The bagpipe, in its most basic form, is one of the most widely used musical instruments in the world. Variations on the design can be found throughout Europe and the Middle East, and while the Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland is the most well-known in the U.S., the instrument is not from Scotland and is only identified with that country out of ignorance. In truth, the bagpipe goes back to other times and places, and only came to Scotland rather late in its history.

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The bagpipe is a technological improvement on earlier pipes or flutes that relied exclusively on the breath of the player without a bag. The innovation of the bag allowed the instrument to be played in a more versatile manner and with less discomfort to the player.

The simplest form of bagpipe is composed of three elements: an air source, an airbag and one or more pipes coming from the bag. The air source, which may be either the lungs of the player or a bellows, is used to fill the airbag, but the flow of air that actually plays the pipes comes from squeezing the bag. Because of this, the player is relieved of the necessity of blowing constantly, and is able to make continuous tones instead of having to stop and breath. The use of a bag also allows a more even airflow, resulting in a sound that does not waver from slight variations in the player's breath.

Later bagpipes elaborated on this basic technology, adding drone pipes and several melody pipes, called chanters.

The bagpipe also prevented a common physical problem that plagued the players of non-bagged pipes, the distortion of the cheeks. Among musicians who played the flute for many years, the cheeks eventually become puffy because the player's face was actually being used as the airbag. (Modern readers tend to think of this as the "Dizzy Gillespie look.") This was regarded as unattractive, and discouraged many people from playing the instrument.

Unfortunately, bagpipes by their very nature are always made of organic material, usually leather and wood. Because of this, ancient specimens have rarely survived and the early history of the instrument must be filled in from ancient writings and representations.

There is some uncertainty here. Some sources say that the first representation of a bagpipe is from a Hittite inscription dated to 1000 B.C., while others will say that the earliest definite representation is from the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history. Archaeologists working in Alexandria, which was established at the beginning of this period, have found a figurine of Greek style clearly showing a player holding an instrument composed of several pipes attached to an airbag held under the arm. It is possible to identify both the drone and the chanter pipes, and therefore make a positive identification. There are three slightly later figurines depicting bagpipe players in the Cairo Museum.

The earliest written historical reference to a bagpipe is from the Greek writer Chrysostomos in about 100 A.D., who tells of an instrument that is played by blowing into an airbag held under the player's arm.

The Romans played a bagpipe variant called Tibia Utricularis. We know this because a figurine of a soldier playing the instrument has been found at the Roman camp in Richborough, U.K., and also because the Roman historian Suetonius wrote that Nero played it. The Nero reference is contested by some historians, since we do not have a description of the instrument and therefore cannot make a positive identification. The figurine, however, provides more positive evidence.

Because the Romans used the bagpipe as a military instrument, it spread throughout their empire. The Scots probably got it from the Romans, as did many other peoples throughout northern Africa, southern Europe and the Middle East. However, there is some controversy here. It is true that the bagpipe can be found in many variations all over this part of the world, but did all of these come from the Romans? The instrument is so simple and logical, it could easily have been invented more than once in different locations. While it is true that the Romans spread bagpipes to many places, it is impossible to say whether all of the variants we see today are descended from the instrument played by the ancient Egyptians and Romans.

The use of a bellows to fill the airbag is a fairly modern invention probably dating to the 16th or 17th century. The best-known example of this in the modern world is the Irish uilleann pipes.

Next: Spanish bagpipes

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