Unsurprisingly, bagpipes – those instruments you rarely hear outside of ceremonial music or Irish folk songs – boast a long and interesting history. While evidence of pre-Roman era bagpipes is shaky, it’s understood that these instruments have been around for a very long time – since perhaps as far back as 1000 BC, in the Middle East.
Prevalent in the Eastern Roman Empire, bagpipes have been depicted in countless paintings, carvings and literary works since. They are mentioned, for example, in The Canterbury Tales – and in John Derrick’s The Image of Irelande, from 1581. And while the first clear reference to Scottish Highland bagpipes appears to be from a French history, today we most often think of the instruments in terms of Irish and Scottish culture.
As cultures have grown in sophistication and technological advances, bagpipes have fallen out of fashion – and they have certainly been on a slow, long decline for quite some time. However, they are still used throughout the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Nations, and especially at formal military ceremonies. Police and fire services in Scotland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and the United States have adopted the tradition of fielding pipe bands for special occasions. And from time to time, you’ll see bagpipes enjoy a quick surge of popularity – when the film Braveheart came out, for example, or when Riverdance first hit the scene.
While bagpipe making was once a craft closely tied to heritage and traditional styles, it is now a multi-million-dollar industry largest in (surprisingly enough) Pakistan. In the late 20th century, the first electronic bagpipes were invented – showing just how far the instrument has come.
Today, dozens of types of bagpipes can be found across Europe and the Middle East – but the Great Highland bagpipe is by far the most well known. As with all bagpipes, their traditional purpose is to provide music for dancing – and no matter the style, the basics of construction remain the same: Bagpipes are aerophones, which use enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag. Along with the air supply and bag, bagpipes are comprised of a chanter (a set of finger-holes that allows the player to create a melody) and usually at least one drone (a pipe that, while rarely fingered, produces a constant harmonizing note.)
If you’re looking for bagpipes in modern music, you won’t have to look very far. They may have waned in usage over the past few centuries, but they have definitely not disappeared. Just check out this list of Top 10 Rock ‘n’ RollBagpipe Songs, which include hits like “Come Talk to Me” by Peter Gabriel and “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” by AC/DC. Who knows – the old-fashioned instrument may see a revival after all.
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(Photo courtesy of Reddit.)