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Instrument Biography: The Oboe

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The oboe is a soprano-ranged double-reed woodwind instrument. It’s made from a wooden tube roughly 23.5 inches long and has metal keys, a conical bore, and a flared bell. Sound is produced by blowing into the reed and causing the air within the tube to vibrate. The way I’ve described it makes it sound like a kazoo, but when played properly, it’s one of the most magical instruments in the whole orchestra.

The oboe’s sound is clear and penetrating. It was mentioned by Henry Playford (familiar to all you contra and English country dancers) in 1695 as a majestic and stately instrument and others have claimed that the oboe sounds like a duck if the duck could only sing. The timbre of the oboe comes from its conical bore (unlike the cylindrical bore of flutes and clarinets), and is readily audible over other instruments in large ensembles.

Oboe music written in C (it’s a tuning thing—more on that later) and has a soprano range, although there are other voices in the oboe family (more on that later, too). Orchestras frequently tune to the A of the oboe because the pitch is secure and its penetrating sound makes it ideal for a variety of instruments to tune to it.

Oboe History

Wind players and instrument makers at the French court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) are in large part responsible for building an oboe from a shawm. The oboe first appeared in England in the 17th century, under the French name of hautbois, and surely came from France, as the French were especially fond of the instrument. This name “hautbois” was also used for the oboe’s ancestor, the shawm. The two major differences between the shawm and the oboe include the oboe having three sections (or joints), which allow more precision during manufacturing and precision in both tuning and comfort, and the elimination of the pirouette, the wooden ledge or ball below the reed that was a resting point for the player’s lips on the shawm.

The 17th century flutist Michel de la Barre wrote that the Philidor and Hotteterre families might have been the inventors (separately or together, it’s unclear). Regardless of who or how it came to be, it grew in popularity all over Europe and in England, where the name morphed through hautboy, hoboy, hautboit, and howboye before settling on oboe (in English—the French still call it an hautbois). It was the main instrument in military bands until the clarinet came along and dislodged it.

The reason for the oboe’s popularity was that it was an expressive instrument, equal to that of the traverse flute (another rising star in the 17th century). The shawm had demanded attention by being almost obnoxiously loud, but the oboe tempered the sound with dynamic range (loudness AND softness) and eloquent nuance. It soon became a favorite instrument of the Baroque era, especially played in conjunction with the violin, which was another new invention (evolved from the vielle).

In the early 18th century, the oboe’s sister, the oboe d’amour developed, which was even more evocative, as the name rather romantically implies. The oboe d’amore is pitched a third lower than the regular oboe and was unknown until the early Romantic period. In the 1870s, Victor Charles Mahillon (1841-1924), of the Mahillon instrument makers in Brussels, revived the instrument for historical performances. It’s evolved further since then to include the same improvements as the modern oboe (more about that in the Structure section).

The alto bombard (one of the names for the shawm) became the alto oboe (the same way as the shawm became the oboe), and it had a pear-shaped bell, like the oboe d’amore. It had a warm and full tone and was also called the oboe da caccia (the horseman’s oboe) and was used during fox hunts. The oboe da caccia was 30 inches long and had a peaceful and quiet sound.

The English horn is another version of the oboe, but it’s curved, carved of two pieces of wood at an angle, like a sickle, and is encased in leather to make it airtight. It’s a little bit longer and although the finger holes are wide apart, it’s fingered the same way as a regular oboe and oboe d’amore. It rose in popularity around the middle of the 18th century and had an elegant pear-shaped or spherical bell. By the 19th century, it had gained the oboe’s helpful key mechanisms. The English horn is often found in large orchestras today and plays a fifth lower than the oboe.

The baritone oboe plays a fourth lower than the English horn (or an octave below the oboe, if it’s easier to think of it that way). It’s more than three feet long, has the pear-shaped bell of the English horn, and is blown, like the bassoon, through an S-shaped tube. It sounds a lot like an English horn, only lower.

The heckelphone is an even lower oboe, made in the early 20th century, with a wide conical bore. It was made of maple-wood and has a barrel-shaped bell. The heckelphone was more than four-feet long, producing a rich sound, so much so that it was used by Richard Strauss (1864-1049) in “Salome” and “Alpine Symphony” and by Max von Schillings (1868-1933) in “Der Moloch” and “Mona Lisa.”

