How Do Bagpipes Work

Bagpipes are a fascinating instrument with a unique, easily recognizable sound. Their haunting tones are perfectly suited for mournful Celtic ballads, yet with a slight change of technique they're excellent for rousing marches and jigs. Bagpipes have been in wide use for centuries in some parts of the world, namely Scotland and Ireland, and have gone through many transformations as technology and material availability have changed. Despite this, how bagpipes work is still almost identical to some of the earliest-known bagpipes.

To play the bagpipes, the musician must first inflate the bag through the blowpipe. Where other instruments might have a reed in this pipe, a bagpipe has only a valve that prevents air from coming back out. Some newer instruments also have a chamber designed to remove the moisture from incoming air before allowing it into the bag.

With the bag filled with air, the piper need only apply light, steady pressure to push the air out the pipes on top of the bag -- called the drones -- and the pipe where the notes are played. This last pipe resembles the shaft of a flute, and is called the chanter because it is the piece where the melody is played.

The drones and the chanter in a bagpipe each have their own reed, allowing each to play almost as an independent instrument. Essentially, the bag on a bagpipe multiplies the breath of a single musician so four instruments can be played simultaneously.

In addition to using reeds in each pipe in a set of bagpipes, the instrument typically has a ring cap at the end of each drone. This cap is made of metal, wood or ivory (or imitation ivory where real ivory is not legal). Originally the ring cap served only to prevent the wood at the end of the drones from splitting or striking things that could damage them, but today they're formed to create even more resonance in the instrument's sound. The result of all of these factors is absolutely phenomenal and versatile music.

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