How do bagpipes work?

The sound of Scotland’s national instrument is unmistakable, but how is it produced?

Throughout the Highlands of Scotland, the distinctive bellowing of tartan pipes can be heard cascading through the air. Bagpipes have been a part of Scottish tradition for centuries, however, their origins lie elsewhere. It’s still unclear as to where exactly this type of instrument was first invented, but one theory is that the invading Roman army brought the pipes to Scotland from Egypt.

Bagpipes were originally used as an instrument for battle and were first documented during the Battle of Pinkie in 1547. It is said the melody of pipes could be heard for up to 16 kilometres as the sound led Highlanders onto the battlefield.

In order to create their iconic and long-lasting sound, bagpipes rely on a continual flow of air to create a constant tune. There are many structural variations of bagpipes, but most comprise a bag, melody (chanter) pipe and drone pipes. The player blows into the aptly named blowpipe, filling the bag with air. It is the job of the player to continually fill the bag and squeeze the air out with their arm while playing the chanter. Air passes through reeds within the pipes, creating the continuous sound expelled from the drone pipes at the top of the bagpipes and the chanter at the base. Using holes in the chanter, the player can control the melody in the same way as any other reeded instrument.

Playing the third lung

A continual air supply is key in controlling these Highland pipes



 This article was originally published in How It Works issue 112

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