On the eleventh day of Christmas, we get pipers piping. Now, I must admit I feel a little sorry for musicians who have chosen the bagpipes as their instrument. The bagpipes get the brunt of a lot of jokes. I play the banjo. I hear a lot of these same jokes, but I can only imagine the extra multitude of jokes a bagpiper will hear. Though, most pipers probably can’t hear very well at all.
Loudness is measured in decibels. (technically, a Decibel is one-tenth of a Bel) Now, a decibel is not actually a specfic unit. You can’t have 1 decibel of something. Rather, it’s a mathematical measure of how far above (or below) a sound is from a set reference point. Zero decibels marks the quietest possible sound that can be heard. (the sound of a mosquito flying three metres away, for example) Regular conversation would be about 60 dB, while a lawnmower engine is about 107 dB.
The bagpipes measure in at about 100 dB as well, which puts them above the level at which sustained listening will cause hearing damage. Occupational safety guidelines would want to cap your bagpipe listening at about 2 hours per day. That probably won’t have a great impact on your playlists.
So what’s making all that racket? A standard set of highland pipes combines four vibrating, noise-making reeds, not unlike a quartet of clarinets. Three of these are drones, meaning they produce a single note all the while, un-changed by the player. When you hear a piper getting started, the drones are the first to kick in. They will continue to sound, without pause, until it’s time to pack up. (knowing that, you have to be really careful about asking a piper to play a little something)
The final pipe is the chanter. This is much more like a clarinet in that the piper blows air in the end, and covers holes along the length of it with his or her fingers to change the pitch. In this way, melodies are played on the chanter.
Now, the part that really separates this from the rest of the woodwinds is the bag. It’s a sack capable of holding air. Traditionally made from something like goat-skin, but now Gore-Tex (as in rain jackets) is the popular choice. Before one starts to play, this bag is pre-inflated with air. When you’re ready, squeezing the bag under the arm will send air out through the drone reeds. As you play the melody on the chanter, blowing a little extra air will re-inflate the bag as you go. An experienced piper has not trouble supplying the small amount of air needed to keep all the reeds buzzing.
So with all those drone pipes, what is perfect pitch for the bagpipes? Oh, about 15 feet with a good arm. (Well, I had to get one in)
The pipes, the pipes are calling me home, with just one more day left in the Twelve Facts of Christmas.
- Source: Bagpipe – Wikipedia