Six of the best... bagpipe tunes
After revealing to BBC Music Magazine that he wants to learn the bagpipes, we have come up with some of the best (and most eclectic) tunes for Paul Lewis to play
‘I want to learn the bagpipes. You can buy them quite easily online,’ he says, implying that he’s done some research and this isn’t just a passing fancy. ‘I fantasise about coming on for an encore with a set of bagpipes!’ (Paul Lewis in the March issue of BBC Music Magazine)
Scotland The Brave
Is there any reason in learning the bagpipes if this piece isn’t your ultimate performance goal? This tune must be the primary source of income for most buskers in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and for good reason.
It’s been used everywhere – from the opening of Dead Poet’s Society to the fields of the Scottish football and rugby union teams, and has even been adopted as the regimental quick march by the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
This is a piece that has stood the test of time, and is now used in a manner of styles and settings. It began life as a Christian hymn, published in 1779 by the poet John Newton, who underwent a spiritual conversion after being surviving a violent storm on a ship off the coast of County Donega.
The text was written to accompany a New Year’s Day sermon, and then in 1835 was set to the tune of ‘New Britain’, to which it is usually heard today.
As well as later being used as an African-American spiritual, it has also been adopted as a bagpipe tune, following the 1972 global no. 1 recording by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the senior Scottish regiment of the British Army.
The bagpipes imitated the voice in a slowed arrangement, an interpretation which is now played in memorial services worldwide.
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Julia Wolfe, Lad (for 9 bagpipes)
This unusual piece was recommended to BBC Music Magazine by guitarist Sean Shibe in our June 2017 issue. ‘It’s a crazy sound – it starts with the bagpipes just ascending on a scale and sliding between their nine notes’, said Shibe. ‘They form this cyclical impression of constantly rising in pitch except never actually rising – it’s like a sine graph.’
Contemporary composer Julia Wolfe wrote Lad in 2007, which received its premiere at the Bang on a Can Festival in New York, in a performance by the Bagpipe Orchestra. It develops the traditional bagpipe drone to create a cacophonic wall of sound. Find some fellow bagpipe-playing friends and drive your neighbours crazy with this one.
AC/DC, It’s a long way to the top (if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll)
It wouldn’t be a complete list of bagpipe tunes without a rogue addition of a seemingly misplaced rock ‘n’ roll song. Bagpipes have been used across all genres of music in recent years, particularly in rock music, thanks to the rise of groups such as the Red Hot Chili Pipers, who have coined the term ‘bagrock’.
Australian rock band AC/DC decided to use bagpipes in the first track on their 1975 album T.N.T after learning that their side drummer Bon Scott used to play in a pipe band.
He appears in the music video with fellow pipers in full highland regalia, and the bagpipes are a major feature of the song, involved in a call and response section with the guitar in the instrumental break. Scott used them during live performances until 1976, when they were destroyed by fans when he left them on the side of the stage.
The Skye Boat Song
This Scottish folk song tells the story of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose attempt to regain the British throne for the House of Stuart in the 1745 Jacobite rising failed, forcing him to escape to the Isle of Skye dressed as a maid – an adventurous tactic.
It remains popular, often sung as a lullaby, or in some instances a rowing song. The first beat is pronounced and in line with lifting the oars out of the water, and the second and third beats are used to coincide with the pulling strokes.
Peter Maxwell Davies, An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise
The bagpipes have been used across all genres of music, but it is the classical repertoire where they feature most sparsely. Maxwell Davies is one of the few composers to have used the bagpipes in his compositions.
An Orkney Wedding, With Sunrise depicts the hedonistic celebrations following a wedding in, you’ve guessed it, Orkney. A bagpipe solo appears at the end of the piece, to represent the rising sun after the festivities.
The piece was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who performed it for the first time in 1985 under the baton of John Williams.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.