Scots tunes in A - why?

Scots tunes in A - why?

Can anyone tell me why so many Scots tunes are in A major?

Is it related to a common tuning on the (small) pipes? I thought the GHB were effectively in G, or am I wrong?

Just wondering - there’s so many good tunes out there.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

most of the scottish pipes are in Bb and when fiddles play with them they tune up a semitone and play with A fingering.

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Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Thanks Michael, that makes sense. Although it also means playing along at a Scots session might prove difficult. 🙂

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

most scottish pipes that play in session are in A though

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Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

The GHB is effectively in A and D rather than G. Its scale of nine notes goes:

G A B c# d e f# g a

- Which means, you can play one octave from A up to a in the notes of the A Major scale, EXCEPT that the seventh note, the g natural, is flat. So, too, is the G note right at the bottom of the scale.

(That is, it’s flat when put in an A Major scale).

Some GHB tunes leave out the seventh note and are to all practical intents and purposes in A Major.

All nine notes of the GHB are found in the scale of D Major. Normally, the tunes in this key "home" on d, the tune reaching alternately down to A or indeed G, and up to a.

There are tunes in the GHB repertoire in G Major, but they have to leave out the fourth, the c#, which doesn’t fit that scale - and also compete with the drones in A, which harmonise with tunes in A and D but not with tunes in G Major. Unless pipers quickly retune them, which I haven’t noticed them doing.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Everthything nicholas says above is correct, (except it’s all up a semitone)

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Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Which is what a BC box player needs like a kick in the teeth, of course.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Mind, when I had one of those boxes A was bad enough, too!

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Well you wouldn’t particularly want the GHB at a session.
To our modern ears the GHB plays in B flat (except it’s not quite) but pipers think they are playing in A and their music is written out that way so if you ask a piper to play an A it will sound as B flat. And since they don’t have a choice over the notes in their scale their music is usually written without a key signature. They only have one D. they don’t need to know whther it is sharp, flat or natural.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Scottish small pipes and Border pipes are at concert pitch (they read an A, say, and it sounds like an A; the big pipes sound a semitone higher (they read an A and it sounds like a B-flat). Someone correct me if I’m wrong (A-level music was a long time ago…) I play fiddle (mainly) with pipers (normally small or Border pipes) and have to remember to play G instead of G-sharp if the tune is in A. Interestingly, Scottish pipe music is ideally suited to keyless Irish flute - you don’t need to worry about ropy cross-fingering for G-sharp and just play a G instead along with the pipes. Do make the time to learn some Scottish pipe music - at its best it’s just beautiful, especially the 2/4 marches in my opinion (Leaving Lunga, Maclean of Pennycross, The Lochaber Gathering, South Hall,etc etc etc…)

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

There was a fella in the pub the other night with his border pipes in A. He was a really pretty good player. And I do think that some of the tunes are terrific. But after about ten mins of it I was getting really bored. The tunes are so precise and measured and, though your average border pipes are a tenth the volume of your GHB, they’re still bloody noisy - about the same volume as two fiddles, two flutes a mandolin a guitar and a bazooka. And it’s the complete lack of dynamics also.

There’s another fella I know though who really is a master. He plays a set in D (fifth below) when in the pub. On the fiddle you can play the standard repertoire of A tunes just a string down. They are about the same volume as a fiddle, but more importantly, the fella has this magical way of getting dynamics out of the things. He’ll play the chanter under the table or out in the open or, for great effect, he’ll get that bit of extra oomph by putting the end of the chanter on the table so using it as a resonator. And he knows tons of Irish tunes.

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Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

So hang on, you didnt just talk loudly over him till he shut up? Thats very considerate of you Llig….

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

I am pleased to play tunes in A Major or mixolydian.
every key has a different feel to it,and to have tunes in a as well as g or d,gives more variety to the sound during the session.
A major is one of the easiest keys on the fiddle,and some Tunes are much easier to play than in G major [Blackthorn stick,Sweeneys Polka,Atholl Highlanders[A mixolydian]Kate Dalrymple,could this be acontributory factor?
Dick Miles

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Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

I just want to run inside and get my sword when I hear the GHB . Its a gentetic thing living to the south of the border . It means another surprize atteck is comming.😉

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

whoops genetic

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

I always found that playing the key of A on a B/C is straight forward enough. Easier on course on a C#D box where the B/C fingering for G becomes A. Years ago when nearly everyone played by ear and had little or no knowledge of music, playing in the key of A on a B/C was known as ‘Playing on the Draw’ because of the amount of draw notes used. The Athole Highlanders was the one tune that most players learnt to play in A.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Blame the pipes!

