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Digital bagpipes aren’t destroying Scotland’s heritage, they’re helping save it

When Duncan Menzies was young (a Scot might say wee) he decided he wanted to learn to play the bagpipes. He was successful — after years of incredibly trying practice. Then, in his twenties, he decided to change the way others learn to play the instrument.

Highland bagpipes are an important part of Scotland’s cultural heritage, dating back to a proud military tradition, and are still in vogue among contemporary folk musicians. Yet even the instrument’s basics are difficult to master, which leads many budding pipers to give up before they’ve made much progress. Experienced players aren’t easy to find, which led Menzies to worry the bagpipes might one day die out.

Menzies wants to give learners better insight into what they’re getting right, what they’re getting wrong, and make those first steps less frustrating. To make that goal a reality, he’s augmenting traditional methods in place for generations with emerging technology available only in the past decade.

Pipe Dream

Duncan Menzies’ initiation into Scottish folk music came when he was seven years old. That’s when he started playing the fiddle, a pursuit that would spur on his desire to join a local group known as the Fochabers Fiddlers.

The Fiddlers weren’t limited to the instruments for which they are named. When Menzies was ten, he saw them playing with a “child prodigy” called Hamish Munro, a local teenager who had an amazing talent for playing the bagpipes. He was hooked.

“I was like, ‘yep, I want to do that,’” Menzies told Digital Trends in a phone call last month. “So I badgered my parents for long enough that I eventually got some bagpipe lessons, and it all went from there.”

“I badgered my parents for long enough that I eventually got some bagpipe lessons, and it all went from there.”

A decade later, he completed a Masters in Electronics with Music at the University of Glasgow, and journeyed south to London to begin a PhD course at Queen Mary University London. He received funding for his studies via the university’s Media and Arts Technology program. This initiative mandated he spend a year experimenting with various practical projects before his PhD started in earnest.

“I always thought it would be cool to bodge up a digital bagpipe chanter, because I’d been playing the pipes for quite a while,” he explained. “So, I did a first version of it with an Arduino, just for a bit of a laugh, for one of these practical projects.”

For the uninitiated, a chanter is the part of bagpipes that bears the fingerholes, which allow the piper to play a melody. Menzies built his prototype in a day and a half, taking full advantage of the ease of development afforded to him by the Arduino hardware. However, the parameters of his university course meant he was soon nudged onto another project, and his digital chanter was put on the back burner.

The next year, as Menzies was figuring out what his PhD project should focus on, his digital chanter came to mind. He arranged a meeting with Andrew McPherson, an American expert in digital musical instruments who had recently taken up a post lecturing and performing research at QMUL.

He showed McPherson his digital chanter, and quickly realized he’d found the right supervisor for his PhD project. “He was like, ‘oh, that’s cool, the chanter, but what could you actually do with it?’” said Menzies. McPherson, having plenty of experience in this field, was acutely aware they needed to crystallize the ‘why’ behind the concept of a digital chanter as well as the ‘how.’

Bagpiping for Beginners

The untrained ear might not identify the military precision playing the bagpipes requires. However, the earliest historical references to the Great Highland bagpipe — the type Menzies’ project is concerned with — place the instrument squarely on the battlefield. This tradition plays into the daunting task awaiting new learners.

The Great Highland bagpipe has a limited scale, consisting of only nine notes. There’s also no articulation between notes, like the tonguing technique used with wind instruments. Instead, players wanting to break up a sequence of identical notes must use numerous ornamentation techniques.

bagpipes brown

At its simplest, ornamentation could be flicking a finger down onto another hole while playing a long A note, turning it into two shorter A notes with another note separating them. But ornamentation also includes incredibly complex sequences of notes, and they’re very formally defined.

“These are a totally central aspect of highland piping,” Menzies explained, just as he explained to McPherson in their early discussions about his PhD project. “And it generally takes six months to a year of constant practice to learn all these different ornamentation techniques, before you can start learning the tunes.”That’s a long time to practice an instrument without being able to play a song, and causes a lot of frustration for novices.

“Traditionally, there’s been quite a high drop-off rate of people who get halfway through learning these ornamentation techniques and then go, ‘sod this, this is just too much, I haven’t even learned a tune yet and I’ve been playing for a year,’” said Menzies. “Far and away, the ornamentation is the hardest part of learning the pipes.”

The highly regimented nature of ornamentation techniques adds another challenge – if you’re a beginner practicing at home, how do you know whether you’re doing it right or not? An instructor can point out any mistakes during lessons, one-on-one tuition only makes up a small part of study for most students.

