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Submitted by on Mar 7, 2022

Bagpipes are a woodwind instrument with enclosed reeds that are supplied by a bag that holds a continual supply of air. Across the Anglophone world, the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes are the most well-known example, although bagpipes have been played for millennia in significant portions of Europe, Northern Africa, Western Asia, the Persian Gulf region, and northern parts of South Asia.

Although pipers commonly refer to the bagpipes as “the pipes,” “a set of pipes,” or “a stand of pipes,” the term bagpipe can be used in either solitary or plural form.

Blowing into a blowpipe or blowstick is the most popular way of getting air into the bag. Some pipes need the player to inhale while covering the tip of the blowpipe with their tongue, however most blowpipes include a non-return valve that eliminates this requirement. Many devices have been developed in recent years to aid in the creation of a clean air flow to the pipes and the collection of condensation.

The use of a bellows to deliver air is an invention from the 16th or 17th centuries. Because the air in these pipes, also known as “cauld wind pipes,” is neither heated or moistened by the player’s breathing, more refined or delicate reeds can be used. The Irish uilleann pipes, Scottish smallpipes, Northumbrian smallpipes, pastoral pipes, and the musette de cour, musette bechonnet, and cabrette in France, and the Dudy wielkopolskie, koziol bialy, and koziol czarny in Poland are examples of such pipes.

The bag is an airtight reservoir that retains air and controls its flow using arm pressure, allowing the musician to keep a consistent, even tone. By breathing air into the bag using a blowpipe or pumping air into it with a bellows, the player maintains the bag inflated. Bags are made from a variety of materials, the most popular of which are the skins of local animals such as goats, dogs, sheep, and cows. Bags made of synthetic fabrics, such as Gore-Tex, have grown significantly more popular in recent years. The synthetic bag has the disadvantage of allowing fungal spores to colonize the bag due to the lack of essential cleaning, posing the risk of lung infection. A synthetic bag has the benefit of having a zip that allows the user to attach a more efficient moisture trap to the interior of the bag.

To prevent leaks, bags made of heavier fabrics are saddle-stitched with an additional strip folded over the seam and sewn (for skin bags) or glued (for synthetic bags). After that, holes are made to accommodate the stocks. Stocks are often knotted into the spots where the limbs and head joined the body of the complete animal in the case of bags produced from nearly whole animal skins, a construction style widespread in Central Europe.

The melody pipe, played with two hands, is known as the chanter. All bagpipes have at least one chanter, while some, notably in North Africa, the Balkans, and Southwest Asia, have two. Internally, a chanter can be drilled in a conical form or such that the interior walls are parallel (or “cylindrical”) over its whole length.

Because the chanter is normally open-ended, the player has no easy means to stop the pipe from playing. As a result, most bagpipes have a continuous, legato sound with no breaks in the melody. Technical motions are employed to break up notes and produce the sense of articulation and accents, mostly because of this inability to stop playing. These embellishments (or “ornaments”) are generally extremely complex systems specialized to each piper, and mastering them takes many years of study. A few bagpipes (such as the musette de cour, uilleann pipes, Northumbrian smallpipes, piva, and surdelina’s left chanter) have closed ends or stop the end on the player’s leg, making the chanter silent when the player “closes” (covers all the holes).

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