The pioccolo-heckelphone is a smaller version of the heckelphone and sounds a fourth lower than an oboe. It’s still pretty big.

In the time of Louis XIV (1638-1715), French ensembles consisted of an oboe, a tenor oboe, and a bassoon, but by the middle of the 18th century, they had expanded to two oboes (or two clarinets) with two horns and two bassoons.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) orchestra had a flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and between 12 and 16 strings (violins, violas, and cellos, doubled by bass viol), and a harpsichord. Trumpets and timpani were occasionally added.

Viennese orchestras of the 1790s often had as many as 35 players, often also including clarinets. In the 19th century, orchestras grew from about 40 players to nearly 90. Oboes (along with flutes, clarinets, and bassoons) developed elaborate key systems by mid-century, and their ranges were considerably expanded (piccolos, English horn, bass clarinet, and contra-bassoon).

Oboe Structure

The oboe has a narrower bore than the shawm, which is why its tone is softer and more delicate. It was narrowed during the Classical period (1730-1820). The narrower bore allowed the higher notes to be played more easily, and composers indulged themselves in this broadened range. The new half-octave inspired Classical era composers (including Mozart) to write concertos for the oboe instead of leaving it buried in the orchestra adding color.

Also during the Classical period, the oboe’s bore was lined with a conical metal tube, which made it sound a lot more like a trumpet or a horn than a shawm. It didn’t last, and today’s oboe has an extremely narrow conical bore with no metal lining.

The oboe ends in a funnel-shaped bell.

The Baroque oboe was made of boxwood and had only three keys. After improvement to the keys in the 1840s, oboes were no longer made of boxwood, but of ebony or rosewood instead. Occasionally, metal or ebonite have been used.

Since the middle of the 19th century, the differences between the French oboe (also used in England, the U.S., Belgium, and Italy) and the German-Austrian oboe has increased. The French oboe is thinner and has a more delicate tone.

Instead of being constructed from a single piece of wood, instrument makers for Louis XIV (1638-1715) divided the oboe into three sections that fitted together nicely, facilitating the most delicate adjustments in tuning. This improved instrument had two octaves, and its smaller finger holes allowed the player to produce more accurate chromatic pitches.

The modern oboe is usually made from African blackwood, although some manufacturers use cocobolo, rosewood, or violetwood. Ebony is used occasionally, and some student models are made from resin to avoid cracking the wood with rough treatment and to make the instrument less expensive.

The oldest oboes had six finger holes, of which two, producing half-step intervals, were doubled so they could be played with either hand (like the recorder). It also had three keys, one of which was a swallow-tail lever to be played with either hand, called the great key, and the other two were opposite each other to be played with either hand to close the same hole, called the side key. The side key was often doubled to facilitate use of either the left or right hand on the bottom holes, just like the lowest hole on the recorder.

During the Classical period, the oboe gained keys. One special key was called a “slur” key and was similar to the modern octave key, although it was first used like a “flick” key on the modern German bassoon to facilitate chromatic changes. Later, French oboe makers redesigned the octave key to be used like it is on the modern instrument (held open for the upper register, closed for the lower).

In the 19th century, the Triebert family (Guillaume and his sons Charles and Frederic) in Paris used the Boehm flute (see Instrument Biography: The Flute) as a source of ideas for key work, and devised increasingly complex key systems. The Boehm-system oboe had large finger holes and was used in some military bands into the 20th century, but was never commonly adopted.

But even before 1800, Grundmann and Grenser of Dresden Germany experimented, fitting the oboe with keys so that it could play a chromatic scale. By 1825, the oboe had as many as 10 keys in addition to the holes. In 1825, the leading maker in Vienna was Koch, who developed the instrument that became the standard of the day with celebrated oboist Joseph Sellner (1787-1843), who would later write the seminal tutorial on playing the oboe.

