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"What Key is the Highland Bagpipe?"

"What Key is the Highland Bagpipe?"

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One of  the questions pipers are often asked is what "key" the bagpipes are in. Usually, you'll hear this from other musicians. And like most things bagpipe, the initial answer is "well, it's complicated . . ." That's because are several answers to the question “What key is the Highland bagpipe?” and the question needs to be taken in context.

For written bagpipe music, the answer is fairly straightforward, although multiple answers are possible.

  • Highland bagpipe music is generally written in the key of A-major
  • Since the seventh note of the scale is flatted, it is the "A Mixolydian" scale
  • Because the bagpipe scale has a G-natural note, music can also be considered to be written in the key of D-major
  • By leaving out a few notes that don’t fit, it can also be written in the key of B-minor or E-minor
  • Bagpipe music can also be written in G-major, but with drones tuned to A, this is rarely done and less than optimum

If you are playing an orchestral chanter, a bagpipe chanter that is made to be played with other instruments, the low A is pitched to match concert B-flat of other instruments

  • With an orchestral chanter, you’ll be playing in the key of B-flat, using the B-flat Mixolydian scale
  • Again, the flatted seventh note allows us to also play tunes in the key of E-flat
  • And again, our alternate keys become C-minor and F-minor

If you are playing a standard bagpipe chanter, your low A will probably register 475 to 483 Hertz, compared to the 466 Hertz of an orchestral chanter. Your chanter can’t match any notes on any other instruments tuned to standard pitch. Therefore you wouldn’t strictly be playing “in a key”.

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Tom Crawford Tom Crawford is Pipe Major for North Atlanta Pipes & Drums and a piping instructor in Marietta GA. He’s been piping since 2000, when he began his studies with Winter Taylor. Tom has played rock, blues, country and Celtic music for nearly 50 years. He’s been a member of Keltic Kudzu since 2006, where he plays mandolin, bouzouki, whistle, and of course pipes. Tom has played and competed up and down the Atlantic coast, as well as in Canada and Ireland.

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