Bagpipe Tuning

The bagpipe scale does not match any of the scales used in modern Western "concert" music. This means that when you use an inexpensive tuner, you need to be aware of the differences between the bagpipe scale to which you're tuning your pipe, and the modern Western scale that the meter measures.

The first complication - Musical Modes

You may have heard that the bagpipe is in the key of "A mixolydian". Strictly speaking, this isn't true - though the bagpipe can play in that scale, it can also be used to play in other scales;  which is one of the ways that you can provide some variety in pipe music. To understand what this means you need to know about "modes."  The ancient Greeks devised a number of "modes" in which you can construct a scale; that is, the order of the half steps and whole steps that you encounter when you play the scale. (Think of the scale as playing the piano key of C major, skipping past the black keys for the whole steps and the half steps corresponding to the white keys that don't have a black key between them). Most of these "modes" are now of interest mainly to musical historians, but three concern us as pipers:  The Ionian mode, which corresponds to the common major scale; the Aolian mode, which corresponds to the common minor scale;  and the mixolydian, which is similar to the major scale but the seventh tone is flattened. In other words, in a mixolydian scale (do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do) the "ti" is flattened when compared to a major scale.

Now to get back to the pipe. Pipe music that notes the actual sharps and flats will have two sharps - F# and C#. This corresponds to the key signature for D major (D Ionian), and in fact bagpipe tunes in D very closely approximate this key - for example, "Amazing Grace." It also corresponds to the key signature for B minor (B Aolian) - for example, "Mist-Covered Mountains."  And finally it corresponds to the key signature for A Mixolydian - for example, "Scotland the Brave."  (That's why the high G in a lot of "A" tunes sounds funny - it is!). You can identify the key in which a tune is written by looking at the most common chords in the tune; additionally, most tunes will end on their key note. (This is not only true of bagpipe music, but of over 99% of Western music generally).

You might ask why we don't tune the pipe in A major, that is, using a G# rather than a G natural. There are two reasons for this:
  1. The loss of G natural would mean that many tunes written in the key of D would no longer work. The D-G interval is a major fourth, a commonly-used interval. By contrast, the loss of G# for tunes written in the key of A is not as critical:  the A-G# interval is a major seventh, which is not as commonly used. Some tunes never use the seventh at all; others use it only as a momentary passing note. And even in music written for concert instruments, the mixolydian mode is sometimes used in any event.
  2. More importantly, the chord between G# and the A natural of the drones is not a pleasant interval. The chord between G natural and the A natural of the drones is not as harmonious as that between the A, C, D, or E of the chanter and the drones, but it's not unpleasant.
Sometimes you encounter modern pipe music that uses to obtain (which pipers sometimes call, erroneously, or F-flat and C-flat. Strictly speaking, natural!). Unlike G#, these intervals when properly tuned do in fact have a strong chord with the drones although they are not used in bagpipe music.

The second complication - The key pitch

The second complication is that the pipe's A isn't the same as concert A. Concert A is 440 Hertz (abbreviated Hz). That is, the air vibrates 440 times per second. The bagpipe's pitch has been rising steadily, and is now commonly set between 470-480. This is not only sharper than concert A, it's sharper than concert Bb which is 466 Hz! When using a tuner, you need to compensate for this. There are several ways you can do this; the easiest are:
  1. Some tuners allow you to set the pitch for A over a very wide range. For example, the Korg CA-30 allows you to set the pitch for A anywhere between 410 and 480. The rest of the notes will then read out properly - with C and F being noted as C# and F# respectively. This makes the CA-30 a very nice tuner to use for bagpipes.
  2. Some tuners don't have as large a range for setting the pitch for A. For example, the Korg CA-20 is more limited and allows you to set the pitch only between about 430 and 450. This is still quite adequate for our purposes;  you just have to remember that an A on the pipe will correspond with a Bb, and then adjust the calibration to take into account the amount to which you're sharp of Bb. Subtract 26 from the pipe's pitch for low A to obtain where to set the pitch for A on the tuner. In the band we usually tune between A=472 and A=474, so set the tuner's calibration to 446 when tuning our low A to 472, or set the calibration to 448 when tuning chanter's low A to 474. Other notes on the scale will likewise need to be adjusted upwards by a half-step, so that our C will register as D, etc. Don't let any of this confuse you - drop down a half step to convert from the note displayed on the tuner to the note on the pipe chanter. If you're tuning higher than 476, you may not be able to calibrate the meter so that it registers 0 on low A since 476 - 26 = 450 and some meters won't calibrate higher than this. If that's the case, you need to add the number of Hertz that you're sharp of 476 onto the needle display on the meter - this can get tricky depending on the design of the meter.
With those two things taken into account, you can tune your octave (low A->high A), or check the tuning of your drones. In both cases you would tune them so that the needle would show up on 0. You can also practice steady blowing by watching the needle - it should not move while you hold a single steady note. What you still can't do is properly tune your chanter, which leads us to the third complication:

The third complication - temperament

The third complication is temperament. This is a more subtle point than the other two, but it can really trip you up if you're trying to use an inexpensive tuner like the CA-30 in the most simpleminded way to tune your pipes.

To understand what temperament is, you first have to understand how the Greeks constructed their chromatic scale. To the Greeks, all of the half-steps ("Semitones") were constructed from ratios of small whole numbers. This "just" temperament makes for a very pleasing scale, where any two notes that are a third, fourth, or fifth apart will make a harmonious chord. The problem comes about when you try to play in a key that's not very close to the natural key for your instrument - instead of small number ratios, they can become very large numbers, with the effect that the chords don't work so well in these keys. The details of this aren't important - what's important is their effect. This effect was well understood, but it didn't matter until musicians with different kinds of instruments started playing together. This caused lots of problems, especially as composers wanted to write music that changed keys and modes more than the older styles of music had done. The compromise that was reached was to "de-tune" each note just slightly - so that instead of the simple whole-note ratios, the ratio between each of the half-steps on the chromatic scale would remain constant. As it happens, if you divide the chromatic scale into 12 equidistant semitones, these semitones will approximate the values of the ratios used in the classical Greek modes.
This was the start of the modern "equal" or "even" tempered scale. The actual ratio between successive semitones in this revised scale is the twelfth root of 2 - a nasty irrational number rather than the nice "small whole number" ratios that the Greeks used. But it turns out that although this isn't quite as ideal for any one instrument, this scale is not unpleasant.

The problem from our point of view is that pipes and pipe music were designed for, and work best with, just temperament. But the tuners are built to measure an equal-tempered scale. You can, of course, buy a bagpipe tuner which will take our temperament into account - but this is expensive. A cheaper alternative is to use an inexpensive tuner but to use a table to convert from the tuner's even temperament to the pipe's just temperament. The following table should allow you to do this;  you tune each note on the chanter so that the note is "in tune" not when the needle is at 0, but when the needle registers a certain number of "cents" sharp or flat of 0. (A cent is a measurement of relative frequency rather than absolute frequency as are Hertz. There are 100 cents in any semitone, or in other words 1200 cents for each octave. At our pitch, a Hertz is equal to about 3-4 cents).

Note name Ratio to
low A
Cents from
low A
ET note
ET cents Deviation
from ET
Freq for A
= 466 Hz
Freq for A
= 475 Hz
high A 2:1 1200.0 A 1200 0.0 932 950
high GM 9:5 1017.6 G 1000 +17.6 839 855
high GJ 16:9 996.1 G 1000 -3.9 828 844
high GH 7:4 968.8 G 1000 -31.2 816 831
F(#) 5:3 884.4 F# 900 -15.6 777 792
(F natural)
E 3:2 702.0 E 700 +2.0 699 713
DM 27:20 519.6 D 500 +19.6 629 641
DJ 4:3 498.0 D 500 -2.0 621 633
C(#) 5:4 386.3 C# 400 -13.7 583 594
(C natural)
B 9:8 203.9 B 200 +3.9 524 534
low A 1:1 0.0 A 0 0.0 466 475
low GM, GJ 8:9 -203.9 G -200 -3.9 414 422
low GH 7:8 -231.2 G -200 -31.2 408 416

The DM, DJ, GM, GJ, and GH are D and G as recorded by Seumas MacNeill (M), Just-tempered (J), or Harmonic (H) which is an alternative temperament. MacNeill's low G corresponds to Just temperament but his high G does not. Nowadays the Just temperaments are more commonly heard than the temperament that MacNeill recorded in some of the measurements that he made of pipe music in the 1950s.  Note that F natural and C natural do not occur on the traditional bagpipe scale.

Further information on the temperament of the bagpipe can be found in Ewan MacPherson's article 'The Pitch and Scale of the Great Highland Bagpipe," from which this table is copied.

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