Are bagpipes actually Turkish

Scottish flair - the bagpipes

Imagine a Scottish landscape with green hills and a real Scot on top. He wears a plaid tartan skirt and a hat - as it should be. The most important thing, however, is the object he is holding. The somewhat strange looking instrument is called the bagpipe and every child associates it with the country of Scotland.

But all over the world it has a different name: Sackpfeife, Bockpfeife, Great Highland Pipe, Gaida, Bock, Sackpfiff, Schalika, Säckpipa or Cabrette, to name just a few. Each region has its own story about the bagpipes. What do we actually know about the peculiar woodwind instrument, except that we immediately have to think of Scotland? Where does the bagpipe really come from, how is a sound made and how does one become a bagpiper?

Origin of the bagpipes - really in Scotland?

The word bagpipes can be derived from the Turkish “duduk”, which translates as flute. Contrary to what many people think, the origin of the bagpipe is not really Scotland, but presumably Asia. This cannot be said for certain, as the oldest historical sources usually leave a lot of room for interpretation. Probably the world's first bagpipe consisted of a simple reed flute and was found from ancient Egypt and earlier Mesopotamia. It is unclear when the airbag was added to the instrument.

A Hittite relief from Alaca Höyük in the Turkish province of Corum shows a bagpipe for the first time - including an airbag. From before 1200 BC. it is probably the oldest representation of the instrument. The origin of the bagpipe in Asia can also be assumed based on other reliefs or literary pieces. While the instrument was found all over the Mediterranean in antiquity, the Romans spread it all over Europe. In many European countries the bagpipes are still part of the culture today. Primarily in Celtic areas it exerted a strong influence on music. Especially in Scotland, where the bagpipe has even been made a national instrument.

There is one main reason why the instrument, which took getting used to, survived Scottish history. After the Battle of Culloden, the wearing of traditional Scottish dress and many Scottish customs was banned. The Scots continued to play the bagpipes and enabled them to identify with at least one thing nationally. Today the whole world knows the Scottish bagpipes or the "Great Highland Bagpipe", for which British military music is responsible.

Structure of the bagpipes

The bagpipe is an uninterrupted aerophone instrument or a reed instrument. To play it, the first thing to do is to fill the airbag with air. This can be done in different ways, for example with a bellows or a blow pipe for the mouth. If the piper uses a bellows, he can even sing along with his game.

A check valve prevents the air from returning. To create sounds, the player squeezes the air bag with his arms or body, creating an even air pressure. One or more drone whistles, which are usually located on top of the airbag and often on the player's shoulder, therefore produce a constant continuous tone. This drone tone, which sounds like an organ point throughout the playing, is characteristic of the unique sound of the over-and-under pipe.


The well-known polyphony of the bagpipes is achieved through the melody. This is played on a chanter like a normal flute. The six to eight finger holes on the play tube determine the pitch. In order to set accents and to separate the notes of a melody from one another, the player has to play numerous decorative notes (gracenotes), similar to suggestions. This requires concentration and coordination, as the fingers have to be precisely timed.

The continuous tone is created by a single reed in the drone pipes made of reeds, plastic or metal, which is made to vibrate by the air flow. In the chanter there is usually a double reed (reed). Such a reed can be compared to that of an oboe. The airbag used to be made of leather, but nowadays it is also made of synthetic. Many players choose a decorative cover for the Scottish bagpipes.

The musical peculiarity and difficulty when playing is that the playable keys are limited in many types of bagpipes. Chromatics are often not playable either. Since most of the bagpipes are tuned diatonic, notes of different keys can only be played to a limited extent. This is one of the reasons why playing the bagpipe requires a great deal of skill. In addition, the player must have a large lung volume. This is why beginners are advised not to buy a bagpipe straight away, but to take lessons at a music school first. There musicians can play on a training bagpipe or borrow a bagpipe.

Types and distribution of the bagpipes

[youtube] A little more than a millennium after the Roman Empire, numerous regional types of bagpipes developed in the late baroque period. They differed depending on the place, era and taste of the farmer. Today there are around 180 different bagpipe shapes across Europe. Adapted to the modern age, there are even electric bagpipes that can be connected to a computer or amplifier via MIDI.

