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
- 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”.