Lindsay Davidson 
Driving 'piping forward

Writing for Smallpipes

(description, role, sound)
RangeBasics of playing
Extended techniqueGuidebooksExamples


When we say 'bagpipes', most people think of the great highland bagpipes of Scotland. There are, however, other kinds of bagpipes in common use in Scotland.

Smallpipes are diatonic, and are made in four different 'keys'. These are not tonalities as we commonly understand the term but this will be explained below.

Smallpipes give the impression of having a loudness like a clarinet at mezzoforte, but in concert halls and other venues the sound can carry quite poorly. This is on account of the sound power of the instrument - with a narrow bore, very little air is involved in making the sound, which is why they can be so weak. Smallpipes balance perfectly with a harp, a singer or two or three other instruments.

Like highland bagpipes, smallpipes have drones. These are usually tuned to the bottom note of the chanter, an octave beneath that and a fifth between these. These can be turned off with the help of corks.

As with highland bagpipes, the melody is played on a 'chanter'.

Important to note is that smallpipes sound continuously and that repetition of notes happens by short, sharp movements of the fingers called 'gracenotes' (they differ in reality a little from other traditions' gracenotes). Gracenotes are also grouped together systematically to form a whole method of playing. This method gives bagpipe music grammar and nuance and without gracenotes bagpipe music can sound senseless. With irregular and unusual gracing, it an also sound senseless and it is worth to be aware of this and refrain from prescribing extensive gracings if they can't changed by the performer. Often as with other instruments, unplayable combinations can be, and often are,  presented.

Smallpipes typically use a more limited range of embellishments than highland pipes. It should be noted though that the vast majority of smallpipers are also highland pipers and will have this range of embellishments available. The main difference is that the bottom notes on smallpipes are weaker than the top, whereas in highland pipes the opposite is true. There, the grammatical element of gracing does not work the same way as highland pipes.

For a complete listing of all the basic gracings used by highland pipers please go to the author's teach yourself bagpipes website where there is a clear explanation of both the musical function and the method of playing each embellishment.

In addition to these, we can have mordents, trills, vibrato, short runs of a few notes up to a note and glissando between neighbouring pitches (upwards only).


Smallpipes are diatonic and come in various 'keys'. They are written in a non-standard transposition, for historical reasons. Any professional piper in the position of playing with an ensemble should be prepared to transpose, but it is better not to ask for this at sight in a rehearsal. As a general rule, you should write at sounding pitch.

As with highland bagpipes, the scale always has a flattened leading note.

You should always double check with your piper what key of pipes he or she has, or is willing to use. You should also check in case they have some nonstandard additional notes and how they are played. This is an issue because between 1985 and about 2000 makers were experimenting with extending the range of notes available to a smallpipe, and many people have chanters that can do non-standard things, and in non-standard ways. Whilst some non-standard chanters are still made and sold, by and large the idea never took off. Perhaps, as a repertoire becomes available for such extended range instruments, the instruments themselves may become more popular.

The sounding range smallpipes in each key is given below:

Smallpipes in A - chanterDrones
Smallpipes in A range
Drones in A
Smallpipes in Bb - chanterDrones
Smallpipe range Bb
Drones in Bb
Smallpipes in C - chanterDrones
Smallpipes in C rangeDrones in C
Smallpipes in D - chanterDrones
Smallpipes in D rangeDrones in D

Basics of Playing

As noted above, bagpipes sound continuously and use a system of gracenotes as a kind of musical grammar. By far the safest advice is to leave gracing up to the performer, or to work closely with a piper when preparing your score. In the Teach Yourself  Method, each embellishment is described firstly with its musical 'reason to be' and then shown. It would be wise to read this thoroughly.

Generally speaking, quickly repeated notes do not sound well on bagpipes unless they are one of the established embellishments. This is because gracenotes take time to play and this must be factored into the rhythm.
Other than that, there are no jumps between notes which are unplayable, nor any which are particularly difficult to play.

Smallpipes are played with bellows, as  opposed to being mouthblown. As a result, there can sometimes be pumping noises when blowing. This is not always an issue, but when you write for smallpipes you should be aware of it. Additionally, as the player's elbows move before the sound begins, it can be very difficult for a smallpiper to lead a chamber ensemble. If you wish the piper to lead, then leaved extra time for the other to learn to read his or her movements.

The conductor, if you are writing for an ensemble, needs to be told to give the piper early notice to get ready. Unlike highland pipes and border pipes, smallpipes can start the drones and chanter almost (but not completely) simultaneously.

Unlike highland bagpipes, smallpipers can typically hear what is going on around them, and the pipes are made at the standard concert pitch of A=440Hz. They will tune up to A=443 and down a little although this is trickier. Tuning a smallpipe chanter takes a very long time as the piper cannot allow any moisture on to the reed. You are better to have other people tune to the pipes. When playing with pianos or tuned percussion you need to tell your piper in advance what the pitch will be, just to be sure.

Smallpipes are almost universally built in equal temperament. Temperature has an effect on tuning, but after ten or fifteen minutes of playing they will be in tune as they should be. Smallpipes are extremely stable in tuning, once they have settled.

However, as with highland and borderpipes, if something is going to go off, the performer has no contact with the reed and cannot correct problems in situ.

By and large, staccato effects are not possible. I use what I call a 'knee stop', but you need to tell the player about this before attempting it, and you have to be aware that this can cause the bottom note (and sometimes other low notes)  to be out of tune. Your piper might be unwilling to do this. Please ask, but it is generally better to assume that staccato is at best an extended technique and generally out of bounds.

Vibrato is a standard technique on smallpipes, and can be played on all notes except the bottom two.

Extended technique

It is possible to sound the drones without sounding the chanter. This achieved by playing with a lower pressure which can result in the tone being unstable, or at worst, can result in the pitch changing altogether and being unsteady. Unfortunately this is often a question of atmospheric conditions and the piper can't always predict with absolute certainty what will happen although reliability is usually quite good with this.

Microtones are available as a portamento going upwards from a note one hole lower. The pitches will be uncertain but the effect works.

Overtones, or harmonics depend upon the individual piper and bagpipe (and weather). Generally best avoided...


As with highland bagpipes, there are very few guidebooks available which can tell you anything about writing music for smallpipes. By far the best thing to do this direction is to get a hold of some bagpipe music and listen to recordings, together with reading through the teachyourselfbagpipes site to understand what a 'piper really does.

Writing for Great Highland Bagpipes
Writing for borderpipes

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skype: lindsay.davidson1973