Here’s where the digital chanter gets its time to shine. While memorizing and recognizing a long list of ornamentation techniques might be a daunting task for someone learning to play the pipes, it’s relatively easy for a computer — and the hardware is already capable of delivering a description of exactly what the user was playing directly to a PC.

“One of the things about Highland piping technique that made it a really good target for this, is that there’s a whole tradition of ornamentation,” said McPherson. “It’s very well accepted, and it has all these clear rules about what is right and what is wrong, and it’s actually easier to quantify than some other types of performances.”

There are aspects of musical performance that can only be interpreted by a human ear. With ornamentation, however, what’s important is the order of the notes being played, and how seamlessly the transition between one note and another is pulled off. That’s not hard for a computer to understand.

Digital Demystification

“All of these things are easy to measure when you’ve built the hardware for a digital chanter,” McPherson added. “What me and Duncan worked on then was to create a software environment that would allow teachers and students to get real-time feedback on what they were doing, and see potential weaknesses in their playing, and hopefully, correct them.”

While it started as a simple Arduino-based rig, the hardware has leaped forward over the course of the project. The current version of the digital chanter is a custom circuit board fitted with a microcontroller and several analog-to-digital converters. It uses optical photo-reflecting sensors that emit an infrared beam to determine how much of each hole is being covered by a player’s fingers. The latest model also has an audio codec and a headphone output built into the board itself, bringing it closer to the kind of self-sufficient digital instrument Menzies would like to end up with.

digital bagpipe program

However, hardware is only part of the project. It’s the accompanying software that makes the digital chanter such an effective teaching tool, as that’s what gives learners the feedback they can use to improve their skills.

“You can show visually — on the screen — here’s what you actually played, compared to what you were supposed to play,” said Menzies. “And because these ornaments are so very formally defined, so very rule-based, it’s actually quite easy to teach a computer to say, in words: here’s what you played, here’s what you should have played.”

The digital chanter serves to demystify the process of learning how to play the pipes. Even the best teacher and the most well-intentioned student can get their wires crossed because of the gap between music and language. A perfectly rendered description of a mistake might not be interpreted exactly as its intended.

Translating the performance itself into digital information can bridge the gap. The digital chanter gives music the tangibility to help beginners grasp the basics quicker, so they can continue to learn more advanced techniques rather than getting mired in ornamentation. It’s a change to the established formula in place for hundreds of years — but crucially, it’s not an attempt to throw out tradition entirely.

The Bagpipes of the Future

Potential applications for the digital chanter are many. The basics are obvious — a student using one at home to make sure they don’t get into bad habits while practicing, or a teacher implementing one in their lessons to improve their ability to give feedback.

But what if there’s a 10-year-old girl in Australia who’s desperate to learn the bagpipes, and doesn’t have access to a local instructor? The chanter offers a method of recording exactly what’s being played — not just what it sounds like — and transmitting it anywhere in the world.

That’s powerful stuff. The bagpipes could become much more accessible, teachers could be better equipped to pass on their knowledge, and students could be more likely to graduate beyond the difficult early days of learning to play.

“Every form of music-making that we now consider traditional was once new at some point.”

The convergence of technology and music often recalls innovations designed to smooth the rough edges of a live performance — Auto-Tune, Pro Tools, and their ilk. Menzies’ digital chanter does the exact opposite. It strips away any possible layer of obfuscation between the player and the sound they’re producing.

“I think there is a school of thought that says, ‘technology is a destructive force to traditional forms of music-making’ and I totally disagree with that,” said McPherson, who with years of experience with digital instrumentation, is well-equipped to speak on the subject. “Every form of music-making that we now consider traditional was once new at some point, and was frankly once driven by the technology of the day.”

He charts a course from bone flutes from millennia ago, to the advances in mechanical technology that drove the emergence of the orchestra, to analog electronic instruments that sprang up when electronic amplification became available, and today’s crop of cutting-edge synthesizers. To him, to shy away from the possibilities of modern technology is to break a musical tradition dating back as far as music itself. Crucially, the pursuit of innovation doesn’t necessarily demand a clean break from what’s gone before.

“I think that there is a lot to be said for figuring out how you can use a new form of technology to do something valuable that attaches to a culture that’s recognizable,” he said. “I think that that could be teaching and learning, that could be augmenting instruments to extend their capabilities — it could be any number of things.”

Technology and tradition aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. With a little care and consideration, a balance between old and new can produce great results, and Menzies has managed just that with his digital chanter.

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