What Is a Pipe Band?

Peter Hann

A pipe band is a musical ensemble consisting of a number of bagpipe players accompanied by drummers. There typically may be up to 25 pipers in a band, with up to 10 drummers on snare drums, six tenor drummers and a bass drummer. The pipers normally play the melody in unison while the harmonic elements of the music are provided by the continuous low notes of the pipes known as the drones. The drummers provide rhythmic material, with a normally lively rhythm played out on the snare drums held together by the slower beat of the bass drum. Pipe bands are typically found in the United Kingdom; Ireland; other Celtic regions, such as the Galicia region of Spain; English-speaking countries such as the United States and Canada; and in commonwealth countries that have historic links with the UK.

Pipe bands feature bagpipe players and drummers.
Pipe bands feature bagpipe players and drummers.

A pipe band generally plays music of Scottish or Irish origin or music from other places with bagpipe traditions. These may include traditional reels, jigs or slow airs. Folk songs and dances from other traditions also have been adapted for bagpipes. Some modern composers have written suites especially for the pipe band. Other types of music have been adapted for bagpipes, a well known example being the hymn Amazing Grace.

In a pipe band, a lively rhythm is usually played out by the snare drum.
In a pipe band, a lively rhythm is usually played out by the snare drum.

The bagpipe is a musical instrument that creates a sound by regulating air flow into pipes from a bag the piper keeps full by blowing air. The melody pipe, or chanter, is played by the piper using both hands; the drone, which emits a lower note, is often laid over the shoulder of the player. The pitch of the drone may normally be modified by a sliding joint known as the bridle. A feature of bagpipe music is that the chanter has an open end and sounds continuously, so bagpipe music is written with a constant legato sound and no rests. Music for the bagpipes, therefore, uses embellishments known as grace notes that serve to add variation to the music.

The pipe band originated in the military and is still widely associated with Scottish and Irish regiments. The music played by military and civilian pipe bands is, however, very similar. Most pipe bands perform in festivals and street processions, and there are regular competitions. The annual World Pipe Band Championship is held once a year on one day in August and involves thousands of pipers and drummers from several nations.

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