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Arranging for Bagpipe

Prereading note: I definitely have far more footnotes here (59 in total, 34 in the final draft) than normal (between 1 and 17 in total, and between 1 and 10 in the final draft) in my blog thus far. I have no clue why I felt the need for so many notes while writing this post, but they feel pretty needed. Additionally, since nested footnotes are apparently so frowned upon in different style circles that my editor doesn’t support them at all, nested notes will go in (), and if I doubly nest, I’ll use other [], and will continue to add as needed.

Draft 2

This spring, I started learning the Scottish bagpipes.1 While learning the bagpipe, one of my cross-country running friends2 asked me if I would be willing to play the (United States’) National Anthem3 at the Grinnell team’s only home meet, the Les Duke Invite. That meet is today, and (I think) just ended at the time of my writing this post. Obviously, I was unable to be there. But, their mentioning of the idea did spark me to try to find a bagpipe arrangement for The Star-Spangled Banner.4,5 Initial searches were fairly fruitless, with what versions I could find sounding nothing like the anthem I knew.6 I found a forum discussing this, and they concluded that the anthem is unplayable on the bagpipes.

Now, those of you who know me may know that I don’t take being told something is impossible well.7 It feels like a challenge. Some of you may also know that I8 compose music. The brilliant9 part of my mind thought that I would be able to arrange the piece for bagpipes. Obviously,10that wouldn’t fit the song,11 which requires an octave and a fifth range,12, and some chromatic notes.13 But, you can always drop and raise octaves to fit a piece in. Additionally, my teacher mentioned offhandedly that there are chromatic fingerings for the bagpipe. So, I worked off of a version of the piece in the key of G.14

There I ran into my first problem: I have no clue how to play a C natural on a bagpipe, which was required in the second half of the piece.15 But, more importantly than that, it was centered around G,16 which those of you familiar with harmonics may see is dissonant to A.17,18

When I asked a friend of mine who plays bagpipes,19 he told me that, in his experience, people would play the second half of the song,20 because the first half isn’t doable. That’s when I suddenly realized that there’s a modulation in the middle of The Star Spangled Banner.21 With that in mind, I transposed the end of the piece to D major, which worked pretty well.22 I then put the initial half back in the song.23 I expected some cognitive dissonance from the24 modulation in my version of the piece, but it was fairly minor. And, since the piece was centered around D, it fit in nicely with the harmonics of the instrument.

Then came to the part of arranging for bagpipe that I struggle with: adding the embellishments. The bagpipe plays a continuous note, so to break up repeated notes,25 small chirpy notes are played to break the sound. There are many kinds of embellishments, including grace notes,26, doublings and half doublings,27 and many others. As you might expect from a musical tradition lasting centuries, there’s a lot of theory behind deciding what embellishments go where28 which I don’t know and can’t easily find only. So, I put in embellishments that I knew29 and looked right where they were, then tried playing through. Nothing looked or sounded horrible to me, but I also don’t know enough to know if anything I do would be horrible. So, now I have a version of the National Anthem of the United States of America that fits entirely on the bagpipe. If anyone wants it, feel free to drop me a message at flyingrebelpipes@gmail.com. My only request if you end up using the piece is that you send me a recording of yourself playing it.

Draft 1

This spring, I started learning the bagpipe.30 While learning the bagpipe, one of my cross-country running friends31 asked me if I would be willing to play the (United States’) National Anthem32 at the Grinnell team’s only home meet, the Les Duke Invite. That meet is today, and (I think) just ended at the time of my writing this post. Obviously, I was unable to be there. But, their mentioning of the idea did spark me to try to find a bagpipe arrangement for The Star-Spangled Banner.33 Initial searches were fairly fruitless, with what versions I could find sounding nothing like the anthem I knew. I found a forum discussing this, and they concluded that the anthem is unplayable on the bagpipes.

Now, those of you who know me may know that I hate being told that something is impossible. It feels like a challenge. Some of you may also know that I34 compose music. I thought I would be able to arrange the piece for bagpipes. Obviously,35 that wouldn’t fit the song,36 which requires an octave and a fifth range,37, and some chromatic notes.38 But, you can always drop and raise octaves. So, I worked off of a version of the piece in the key of G.

There I ran into my first problem: I have no clue how to play a C natural on a bagpipe. But, more importantly than that, it was centered around G,39 which those of you familiar with harmonics may see is dissonant to A.40,41 When I asked a friend of mine who plays bagpipes,42 he told me that, in his experience, people would play the second half of the song,43 because the first half isn’t doable. That’s when I suddenly realized that there’s a modulation in the middle of The Star Spangled Banner.44 With that in mind, I transposed the end of the piece to D major, which worked pretty well.45 I then put the initial half back in the song.46 I expected some cognitive dissonance from the47 modulation in my version of the piece, but it was fairly minor. And, since the piece was centered around D, it fit in nicely with the harmonics of the instrument.

Then came to the part of arranging for bagpipe that is scary to me: adding the embellishments. The bagpipe plays a continuous note, so to break up repeated notes,48 small chirpy notes are played to break the sound. There’s a lot of theory behind where what embellishments go where49 which I have no clue about. So, I put in embellishments that I knew and looked right where they were, then tried playing through. Nothing felt horrible to me, but I also don’t know enough to know if anything I do would be horrible. So, now I have a version of the National Anthem of the United States of America that fits entirely on the bagpipe. If anyone wants it, feel free to drop me a message at flyingrebelpipes@gmail.com. My only request if you end up using the piece is that you send me a recording of yourself playing it.