Improvements continued until, by 1840, there were 14 keys. French makers, including Frederic Triebert, really tweaked the thing. The instrument made in 1880 was considered the best ever, and was called the “conservatoire model,” and is essentially the same as the modern instrument. The conservatoire model was made in Paris and was equipped with a complicated and ingenious key mechanism that makes it possible to play the same note in two or three different ways—even four, in some instance.

When he left the Triebert company in 1881, Francois Loree of Paris further developed the oboe by improving the bore and keys, and, after a few more changes, by the late 20th century, it finally settled into the instrument we know today.

Modern instruments have about 2.5 octaves. Some student models are missing the B-flat key that extends the range downward in the professional versions. There’s a similar key on the flute.

The Gillet key system (for the conservatoire oboe) has 45 pieces of keywork, with the optional additions of a third octave key and an alternate key for F or C. The keys are usually made of nickel silver and are silver- or gold-plated.

Oboes are also made using the English thumb plate system, which includes semi-automatic octave keys by which playing in the second octave closes keys from the first. Releasing the thumb plate has the same effect as closing the forefinger’s hole on the right hand, which produces alternate fingerings without distinctive tone changes. This can be handy when rapidly switching octaves running up or down a scale (the fewer fingers you have to move, the faster you can play).

Some conservatoire oboes have keys constructed of rings rather than plates (called open-holed), so that the finger closes the hole but still manipulates the key, and most professional models have at least the right hand’s third key open-holed. Professional models usually use this open-hole system combined with a thumb plate.

The cup-shaped connection between the mouthpiece and the instrument in the shawm (called the pirouette) was discarded when they were designing the oboe at Louis XIV’s French court. The reed isn’t entirely within the mouth as it is in the shawm, but is held between the lips, about half in and half out of the mouth. The player can control the volume as a result of this change, and it’s also possible to overblow to achieve harmonics for higher notes. The free-standing reed allows greater control of intonation and tone quality than the old-style-enclosed reed.

The oboe’s double reed consists of two thin blades of cane tied together around a small-diameter metal tube called the staple. This staple and reed are bound together with three carefully placed wires and then thread is wrapped around the wires. The cane-surrounded staple is stuffed into a length of cork, and the cork is pushed into the reed socket (called the farrow) at the top of the oboe.

Professional oboists make their own reeds, as every oboist needs a slightly different design to suit their own needs. This way, they can control things like tone color and tuning. Some beginners use reeds made of synthetic materials because it’s both hard and expensive to make your own.

Commercially available cane reeds are available in several degrees of hardness. A medium reed is most popular, and most beginners used medium-soft reeds.

As oboists gain experience, they usually start making their own reeds, often in the style of their teachers, or they buy handmade reeds (usually from a professional oboist) in various stages of construction, and using special tools, including gougers, pre-gougers, guillotines, knives, and other tools, adjust the reed to their own liking. It takes many attempts to get the reed right. Orchestral musicians sometimes make reeds to sell and earn a bit of extra money.

Oboe reeds, like those for the clarinet, saxophone and bassoon reeds, are made from cane that’s called Arundo donx. Professional oboists import their reed cane directly from the growers in southern France.

The cane is split into three vertical parts. Oboes require the thickness of about 10 millimeters and bassoons need the reed to be more than twice as thick. Each player adjusts the reeds for his or her own embouchure, the angle at which they hold their oboe from their bodies, and lung capacity. The reed is considered the most difficult aspect of playing the oboe because slight variations in temperature, altitude, and weather can change a hitherto good reed into an unplayable bundle of twigs.

The oboe’s pitch is affected by the way the reed is made. There can be variations in the construction materials, the age of the reed, and the difference in scrape and length. German and French reeds differ in many ways, and the sound is different in response. Skilled oboists can adjust their embouchure to compensate for such factors by manipulating embouchure and air pressure.

Oboe d’amore, which is larger and a third lower than the conservatoire oboe, has a pear-shaped bell rather than the oboe’s funnel shape, which softens and mellows the tone.

The range of the Baroque oboe is a little more than two octaves.

