleann pipes, and the Northumbrian smallpipe) have closed ends or stop the end on the player's leg, so that when the player covers all the holes (known as closing the chanter) it becomes silent. A thick leather leg strap, known as a "Pipers Apron" is used for this purpose.

Most bagpipes have at least one drone. A drone is most commonly a cylindrical tube with a single reed, although drones with double reeds exist. The drone is generally designed in two or more parts, with a sliding joint ("bridle") so that the pitch of the drone can be manipulated.



  Single-drone Bagpipe & shawm. 14th-century manuscript illumination (detail) from Boethius, De Arithmetica. Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale, MS V.A.14, fol. 47r.  

Evidence of pre-medieval bagpipes is controversial, but several textual and visual clues may possibly indicate ancient forms of bagpipes. The earliest known representations of a bagpipe come from the Mediterranean island of Corcyga where we can see a piper made on bronze figurines. A possible representation of a bagpipe has been found on a Hittite slab dating from about 1,300 BC at Eyuk. Similarly, a possible textual reference to a bagpipe is found in 425 BC, in the play The Acharnians by the Greek playwright Aristophanes. Several hundred years later, Suetonius described the Roman Emperor Nero as a player of the tibia utricularis. Dio Chrysostom, who also flourished in the first century, wrote about a contemporary sovereign (possibly Nero) who could play a pipe ("aulein") with his mouth as well as with his "armpit". From this account, some believe that the tibia utricularis was a bagpipe.

In the early part of the second millennium, bagpipes began to appear with frequency in European art and iconography. The 'Cantigas de Santa Maria' (mid-13th Century) depict several types of bagpipes. Though evidence of bagpipes in the British Isles prior to the 14th Century is contested, bagpipes are explicitly mentioned in The Canterbury Tales (written around 1380). Evidence of the bagpipe in Ireland occurs in 1581, when John Derrick's "The Image of Irelande" clearly depicts a bagpiper falling in battle.

  The Bagpiper, by Hendrick ter Brugghen (17th Century, Netherlands).  

Bagpipes can differ from one another sometimes in having cylindrical pipes which produce a softer sound, or conical (or flared) pipes which produce a louder, more raucous sound. Bagpipes can easily be played by themselves, but a popular combination in the later Middle Ages seems to have been bagpipe and shawm.

Actual examples of bagpipes from before the 18th century are extremely rare; however, a substantial number of paintings, carvings, engravings, manuscript illuminations, and so on survive. They make it clear that bagpipes varied hugely throughout Europe, and even within individual regions.

Dozens of types of bagpipes today are widely spread across Europe and the Middle East. The name bagpipe has almost become synonymous with its best-known form, the Great Highland Bagpipe related to the Irish war pipes, overshadowing the great number and variety of traditional forms of bagpipe. Despite the decline of these other types of pipes over the last few centuries, in recent years many of these pipes have seen a resurgence or even revival as traditional musicians have sought them out; for example, the Irish piping tradition, which by the mid 20th century had declined to a handful of master players is today alive, well, and flourishing a situation similar to that of the Galician gaita, the Aragonese Gaita de boto, Northumbrian smallpipes, the Breton Biniou, the Balkan Gaida, the Turkish Tulum, the Scottish smallpipes and Pastoral pipes, as well as many other varieties that were on the brink of extinction and have recently become extremely popular.

The Italian folk bagpipe is called Zampogna and has two chanters and two drones. The Italian Sourdeline or Italian musette is an bellows-blown bagpipe invented early in the seventeenth century with two partly keyed chanters and two completely keyed drones.

  El odrecillo es una variedad de la gaita, pero más pequeño y sin bordón. Tiene además un puntero recto y largo, pero quebrado, en forma angular.  

Perhaps as a reaction to these loud bagpipes the Renaissance saw the emergence of quiet 'indoor' pipes such as the Hummelchen or Smallpipes that produced a muted tone entirely suitable for both indoor use and performance with other instruments.

The Hümmelchenis is a type of small bagpipe, attested in Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius during the Renaissance. The word "hümmelchen" probably comes from the Low German word hämeln meaning "trim". This may refer to the hümmelchen's small size, resembling a trimmed-down version of a larger bagpipe. Another possibly etymology comes from the word hummel ("bumble-bee"), referring to the buzzing sound of the drone. The term hummel is still used to refer to a type of droning zither in Germanic countries.