Tag Archives: medieval bagpipes

Medieval Musical Instruments Part 4

We’re sticking with wind instruments this week to look at the bagpipe. This was a popular instrument all over Europe in the Middle Ages, not just in the places you might be thinking of.

A bagpipe was made from an animal skin or bladder. The player blew into this bag through a tube. Modern ones have a valve to stop the air coming out once it was in, but I’m not sure about medieval ones. Possibly the air leaked out when the player wasn’t blowing.

The bag was squeezed by the player’s arm to provide a continuous stream of air into further tubes, one of these was the chanter on which the piper played the tunes. As is usual with wind instruments, changing the number of fingers covering the holes changed the pitch of the notes. Additional tubes provided one or more drones. A drone is a continuous, unchanging note. The drone pipes go over the shoulder and the player does nothing with them. As you’ll see in the video below, a deflated bagpipe resembles nothing so much as an octopus and is probably as difficult to control.

Since the player isn’t blowing directly into the chanter, he cannot stop the sound with his tongue, which means that the piper can’t play successive notes at the same pitch. He has to do something else to tell the listener that one note has finished and the next one has started. One way of doing this is to raise and lower a finger covering a hole very quickly to change the pitch. Listen out for that in the recordings.

Like the shawm, the tubes coming out of the bag had reeds in them to produce the sound, but it wasn’t the piper’s lips that made them vibrate; it was the air from the bag.

Here is the Early Music Consort of London demonstrating the bagpipe with two very different tunes.

The sound on the next video is a bit variable. It’s fine when the bagpipe is being played, but you might want to turn it up when Emily speaks.

Sources:
A History of Western Music by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout and Claude V. Palisca

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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