The Wiener (Viennese) oboe is a modern instrument that retains the essential bore and tonal characteristics of the Baroque oboe. The Wiener oboe was developed in the 19th century by Josef Hajek from earlier instruments designed by C.T. Golde of Dresden (1803-1873), and is now made by several European makers and the Japanese maker Yamaha. Its bore is wider than that of the conservatoire oboe, its reed is shorter and broader, and the fingering system is different. The middle register of the Wiener oboe sounds reedy and the upper register includes more harmonics than traditional oboes. The Wiener oboe was thought to be an improvement on the historical oboe because it was a little easier to get a nice sound out of than the earlier instruments and could be played expressively, like a modern oboe. It was said to blend nicely with other instruments, and is, with the Vienna horn, distinctive and unique to the Wiener Philharmoniker instrument museum.

Other members of the oboe family include the cor anglais, or English horn, which is the tenor (or alto) member of the family. It’s a transposing instrument, pitched in F, a fifth lower than the oboe. The oboe d’amore, which is the alto (or mezzo-soprano) member of the family, is pitched in A, a minor third lower than the oboe. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) made extensive used of both the oboe d’amore as well as the taille and oboe da caccia, which were both Baroque parents of the English horn.

Less common is the bass oboe (usually called the baritone oboe), which sounds an octave lower than the oboe. Then there’s the heckelphone, which has a wider bore and a louder sound than the bass oboe—and only 165 of them have ever been made, making it hard to find competent heckelphone players. The rarest member of the oboe family is called the musette (or piccolo oboe), which is the sopranino member of the family, pitched at a minor third or a perfect fourth above the oboe. SImilarly rare is the contrabass oboe, two octave lower than the oboe.

Folk versions of the oboe, sometimes with extensive keywork, are found throughout Europe, including the musette (French), the Piston oboe and the bombarde (both from Brittany), the piffaro and ciaramella (from Italy), and the xirimia or chirimia (from Spain). Most of these are played with bagpipes accompanying them, particularly the Italian zampogna or Breton biniou. Similar instruments to the oboe are believed to derive from Middle Eastern instruments, which are also found throughout Asia and in Northern Africa.

Notable oboe makers during the Baroque are the Germans Jacob Denner (1681-1735) and Johann Heinrich Eichentopt (c1678-1769), and the Englishman Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734). With the resurgence of interest in early music in the mid-20th century, a few makers began producing copies of surviving historical instruments.

The Name

In English, the oboe was called the hautbois (meaning “high wood” in French) prior to 1770, and because spelling used to be more of a matter of opinion than it is nowadays, it was also called the hoboy or French hoboy. “Oboe” was adopted into English around 1770 from the Italian word oboé, which was a transliteration of the French.

Various voicings of the oboe are called oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, heckelphone, bombarde, musette, taille, cor anglais, English horn, Wiener oboe, Breton piston, and the conservatoire oboe. That last one is the modern oboe.

Famous Oboe Composers

There are loads of composers who wrote for oboe, so I’ll group them first by nationality and then by their dates. This list is not comprehensive by any means.

     Italians: Antonio Lotti (c1667-1740), Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

     Germans: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote Brandenberg concertos #1 and #2 featuring the oboe. He also wrote a concerto for oboe and violin and frequently composed for the oboe d’amore. Then there was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and later, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who wrote two concertos for the oboe. Next, Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800), Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), who wrote an oboe concerto (it’s one of my favorite Beethoven pieces), and Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who used the English horn in his opera “Manfred.” Another opera composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), used the English horn in “Tannhäuser” and in “Tristan and Isolde.” Next up, Richard Strauss (1864-1949), who preferred the French oboe, complaining that the German-Austrian oboe had a thick and trumpet-like voice, and that he thought it didn’t sound nice with flutes and clarinets. He wrote “Domestic Symphony” to illustrate the innocent child with the oboe’s voice. Last but not least among the Germans is Georg Philipp Telemann (1881-1767), who composed for the oboe d’amore in 1722.

     Americans: Samuel Barber (1910-1981) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

     English: Henry Purcell (c1659-1695) wanted a tenor oboe for “Diocletian” in 1690 and afterward, the instrument became known as the English horn. Frederick Delius (1862-1934) wrote for the bass oboe, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) managed to eke out a few pieces that included oboes, and Gustav Theodore Holst (1874-1934) wrote for the bass oboe. Then there were Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Madeleine Dring (1923-1977).

