Continuing my recent theme of bagpipe-related posts, one thing I don’t think I could gloss over is an issue that has bothered me for a long time now – the ever-increasing pitch of the bagpipe.
An old grad school friend of mine last night remarked to me that it seemed to her that the pitch of the bagpipe has increased sharply (pun fully intended!) in the modern time. I reassured her that it was not just her ears playing tricks on her. This trend is a real thing and it’s just not a good trend in my view.
As for why this trend is a thing, despite a lot of pipers not being happy with the trend? Well, let’s just say pipe band competition drives a lot of market trends in the industry and pipe bands (particularly at the top levels of competition where minutia can make the difference between a first place and last place finish). For whatever reason, bands tended to note that if they pitched their chanters (and subsequently their drones) just a shade higher than the rest of the field it gave them an edge in scoring, most likely because a higher pitched sound is perceived as louder (well, at least within the normal operating range of the bagpipe). As such, the stage was set for an arms race for who could produce the highest pitched sound.
This trend took an instrument that once pitched a few hertz higher than concert Bb (that’s B-flat for you non-musical people) to one that now pitches right at B (natural). In the last 10 years we’ve seen almost a half-step increase in the pitch.
So why is it a problem, so long as the instrument is tuned well? The answer is the higher up you go in pitch the more of the upper harmonics (upper partials if you will) you lose as they become inaudible to the human ear as they are now in a frequency range the human ear does not detect. What you gain in perception of volume and clarity you lose in richness of tone. In the band scene this might not be a huge issue when you have multiple instruments to fill the sound out, but a soloist at today’s modern band pitch does not sound pleasant. Hell, it’s even so high now that bands don’t sound pleasant anymore.
Let’s do some case in point here. Same band, 10 years apart. One performance from 2008 and one from 2018. The difference in pitch is absolutely shocking.
This has no doubt gotten out of hand. Alas, it’s harder and harder to find lower pitched chanters these days, which is why I was relieved to find one in my perusing of shops last night (designed by a major bagpipe making firm in conjunction with a top-level piper), and no doubt I’ll be ordering one to complete my new set of drones (and to use with my current one). My current go-to chanter was designed for a vintage pitch but along with chanters, even modern reeds are designed higher pitched than they used to be so the pitch of my chanter has creeped up in turn. It’ll be interesting to see how this one compares.
I don’t know. All I do know is that I sure hope the trend reverses soon.
What do you think? Pipers or laypeople, what do you make of this trend?