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Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

How do you lead a surprise attack with pipes? Maybe that’s why Scots ambushes failed so often.

Dan

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Actually when I tried to play with a piper once I thought he was in B. Some websites say the pipes are tuned sharp of B flat, if you know what I mean.

Of course with me on fiddle and he on pipes I could have been playing in Turkish scales for all anyone listening would know.

Dan

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

pipe tunes for sure

and in a small way, a r Scandinavian influence which likes drones and AEAE tuning

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Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Why is Highland bagpipe music written in A (mixolydian)?

Because the pipes, back in the 18th and early 19th century when bagpipe tunes first start appearing in print, were pitched around a quarter-tone between A and B flat, and obviously A was easier for fiddle.

Then by the 1940’s the pitch of pipes had risen to around concert B flat, 466 cycles.

In the 1970’s the pitch began rising again, by the 1990’s reaching a quarter-tone between B flat and B natural (around 480 cycles) where they remain today. All top-level solo competitors and top competing pipe bands play at around 480 cycles today.

But there’s a reaction as well- several pipemakers make so-called "466" chanters which play at the 1960’s pitch of concert B flat. These are used when a piper or pipe band is to play along with a brass band, orchestra, pipe organ, or folk or rock group. The Pipes And Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards are currently touring the USA playing these "concert B flat" or "466" chanters.

On the other hand, "border pipes" and "Scottish smallpipes" are usually in A, not B flat. So, they play all the Highland bagpipe repertoire in the keys in which it is written, two sharps, A mixolydian, D major, B minor, and G lydian.

This last key, G lydian, is very common in the very old, traditional literature. Many of the oldest "big" tunes are in that key, or alternate between G lydian and A mixolydian. An example would be the reel called The Sheepwife.

About volume, these so-called "border pipes" (I say so-called because on evidence that name is bogus, the things were really called "Lowland pipes" in the old days) ARE a tad loud. They vary from maker to maker, but they tend to be about as loud as three to six fiddles. If you’re in a loudish session with an accordion and/or banjo their volume is perfect.

I’m playing a Jon Swayne "Lowland" chanter which is the quietest chanter of this type I’ve played, about the volume of one strong fiddler.

The Scottish smallpipes, on the other hand, tend to be too quiet. Many will be drowned out in an average session. Some makers realise this and have developed or are developing smallpipes with a bit more volume.

Scottish smallpipes in A play everything an octave lower than the Lowland/Border pipes or the Highland pipes. That’s one of the reasons that they tend to get overwhelmed.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

I think I once heard it suggested that there was some link to the idea that a fiddle is most resonant in the key of A. However, whether or not either statement is true, I couldn’t tell you. Anyone who knows anything about violin construction have any idea?

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

I heard that too….

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Maybe audibility over distance in the open air determined the choice of A or just sharp of A on the old GHB. It would have been an important factor in mustering people, marching them or inspiring / unnerving men in battle. Is there such a thing as a loudest note on an instrument, if the notes in its range are played through with as similar a touch or blow as possible for each note?

I’ve never thought of this before. Someone must have done. And maybe it’s not just a matter of loudness, but the sensitivities of the human ear to different pitches.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

i.e., in which key is the GHB most penetrating to the poor old lugs?

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

You mean, like the sounds a crying baby makes, nicholas ? a penetrating frequency that’s impossible to ignore ?

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

The older chanters I believe were in A not Bb. you can get A 440chanters for the GHB today.
I would think also size would be a practical aspect too. finger distance,drone bore etc
I gather the Piob Mor from Ireland is the predecessor of the GHB….

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

"I’ve never thought of this before. Someone must have done. And maybe it’s not just a matter of loudness, but the sensitivities of the human ear to different pitches."

I don’t have the info in front of me, but I do recall hearing that someone researched the human ear’s sensitivity, and the penetration through the air over a distance, of certain sounds, to produce the most effective sirens for ambulance, police, car alarms, fog horns, etc.

I also read that certain animal and bird sounds utilize the perfect pitch and tone to carry the maximum distance. Don’t remember what the frequency was, but I think it helped if the sound was pulsed, because each pulse gets reinforced and pushed further away from the source by the following one.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Apparently most car horns are in F……..

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

To satisfy idle curiosity I’ve been a’googling and found mind-boggling snippet of trivia I didn’t know:

"Movements of the ear drum as small as the diameter of a hydrogen atom can be audible !"