     French: Robert Cambert (c1628-1677) used the oboe in his opera “Pomone.” Next up, there’s Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992),

     Austria: The most famous Austrian musician so far, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), wrote two oboe concertos.

     Russian: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1849-1893), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

     Czech: Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) and Jan Antonin Kozeluh (1738-1814)

Famous Oboe Players

There have been quite a few famous oboists. I’ll group them by genre, and within genre, by their dates (if available).

     Classical (etc.): Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790) and Joseph Sellner (dates unknown), who was an oboist and teacher who wrote the seminal oboe studies in 1825.

     Jazz: Garvin Bushell (1902-1991) played the oboe in jazz bands as early as 1924, eventually recorded with John Coltrane in 1961. Paul Whiteman played jazz oboe in the 1920s and 30s. Gill Evans (1912-1988) played oboe with jazz great Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef used the oboe as a solo instrument in modern jazz performances, Charles Mingus (1922-1979) gave the oboe a solo role when played by Richard Hafer (1927-2012) in his jazz groups, and Marshal Allen (1924-   ) played oboe with Sun Ra. Paul McCandless (1947-  ) is co-founder of the Paul Winter Consort and later played the oboe in the jazz group Oregon. Romeo Penque played the oboe on Roland Kirk’s album “Return of the 5000 lb Man” in 1975. The Maria Schneider Orchestra features the oboe. Jean-Luc Fillon plays oboe and English horn, and Charles Pillow plays and teaches jazz oboe.

     Celtic and Folk: Derek Bell (1935-2002) of the Cheiftains, David Cantieni of Wild Asparagus (a contra dance band in the US), Paul Sartin played in folk bands including Faustus and Bellowhead, Welsh bagpipe player and maker Jonathan Shorland plays a rustic oboe similar to the Breton piston with the bands Primeaval and Juice. Welsh musician  Karl Jenkins (1944-  ) played the oboe with Nucleus and Soft Machine.

     Pop: The Carpenters used an oboe in “For All We Know” in 1970, and both Donovan Leitch and Jennifer Juniper used studio musicians on oboes for their albums, rather than regular members of their bands. Peter Gabriel played oboe on some of Genesis’s albums. Robbie J. de Klerk played the oboe on the Dutch metal band Another Messiah’s albums in the 2000s. Hoboe defines itself as a rock band showcasing the amplified oboe since 2000, fronted by oboist Zen Ben.

     Film: The oboe is often used in film music, especially in sad scenes. The Indian film composer Ilaiyaraja uses oboe in much of his film music.


“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Guistave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

Instrument Biography: The Bagpipe

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Some of you are going to get all squirmy because you think you don’t like the this instrument. But give this ancient instrument a chance—maybe you’ll change your mind.

The bagpipe is the universal folk instrument, appearing on nearly every continent. The bagpipe is an aerophone, which means that it’s a wind instrument. Unlike most aerophones, it’s fueled by air from a bag rather than directly by the player’s breath. The bag is filled by the player’s breath or by a bellows, and the melodies are played when the player squeezes the air out of the bag and through drone pipes and chanter (melody) pipes. The bagpipe, like the clarinet or the oboe, uses enclosed reeds that create a buzzing and cause the tube of the chanter to resonate when the air passes through it.

The most famous pipes are the Scottish Great Highland Bagpipe and Irish Uilleann pipes, but bagpipes are nearly everywhere, from Northern Africa, to the Persian Gulf, throughout the Caucasus, and in most of Europe. Australia doesn’t seem to have invented this instrument on its own, and I attribute this to the dominance of another drone instrument, the didgeridoo.

In the story of instrumental descendants, if you think of the panpipes as the ancestor of the organ, you can also think of the panpipe as the ancestor of the bagpipe. It’s important to note that both the organ and the bagpipe came about as a result of mechanical improvements and that included adding some sort of chest or bellows to existing instruments. But where the organ has enjoyed a lush literature, the bagpipe has not. In part, this is because the organ became the instrument of churches and kings and the bagpipe stayed with its humble origins and remained a folk instrument, which means that much of the literature was never documented.

