The Different Parts Of A Bagpipe: The Anatomy And Structure Explained

Last updated

Ever wonder what the parts of a bagpipe are? Bagpipes are wondrous and mysterious instruments hailing from Scotland that have a unique sound and method of playing. It’s no surprise, then, that its parts are equally shrouded in mystery. 

In this piece, we will show you the different parts of a bagpipe and what each of them does for the instrument. Even if you’re not looking to learn how to play the bagpipes, it’s a fascinating instrument that’s surprisingly complex. 

Keep reading to find out more about this 1000-year old instrument and what each of its parts does to help create its unique sound.

Anatomy of the Bagpipes

While there are some variations between different bagpipe makers and in different cultures, the traditional Scottish musical instrument has four distinct sections: 

  • Blowstick
  • Bag
  • Drones
  • Chanter Reed

There are indeed other parts to bagpipes, but these four sections encompass all of the smaller pieces as well.

We’ll go through each one in detail below. 

The Blowstick

The blowstick is like the mouthpiece of a bagpipe.

You use it to blow air into the bag, pressurizing it enough to create tones and, eventually, music.

It attaches directly to the bag, utilizing a special valve that keeps the air inside but prevents it from returning up the blowstick. 

It’s located at the top of the bag and rests naturally near your mouth as you hold the instrument upright.

You must constantly fill the bag with air as it escapes through the pipes to create the sound you’re looking for.

As a result, serious players have incredible endurance above the average musician’s and can continuously blow for minutes on end. 

Back in the day, blowsticks were made from wood and were treated to resist corrosion from the user’s lips and moisture in the air.

Modern bagpipes often use high-quality plastic instead, but serious and professional players still gravitate towards traditional materials. 

However, blowsticks wear down eventually, no matter how well you take care of your instrument.

Most bagpipes will fit different types of blowsticks, so you can play around with the construction to see what you like best.

Plastic is cheaper and often more durable, but wood has the weight and feel that professionals love. 

The Bag

The bag is the largest part of a bagpipes, forming the base to which all other parts attach. 

To hold the bag, simply loop your arm and shoulder through the hole next to the base drone and it will naturally rest in the ready position.

The same hand should steady the bottom of the bag but also play the chanter with your other hand as the blowstick sits in your mouth. 

Traditionally, a bag is made from sheepskin or cowhide, the perfect material for forming an airtight seal and inflating on command.

However, bags today are usually made with a synthetic rubber-like material that has similar qualities and lasts a lot longer.

While you can definitely find animal skin bags, most available bagpipes will be synthetic. 

While it’s fairly easy to hold, you have to apply varying degrees of pressure in order to maintain correct notes while playing.

This takes a lot of strength, and your bag’s size, material, and shape will determine how easy it is for you to play. 

The Drones

Scottish bagpipes have three drones that determine its pitch and tone.

They’re made of bamboo or similar wood and have small holes where the air escapes at the tips.

By applying pressure on various areas of the bag, you can determine where air escapes and how much. 

Bass Drone

The bass drone is the longest and largest drone attached to the instrument and controls the lower humming characteristic of the bagpipes.

It’s the closest piece to your face aside from the blowstick, and you use the bass hole to hold the bagpipes. 

Tenor Drones

Bagpipes also have two tenor drones which are smaller than the bass drone located further down the bag.

Also made from bamboo, tenor drones control the higher-pitched humming sound that balances the notes from the bass drone. 

Tuning Slides

On each drone, you’ll find a small ring that slides up and down to change the instrument’s tuning.

These are often set and left alone during play, but skilled bagpipers can alter the tuning mid-song.

Tuning slides are also typically wood, but older bagpipes might be decorated with other materials, like silver or even ivory.

Drone Cords

These are the seemingly decorative tassels attached to the bass drone and then tied along the shaft of each other drone.

In reality, though, drone cords secure the drones, preventing them from jostling the player as they move.

Often colored in typical Scottish red plaid, cords can be embellished however the player chooses. 

The Chanter

As you hold the bag in your armpit, both your hands play the chanter, sometimes known as the pipe chanter.

The chanter is the actual part of the bagpipes that produces the melody for whatever tune you’re playing.

It operates similarly to a clarinet, with the player fingering the various holes along the shaft to produce different notes. 

Chanter Reed

Chanter reeds are tucked away between the pipe chanter and the bag, hidden from sight.

This is the part that air passes through to produce the sound you hear coming from the chanter.

It’s composed of two bamboo slivers that allow the passage of pressurized air from the bag out of the pipe chanter.

Summing Up the Bagpipes’ Parts

That’s it for our guide to the parts of a bagpipe.

We hope that you now understand the purpose of each part and how they interact with each other as you play the instrument by the end of it. 

While it might seem like the bagpipes is a simple instrument, the reality is that it’s an impressive piece of engineering that took the Scottish generations to perfect.

The complex movement of air through the various holes along the chanter and drones via pressure from your armpit is nothing short of amazing.

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.