Medieval Bagpipes

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The bagpipe, though still widely used and recognized, is one of mankind’s oldest musical instruments. The bagpipe’s early ancestors can be traced all the way back to ancient Egypt, Babylonia, as well as Mesopotamia. Those early versions were reed-sounding single-pipes or double-pipes. These pipes are also known chanters. The basic means of sound producing comes from the vibrating of a reed or double reed on the chanter under the pressure of the breath. The double-pipes are thought by some to have had one pipe play an accompaniment or drone while the other would sound the melody, similar to its successor. (Collinson 1975, 19-25) The invention of a bag as the air supply was simply an addition to the already existing pipes. Materials for the airtight reservoir vary widely, but the most common are the skins of local animals such as goats, dogs, sheep, and cows. More recently, though, bags made of synthetic materials have become much more common. Bags are cut from the material and carefully stitched or glued to reduce air leaks. Holes are then cut to accommodate the stocks typically where the limbs and head joined the body if the material is made of animal skin. When playing, the bag is place underneath the armpit to regulate the flow of the air. (Cannon 1989, 33-41)

The continuous air supplied by the bag makes the characteristic sound possible. The constant wall of sound doesn’t allow for rests or momentary pauses between notes. The usual dynamic contrast as heard in other wind instruments is also unavailable for the bagpipe player. Pipers do, however, have the ability to apply grace notes quite liberally as well as melodic embellishments unique to the bagpipe. Doublings, shakes, throws, and grips are carefully taught and written into the music to vary the melody. Most of the early written sheet music came from Scotland, though Ireland, Northumberland, and Brittany eventually started printing their own. (Oxford Music) Though made famous in Scotland, the first...
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