A History of Bagpipes

The bagpipe might have, like the lute, come to the Middle East and then on to Europe via the traveling song girls sent by the conquered rulers of India in about the 15th century BCE. It’s also possible that people in the Middle East invented it for themselves. Images of bagpipes have been identified on a Hittite slab at Eyuk dated to 1000 BCE.

Hellenistic writings left by Aristophanes in the 1st century BCE tell of an instrument whose squeezed bladders provided a reservoir of breath with a controlled exit through a pipe. In Rome, Latin writers also described the bagpipe in the 1st century.

In Roman times, the bagpipe’s place was in the tavern, not the palace, although there are stories from Suetonius (c69-c122 CE) that Nero fancied himself to be an utricularius player (bagpiper). Despite Nero’s preference, the bagpipe never became accepted into sophisticated musical circles. There is an obvious connection between the development of the bagpipe and the development of the pipe organ well into the 2nd century (referred to by Julius Pollux), and when I write about pipe organs, I’ll cover that.

The bagpipe was widely used at all social levels during the Middle Ages across Europe, although it had mostly rustic associations. The church’s insistence on anonymity in the Middle Ages gave rise to the popularity of the bagpipe as far back as the 9th century because the very nature of the chanter prevented much in the way of articulation and accents, smoothing things out and eliminating the possibility of distinctive personal expression. Bagpipes were seen in England around 1100, but didn’t appear in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland until considerably later.

The instrument wasn’t fully developed in Europe until the 13th century. In the early Middle Ages, it was chiefly used by herdsmen, and because of that, was introduced into Christmas music. You see, as Christianity spread northward, the Catholic church integrated pagan and pastoral music and traditions into their own as in an effort to make Christianity appealing to older cultures. Christmas and Easter are particularly full of these older traditions. But I digress.

Jewish music used a bagpipe with one chanter and two drones in the 13th century. The Cantigas de Santa Maria, compiled in Castile in the 13th century, depicts several styles of bagpipes.

Bagpipes are mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century and around the same time in France, Guillaume Machaut mentions four types of bagpipes in his Prise d’Alexandrie and Reméde de Fortune.

Jewish scholar Abraham da Portaleone (c1540-1612) wrote a strange and inaccurate treatise on things biblical, called “Shilte ha-Gibbonrim” (“The Shields of the Mighty” in Hebrew), documenting history and archaeology, including musical instruments. It’s not a very scientific tome, and one of his many errors is to describe a nablon (the Greek form of the word nebel) as a combination of the harp and the bagpipe. In another spot, he compares the nebel with a lute, describing a fingerboard, a sounding box, the string arrangement, and otherwise describes something that is probably a chitarrone. He also describes a sumponyah (an instrument listed in the Bible) as a bagpipe, which it might have been. It also might have been a dulcimer.

By the 16th century, the bagpipe’s popularity had nearly completely waned among the aristocracy and at court, and it became the instrument of shepherds, soldiers, and dancing peasants rather than princes. Despite this, it underwent development into as many as five different sizes. Some styles had as many as three drones and sometimes two chanters. At the turn of the 17th century, the biggest change came with the Irish invention of the Uilleann pipes (elbow pipes) that are now called Union pipes. These used a bellows rather than a simple bladder, so the opening of the player’s elbow provided the source of wind (like an accordion) rather than a mouth pipe.

Interest in the oboe in France during the early 17th century, for some reason, led to interest in the bagpipe, and they invented a new type, called the musette, with a bellows like the Uilleann pipe. Its chanter was narrower than the oboe, but cylindrical, like the flute. They also invented a racket (a double-reeded instrument like the oboe), with a dozen or more bores. The racket was about 6.5 inches in height, and it provided a drone that had an alterable pitch. A flute maker called Hotteterre (see my blog on the history of the flute for a bit more about him) added a second small chanter for the highest notes, giving the instrument about two octaves. The racket also used the bellows method of sound production.

It was at this point that there was a new immigration of bagpipes from the east—a Slavonic instrument showed up in Germany with cylindrical drones and chanters and a single reed (like that of a clarinet).

In 17th century France, composer Jean-Baptiste Lully and other composers who were fond of the pastoral tendencies of the instrument brought the bagpipe back to the attention of the aristocracy. Because they couldn’t bring obviously rustic things into the court, during this period, bagpipes were decorated with true rococo fabulousness.

