I’ve heard many a long discussion on the topic of 440 vs 466, and what does it mean to be an orchestral chanter. To be clear, we are discussing the MHz reading that you probably see on your electronic tuner. If you’re playing a modern chanter, your low A will provide a reading at somewhere between 475Hz and 484Hz. The fact that this number keeps rising is a topic for another day, but that range is where most pipers and pipe bands are set today.
This won’t work when you play with other instruments, which have standardized on 440Hz = A above middle C. Bagpipers tend go with what the instrument wants to play on the day rather than confine themselves to this silly rule. However, there are occasions where you want to play with other instruments (besides drums) and that’s where understanding and communication is critical.
What Are These Numbers Anyway?
So, what do these numbers mean exactly? Here is the short answer: if an orchestra (piano, guitar, etc.) is playing the A above middle C, they are creating vibrations that move at 440Hz. If they move up a half step on the 12 tone scale, they will call that B flat (Bb) and they will create vibrations that move at 466Hz.
Here’s a fun science fact: if you double the speed of the vibrations, you will be playing an octave higher. If your low A is at 480Hz, your high A will be at 960Hz. Conversely, if you halve the speed of the vibrations you’ll be an octave lower. So your tenor drones are playing at 240Hz, and your bass drone is a slow 120Hz!
Two Types of Special Pitch Chanters
What we commonly call an orchestral chanter is set up so that the low A note sounds at 466Hz. If the other instruments play in the key of Bb for tunes like Scotland the Brave, and in the key of Eb for tunes like Amazing Grace, you will be able to play the usual settings. The holes one these chanters are spaced nearly the same as a regular chanter.
More rare is the Orchestral A chanter, which plays a true A at 440Hz on the Low A note. These are helpful in a guitar-based, rock band setting, where the musicians want to play in simpler keys like A and D. You will find that these chanters have their holes spread much further apart in order to play the lower tones. You’ll know you have one in your hands as soon as you place your fingers on it.
Wait, This Music Looks Weird
If you’re going to play with an orchestra, they may provide you with a musical score with many parts on the page. When you find the line labeled “Bagpipes” you may freak out a little. Although we call our notes A-B-C-D-E-F-G, they will be shown up a half step on the staff and become Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab. Time and patience are needed to translate to the correct notes.