I wonder how the heck someone measured that ?

http://www.tek-ltd.com/school2.htm

Apparently, 63 cps travels furthest (for human audibility) through jungle vegetation. Would be interesting to know what frequency travels best in landscape like Scottish Highlands.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

I find it interesting to imagine what impact the volume of GHBs must have had years ago, when the world was generally a lot quieter.

"When played outdoors, the tests found that the bagpipe peaks at 111 decibels, slightly louder than a pneumatic drill and much louder than a police siren.
But when the pipes are played indoors they peak at a 116 dB, about as loud as a chainsaw. Very loud rock music can reach 150 dB, while a jet airliner taking off peaks at 140 dB."

Here’s an article on the physiological effects of sound

http://schizophonia.com/installation/trauma/trauma_thesis/index.htm

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

About the volume of GHB (Great Highland Bagpipe) chanters, they have become significantly louder just over the last 20 years.
If you hear a comparison of a 1910 chanter, a 1960 chanter, a 1980 chanter, and a 2008 chanter, you’ll clearly hear the volume going up and up.
I often demonstrate this by playing a chanter I bought in 1986 (a Hardie, the design of which hadn’t changed since the 1960’s) back-to-back with a recent McCallum chanter. The new chanter is a quarter-tone sharper and twice as loud.
(The 1986 Hardie plays at 466 cycles, the new McCallum at 480 cycles.)
The 1910 Henderson chanter I used to own was likewise much quieter than the 1986 Hardie, and nearly a quarter-tone flatter, around halfway between B flat and A.
So, it’s just not accurate to take a decible reading from a new GHB chanter and project that volume back into the 18th century.
Now, the "presence" of a chanter, as opposed to sheer volume, is another matter.
My new McCallum chanter, though much louder than my old Hardie, sounds somehow thin. The McCallum’s sound becomes muffled in a crowded, noisy room more than the Hardie does. Don’t know why.
One may well ask, "why are GHB chanters getting ever louder and sharper?"
This rise in volume and pitch is driven by Pipe Band Competition.
Think about it: at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow Green there were 225 pipe bands on the field last August.
One group of judges might have to judge 20 pipe bands in a row, all of this against a constant background hum of pipe bands tuning up and competing all over the park.
If 19 bands are playing at 480, and one band plays at 475, the odd band will sound dull.
But if 19 bands are playing at 480, and one comes out playing at 482, that band will sound bright and clear.
The trick seems to be to play at a pitch just a hair sharper than the other bands in your competition.
Then it becomes, potentially, an endless cycle of one-upsmanship.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

"So, it’s just not accurate to take a decible reading from a new GHB chanter and project that volume back into the 18th century."

Thanks, Richard. Fascinating info.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Indeed.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

Reading these comments concerning how bagpipes and uillean pipes are tuned or supposed to be tuned has been very interesting to this pianist who has accompanied both bagpipers and uillean pipers.
Since most places where they hold sessions don’t have a piano, I have to bring my genuine imitation piano (a Roland EP-90 Digital Piano) if I want to participate in the local Irish Session. On the rare occasions when a bagpiper has played at the local session and I tried to accompany the piper, I quickly learned that playing in B-flat came closest to matching what the piper was playing.
A few years ago, at a session in a restaurant in St. Louis (Missouri), I had the dubious pleasure of making music with five uillean pipers and a concertina player for an hour or two. All of the pipers and the concertina player were playing in D major.

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

I would support Richard’s statements about the reasons for the increase in pitch and volumn in GHP bands. The concept of having to walk around a number of bands, all playing at once, but different tunes, and be able to judge quality, or even just hear at all afterwards is mind numbing.

And if fauxcelt is in trouble playing in D and A, watch out for Nothumbian pipes, in F## 🙂

Re: Scots tunes in A - why?

When I am using my genuine imitation piano, I am equally comfortable playing in any key or keys. I was just trying to share what I have learned about playing music with pipers from the few occasions when I have done so. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to accompany a Northumbrian piper. Did you mean F-double sharp or just one F-sharp? Doesn’t Northumbrian come from a word meaning "North of the Humber River"?
However, when I am playing my acoustic bass fiddle, I prefer to play in D, A, or G due to the way my strings are tuned. At an acoustic jam session where I was playing my bass fiddle, I jokingly threatened to charge extra if anyone tried to play a tune in a flat key such as B-flat.