The 18th century fostered a kind of faux pastoral movement, and both the hurdy-gurdy and the bagpipe had a resurgence in popularity. It was the bass drone that made the rococo composers deem these instruments appropriate, the opposite of what Renaissance musicians had felt.

Few bagpipes have survived from earlier than the 18th century, but there are loads of paintings, carvings, engravings, and manuscript illuminations. Folk bagpipes can be found in continental European paintings of Brueghel, Teniers, Jordaens, and Dūrer.

In the 1730s, William Dixon wrote music for the Border pipe, and for a nine-note bellows-blown bagpipe with a chanter similar to that of the Great Highland Bagpipe. Dixon’s music was mostly dance tunes, and some have been absorbed into a 19th century collection of songs for the smallpipes written (or perhaps collected) by John Peacock. In 1760, Joseph MacDonald made the first serious study of the Scottish Highland Pipes.

Large numbers of pipers were trained in the British Empire for service in WWI and WWII. In Canada and New Zealand, it’s still used in the military, especially for formal ceremonies. Other countries’ militaries have taken it on, including Uganda, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Oman. Police and fire services in Scotland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong King, and the United States have also adopted the bagpipe into marching bands.

In recent years, bagpipes have participated in rock, heavy metal, jazz, hip-hop, punk, and classical music.

Bagpipe Structure

A bagpipe consists of an air supply (either a bellows or a person’s breath), a bag, a chanter, and at least one drone (a single note that is sustained during the melody—and beyond). Most have more than one drone, and some have more than one chanter. The pieces are held together by means of sockets that fasten the pipes and the chanter to the bag.

The usual method of air delivery is by blowing into a blowpipe to fill the bag. In some cases, the end of the blowpipe needs to be covered by the tip of the tongue during inhalation, but most have a valve that prevents air from escaping.

In the 16th or 17th century, a bellows was attached to supply air. Such pipes are occasionally called cauld wind pipes (cold wind pipes), as the air is not heated by the player’s breath, so they can use more delicate reeds. In Britain, the Uilleann pipe, Border pipes, and Northumbrian smallpipes are among this type, and in France, the musette de cour.

The bag that holds the air is airtight. The player keeps the bag inflated by blowing into the blowpipe or pumping air through the bellows. Materials for the bags can include animal skins (goats, dogs, sheep, and cows, most commonly), and recently, man-made materials are used, such as Gore-Tex.

Skin bags are saddle stitched with an extra strip folded over the seam and stitched down. In synthetic bags, glue is used to make the seal. Holes are cut to accommodate the sockets into which the pipes and chanter fit. In bags that are cut from larger skins, the sockets are tied into the points where the animal’s limbs and the head joined the torso.

The chanter is the pipe on which the melody is played. Some bagpipes have more than one chanter, particularly those in North Africa, Southeastern Europe, and Southwest Asia. The inside bore of the chanter can be either parallel or conical (like the head of a flute).

The chanter is usually open-ended, making it hard for the player to stop the chanter from sounding as long as there is air flowing from the bag. This affects the music in that there are no “rests” or silences as part of the music. Because of this, grace notes (squiggly squirmy notes that drop down or spring up to the intended note) are used to break up long notes and to create a sense of articulation or accent. These embellishments are highly prescribed and are specific to each type of bagpipe. They are difficult to play and take many years to conquer.

Closed-ended chanters, or those that close the end on the player’s leg, include the Uilleann pipes, the Northumbrian smallpipe, and the left chanter of the surdulina, a type of Calabrian zampogna. This closed end, when all the finger holes of the chanter are also covered, causes the pipe to be silent. (The drone continues. Only the chanter is silenced this way.)

The chanter has a reed, either single (like a clarinet) or double (like an oboe). Double reeds are most common, and are in both parallel and conically bored chanters. Single reeds are found only in parallel bores. Double reeds are found in western Europe and single reeds are nearly everywhere else.

In bladder pipes, the chanter and the blow pipe always lie in a straight line and might even be rigidly connected inside the bladder. The chanter is sometimes straight and sometimes bent.