  1. I read somewhere (I think it may have been a quotation in one of the Rebelsky Family Bookclub Books) that some people recommend saying that they began playing, rather than learning, a new instrument. Their logic is that otherwise it becomes unclear where the learning stops and the playing starts. Personally, I prefer studying in that sort of context, but since that brings connotations of serious or academic purposes for learning, rather than my source of desire to learn (usually the feeling of “Ooh Shiny!” I find myself feeling when I see a new instrument),I still use learning, since I would say that I’m learning when I practice, and playing when I perform

  2. I hope that the runner would agree with the term friend

  3. I just realized that I have no clue whether or not the United States National Anthem needs a possessive. I feel like it should, since it is the National Anthem of the United States, but I don’t think I ever see it phrased that way

  4. also, I just figured out a good way to avoid the issues of both the possessive (as above) and my tendency to refer to the song as “The National Anthem”, which is only accurate for a small subset of the world

  5. new problem though, do you capitalize the “The” in the title if it’s in the middle of the sentence? I assume yes, since it’s a part of the title

  6. I don’t link them because some people might take it as an attack, and I didn’t save them, so I don’t have them easily available

  7. some of you may be calling this an understatement

  8. try to

  9. read: petty

  10. to those of you who know that the bagpipe is a 9 note diatonic instrument starting on the subdominant in the key of D Major (if the prior statement made no sense, that’s ok, it’s just music jargon saying the bagpipe plays a[transposed] version of nine white piano keys, starting on an F[the key right before the three black keys next to each other])

  11. another clever way to avoid the issue of naming

  12. I think

  13. I know this one. In the key of G, it requires a C natural and a C#

  14. my logic being that the piece scored in D looked like it fit in the natural range of the pipe worse than the piece scored in G

  15. hey! I did it again

  16. which should have been obvious at the time, but I tend to avoid thinking big picture when I’m working out of spite

  17. the note the drones play in

  18. to the people who will point it out, I know in higher harmonics A and G are both in the same series, but the A’s are a major second above and a minor seventh below the G, which isn’t consonant

  19. I chose play intentionally, since he performs fairly regularly, and is far more experienced than me

  20. starting at “and the rocket’s red glare”

  21. no, the use of C natural instead of C# and the fact that the piece is centered on D in the first half and G in the second didn’t occur to me. For why, please see footnote 16

  22. there were only a few notes that didn’t fit well, and they’re minor notes that I didn’t notice the change for, probably because so many people use them as a place to improvise a little

  23. which had earlier required a non-insignificant amount of octave switching, but not an undue amount

  24. lack of

  25. or add spice between different notes

  26. which are any of D, E, F only if preceding an E, and high G

  27. a high G grace note before the pitch being played, then the lowest grace note higher than the pitch being played, or the aforementioned without the high G, respectively

  28. as far as I can tell from being told that in nearly those exact words

  29. and felt comfortable playing

  30. I read somewhere (I think it may have been a quotation in one of the Rebelsky Family Bookclub Book) that some people say playing, not learning a new instrument, because otherwise it becomes unclear where the learning stops and the playing starts. Personally, I prefer studying in that sort of context, but since that brings connotations of serious or academic purposes for learning, rather than my goals (usually less of a goal and more of a “Ooh Shiny!” feeling inside when I see a new instrument), I still use learning, since I would say that I’m learning when I practice, and playing when I perform

  31. I hope that the runner would agree with the term friend

  32. I just realized that I have no clue whether or not the United States National Anthem needs a possessive. I feel like it should, since it is the National Anthem of the United States, but I don’t think I ever see it phrased that way

  33. also, I just figured out a good way to avoid the issues of both the possessive (as above) and my tendency to refer to the song as “The National Anthem”, which is only accurate for a small subset of the world

  34. try to

  35. to those of you who know that the bagpipe is a 9 note diatonic instrument starting on the subdominant tuned to D Major(if the above words made no sense, it’s ok, they’re effectively just jargon saying the bagpipe is a [transposed] version of nine white piano keys, starting on an F[the key right before the three black keys next to each other])

  36. another clever way to avoid the issue

  37. I think

  38. I know. In the key of G, it requires a C natural and a C#

  39. which should have been obvious at the time, but I tend to avoid thinking big picture when I’m doing things out of spite

  40. the note the drones play in

  41. yes, I know in higher harmonics they may eventually be consonant, but the A’s are a major second above and a minor seventh below the G, which isn’t consonant

  42. I chose play intentionally, since he performs fairly regularly, and is far more experienced than me

  43. starting at “and the rocket’s red glare”

  44. new problem, do you capitalize the “The” in the title if it’s in the middle of the sentence? I assume yes, since it’s a part of the title

  45. there were only a few notes that didn’t fit well, and they’re minor notes that I didn’t notice the change for, probably because so many people use them as a place to improvise a little

  46. that required a fair amount of octave switching, but not an undue amount

  47. lack of

  48. or add spice between different notes

  49. as far as I can tell from being told that in nearly those exact words