But let's first go back to the Middle Ages and early modern times. There the bagpipes flourished as a folk and pastoral instrument and an indispensable part of the music scene. Later in the Baroque era, the regional form of the bagpipes brought about the most famous instrument, the Musette de Cour in France. Also noteworthy types that emerged from this development are the Bohemian buck, the Zampogna from Italy and the Gaida from Bulgaria.

In Central Europe, replicas of historical pieces are still being built to recreate medieval music. The bagpipes also have a tradition in northern and northeastern Europe, Austria, southern Germany, India and Iran. Playing the so-called “mashak” or “titti” is a cultural custom at weddings, especially in India, which is believed to be the country in which the instrument was created. Unfortunately, these two types of bagpipe were also pushed into the background in India by the Great Highland Bagpipe from Scotland.

Four types of bagpipes in sight

At least 45 regions on earth, each with their own shape of the bagpipe, are known. To get an impression of the biodiversity of the bagpipes, we focus on only two of the more well-known bagpipes from Scotland and Central Europe.

Scottish classic - the Great Higland Bagpipe

[youtube] Probably the best known over-the-counter pipe is the Great Highland Bagpipe. Scottish landscapes and Scottish highland clothing-wearing men immediately come to mind. It was originally a popular folk instrument, but from the 19th century onwards it was mainly associated with military music. From the 1980s onwards, the Great Highland Bagpipe, mostly made from Grenadil, also gained in importance in Germany. Scottish bands and groups formed, some of which have survived to this day. The Great Highland Bagpipe consists of two tenor drone pipes, a bass drone pipe and a chanter with nine tones. Although the bagpipes are tuned to sound in B, the multitude of music is traditionally notated in A, so that the player has to transpose. The bagpipe sounds a semitone higher than noted.

The little sister - the Scottish Smallpipe

[youtube] Those who want to switch from the louder Great Highland Bagpipe to a quieter version are well served with the Scottish Smallpipe. Because of its soft and warm sound, it is ideal for indoor play. It can also score points in combination with other instruments. Its versatility is shown not only in the fact that it can be hand-blown as well as played with bellows, but also in its mood. Different basic tones from A to D are possible. Switching from a Great Highland Pipe to a Scottish Smallpipe is straightforward because the fingering and ornamentation technique is the same.

Large range - the shepherd's whistle

[youtube] An originally German folk instrument is the shepherd's pipe, which is mainly used for dance music. It's a bit louder than the Scottish Smallpipe, but still only has a medium volume. Today's construction is based on the Flemish bagpipe. Since some notes can be overblown, the instrument has a large range in which almost all semitones can be played. In addition, the shepherd's pipe, like the Flemish bagpipe, has good stability and the aforementioned large ambitus. The shepherd's pipe is often played together with turntables, violins or other folk instruments.

The French convertible

[youtube] The Cabrette came to Paris from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. At dance events it was usually played there with an accordion. The type of bagpipe consists only of a bellows and a chanter that is connected to a single drone pipe. Sometimes it even happens that decorative cordons are attached, but they have no function. At first the cabriolet was still a hand-blown instrument, later it was equipped with a bellows. This is said to be due to the carpenter Joseph Faure. He first used a bellows because he suffered from a lung disease.

Related instruments

The sound of the bagpipe is probably not found in any instrument. The way it is produced or played, however, is not unique. We know playing with a bellows from the organ and the accordion, for example. Instead of an air bag, the Platerspiel has an animal bladder as an air container. Other drone instruments are the hurdy-gurdy, drone zither and double flutes. The Krummhorn and the Rauschpfeife are also wind capsule instruments.

The bagpipes - a versatile and distinctive instrument

[youtube] After the instrument went out of use in Germany in the 19th century, it has experienced a revival in the last few decades. No wonder with this wonderful instrument. It sounds fabulous both alone and with other instruments. Its sounds allow us to immerse ourselves in the world of the Scots and dream of green hilly landscapes. But now we also know where the bagpipes really come from.

The bagpipe is an instrument whose characteristic polyphony is worth learning because not everyone can play the bagpipes.

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