The drone is a pipe that isn’t fingered but produces a constant sound against which the melody is played in a kind of harmony. The drone pipe is usually cylindrically bored with a single reed, and the ability to have their pitch slightly adjusted (tuning, not note changing) by sliding its two parts snugly together or slightly apart along a sliding joint.

In most pipes, a single drone is pitched two octaves below the lowest note of the chanter. Additional drones might be an octave below that or matching the fifth (the fifth note up from the lowest—it’s a musical interval of key significance in many forms of music) of the chanter.

Drone pipes might lie on the player’s shoulder, across the arm opposite the bag, or dangle parallel to the chanter. Some drones have a tuning screw, which alters the length of the pipe by opening or closing a hole. Such a screw allows the player to choose one of two pitches (open and half-open) or turn the drone entirely off.

Bagpipes vary enormously in size an appearance, but all have:

  • A bag or reservoir for air
  • A mouthpipe used to fill the bag. Some have a one-directional valve to keep the air in
  • A chanter or melody-pipe with a double or single reed and usually eight finger holes (which gives it a nine-note range)
  • At least one fixed-pitch drone pipe

The notes are obtained by fingering a chanter that has an unbroken stream of air passing through it, caused by squeezing the full bag of air between the player’s torso and elbow. This same air also passes through one or more drone pipes that are sounded by reeds.

Origins of the Name

The Greek word askaulos means bag-piper, but doesn’t appear in a Greek context until after the classical period.

French has the word muse or cornamuse, although there’s another instrument, a relative of the crumhorn, by the same name. (The crumhorn is a reed-capped instrument with a beautiful bent-tube and a cylindrical bore that makes a buzzing nasal sound. There’s a biography to come on this one). The chanter of the cornamuse was called the chalumeau, and had eight or nine holes.

Also from France, through the French court at Naples, the troubadours working with Adam de la Halle (c1230-c1288)—biography to come—used a form of bagpipe called a chevrette.

In the British Isles, other names were the chorus or choron. The smallest bagpipe was called a forel.

In Latin, the name is Tibia utricularis.

In German, there are Sacphife, Dudelsack, Platerspiel and Bläterspiel. (I like Dudelsack best, don’t you?)

In English, with its specific rules about making things plural, both bagpipe or bagpipes is correct for a single instrument, and pipers speak of “the pipes” or a “set of pipes.”

Famous Bagpipe Composers

Jean-Baptist Lully (1632-1687) used the musette in his operatic orchestras. In Germany, the instrument was popular with Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and Franz Schubert (1897-1828)

In the British Isles, Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847-1935) wrote the “Pibroch Suite” to include bagpipes, and Granville Bantock (1868-1946) wrote his “Hebridean Symphony.” Erik Chisholm (1904-1965) used the pipes and Frederick Loewe (1901-1988) featured them in “Brigadoon” in 1947.

People are still writing for bagpipes, including Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (1934-   ) in his “Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise,” Shaun Davey (1948-  ) has written “Relief of Derry Symphony,” “The Pilgrim,” and the “Special Olympics Suite,” and Lindsay Davidson (1973-  ) has written the “Tulsa Opera” and others.

Oh, you haven’t heard of any of these? How about Paddy Maloney (1938-   ) writing for The Chieftans, Paul McCartney in his “Mull of Kintyre,” AC/DC in “It’s a long way to the Top,” Korn in their “Shoots and Ladders” and John Farnham’s “You’re the Voice.”

Famous Bagpipe Players

Relatively few people make their names as soloists on the bagpipe, so the following is a list of groups of pipers or groups that include pipes among other instruments.

  • The Tannahill Weavers,
  • Rare Air
  • Wolfstone
  • Jerry O’Sullivan
  • Scottish National Pipe and Drum Corps and Military Band
  • Royal Scots Dragoon Guards
  • Ian McGregor and Scottish Pipe Band
  • The Highland Bagpipes
  • Bagpipe Hero
  • Massea Scottish Bands

There. See? There’s nothing at all dry or dull about the history of the bagpipe. I, for one, can’t wait until the Bay Area’s annual Highland Games each year to get my fill.


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